Rapid Review: 2018 Apple Mac mini

Image: Apple

Apple's Mac mini is a strange beast. For four years, it was seemingly abandoned by Apple who left it there running on older processor, storage and memory tech. But, for those using one, it proved a reliable, compact and quiet workhorse. But it was in dire need of some love and Apple finally updated it. The new model brings the Mac mini into 2018 while retaining much of what made people happy.

What Is It?

When Apple first released this desktop system it was accompanied by the the slogan BYODKM (Bring Your Own Display, Keyboard, and Mouse) and was pitched to folks using other platforms as an inexpensive entry into Apple's ecosystem without needing to toss your accessories.

But the Mac mini found several other callings. As a lounge room or home theatre computer, it's a solid choice as you can run media serving software on it, easily connect it to a TV and it runs almost silently. It's also popular in places that need a compact system, such as commercial displays and it's even found a home in some data centres, with enclosures for holding them in server data racks.

In updating the Mac mini, Apple has retained the same footprint, connectivity for legacy devices with USB-A connectors, and quiet operation, while making some upgrades easier and giving the computer a substantial performance boost over the previous, antiquated model.

Image: Apple

Specifications

Processor 3.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i3, 3.0GHz 6-core Intel Core i5 or 3.2GHz 6-core Intel Core i7
Memory 8GB with options for 16GB, 32GB and 64GB
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB and 2TB SSD options
Graphics Intel UHD Graphics 630
External Display Support * Up to three displays with two displays with 4096-by-2304 resolution at 60Hz connected via Thunderbolt 3 plus one display with 4096-by-2160 resolution at 60Hz connected via HDMI 2.0, or up to two displays with one display with 5120-by-2880 resolution at 60Hz connected via Thunderbolt 3 plus one display with 4096-by-2160 resolution at 60Hz connected via HDMI 2.0
Size and weight 19.7 by 19.7 by 3.6cm, 1.3kg
Ports Four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), Two USB 3 ports (up to 5 Gbps), HDMI 2.0 port (supports multichannel audio output), Gigabit Ethernet port (configurable to 10Gb Ethernet on order), 3.5-mm headphone jack
Comms 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, Gigabit Ethernet Configurable to 10Gb Ethernet

What's Good?

Upgrading a popular computer can be fraught with risk. And, through its life, the Mac mini was a popular system with many people depending on them to conduct background tasks as well as act as a primary system. I ran the previous model for about four years, upgrading the terribly slow 5200rpm hard drive for an SSD which turned it from a slouch to a solid performer.

But upgrades like that were tricky and required most of the body to be disassembled. Apple has addressed that, to some degree, by making memory upgrades easier. Although the company says the upgrade requires a service centre, it's an upgrade many users could do themselves, likely saving plenty of money on Apple's memory prices. An upgrade from the default 8GB to 64GB costs an eye watering $2240 with Apple. In contrast, an upgrade kit from Mac Sales costs just US$1079.99, or about $1500 in our currency.

Apple has also modernised the Mac mini with four USB-C ports but has retained legacy support for USB-A and HDMI - something they have decided against in almost every other computer they released in 2018.

Image: Apple

Performance is excellent. My review unit, supplied by Apple, shipped with 1TB of storage, 32GB of memory and the top-of-the-line CPU option - 3.2GHz 6-core Intel Core i7. That's a build to order option that adds $450 to the cost of the base level Mac mini.

When Apple released the first Mac mini, the company expected it to be a low-cost entry point to new Mac users. But it didn't anticipate how it would be used as a headless system or low-cost server. But they have recognised that and retained the form factor so it can replace older machines without creating a logistical nightmare.

As a server, it's also possible to cluster a group of Mac minis and connect them to shared storage. The option for 10Gb Ethernet ($160) can deliver fast connectivity allowing machines to be clustered. In a demonstration I saw (which was put together by Apple so it's hardly going to show the hardware off in a bad light) a cluster of six Mac minis was able to render a video into multiple resolutions in faster than real-time.

Like all other Macs that have been released recently, the Mac mini also gets the T2 Security Chip to handle hard drive encryption and secure boot to protect your data. This takes those tasks away from the main CPU.

In short, Apple has kept what people liked in the Mac mini and boosted it.

What's Bad?

Like many computers, the Mac mini is an exercise in compromise. While the new CPU options are a welcome upgrade, they aren't the fastest processors around today. In order to keep the Mac mini small, Apple has decided to stick to lower spec hardware in order to manage the heat dissipation issues that come from faster processors. The Mac mini does have an internal fan to suck the heat out but it's only one fan.

There's also been a hefty price rise so it no longer fits the definition of a budget Mac.

An entry level 21.5-inch iMac costs $1599. An entry level Mac mini costs $1,249.00 - and that's with just 128GB of SSD storage compared to the iMac's 1TB HDD. And seriously - who's buying a desktop computer with just 128GB of storage? Then you need a display, mouse and keyboard. Assuming you buy Apple's Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse, that's almost another $300 and then you need another $200. Unless you're buying a Mac mini for a specific purpose, it's not a great value proposition.

Should You Buy It

If you already have a display, mouse and keyboard, the Mac mini represents a potential path for entry to the Mac ecosystem.

The base level model, with a 3.6GHz quad-core eighth-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 128GB of storage and 8GB of memory starts at $1249. For most users, I'd suggest upgrading the processor to the Core i7 (add $450) or starting with the 3.0GHz 6-core eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor model and 256GB of storage at $1699.

Then, I'd bump the storage up to at least 512GB, adding $640 to the least expensive model or $320 to the faster option.

Would I buy one? No.

If I was looking for a new Mac, I think the iMac is a far better option for desktop use. And when it comes to digital signage - one of the applications Apple sees for the Mac mini, there are less expensive options based on platforms like the Raspberry Pi.

Given Apple doesn't have a server platform anymore and the Mac Pro seems to be some time away, a small cluster of Mac minis could fit the bill for environments who work within Apple's ecosystem of media production tools.


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