Apple Mac mini review

Worth the wait?

new Mac mini

Our Verdict

The Apple Mac mini (2018) was a long time coming, but it’s been worth the wait. This brilliantly-designed small-form factor computer packs in some impressive specs and pulls off neat tricks to do so. It’s not cheap, but it’s priced very competitively compared to other small PCs, especially considering what it’s capable of.

For

  • Hugely improved specs
  • Same small design
  • Four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • Good value

Against

  • Integrated graphics aren’t all that
  • Higher starting cost

Apple hasn’t forgotten about the Mac mini, and this long overdue refresh is proof. While the tiniest Mac has always been a favorite among Apple faithfuls, it’s been more than four years since we got a new one. But, thanks to the Mac mini 2018, the small form factor Mac has been refreshed for the modern age.

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According to Apple, the Mac mini 2018 is up to five times faster than the 2014 version, so it was worth the wait, at the very least on paper. This performance boost is thanks to some impressive spec bumps, like a hexa-core Intel Coffee Lake desktop processor and up to 64GB of RAM.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, that Apple is hailing the Mac mini as a media creation machine. The Cupertino behemoth claims the new Mac mini is up to 30 times faster at HEVC encoding than its 2014 predecessor. There’s also plenty of connectivity on the back of the device, including four Thunderbolt 3 ports. 

So, is the Mac mini worth the wait, or should you wait to see if there’s a Mac mini 2019? We take Apple’s smallest Mac for a spin to see if it’s worth it.

Spec sheet

Here is the Apple Mac mini configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 3.6GHz Intel Core i3-8100 (quad-core, 4 threads, 6MB cache)
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 630
RAM: 8GB (2,666 MHz DDR4)
Storage: 128GB PCIe SSD
Ports: 4x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), 3.5mm headphone jack, 2x USB 3, HDMI 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-F, Bluetooth 5.0
Weight: 2.9 pounds (1.3kg)
Size: 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches (19.7 x 19.7 x 3.6cm; W x D x H)

Price and availability

The Apple Mac mini 2018 starts at $799 (£799, AU$1,249) and tops out at $1,099 (£1,099, AU$1,699) with the preset configurations. If you switch any of the components, the price also change, which gives you some flexibility when it comes to balancing power with budget.

If you plan on utilizing your Mac for creative applications, the new Mac mini is a more affordable route, compared to something like the iMac Pro, which sets you back a whopping $4,999 (£4,899, AU$7,299) for the base model – though if you do have a lot of cash to shell out and you require a ton of power for things like video edting, we'd wait until the new Mac Pro 2019 rolls out in Fall 2019 starting at $5,999.

More interested in the Mac mini as a small PC? Then nearest rival is arguably the Intel Hades Canyon NUC, which is a powerful, yet bareboned, mini PC that runs either Windows or Linux, and costs $999 (about £710, AU$1,302). 

This makes the Mac mini look like a bargain, especially when you consider that you’ll have to buy memory, storage and the OS separately for the NUC, adding additional expense, though you don’t need to pay for Linux, obviously.

Apple Mac mini review

Design

Fans of the compact, no-nonsense designs of previous Mac minis will be happy to learn that the new Mac mini inherits the same small, square-ish metal design that measures 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches (19.7 x 19.7 x 3.6cm) and weighs slightly heavier than the last Mac Mini at 2.9 pounds (1.3kg), compared to the older Mac mini’s weight of 2.6 pounds (1.19kg).

Within the same dimensions, the Mac mini affords a more powerful hardware than ever before, thanks to a redesigned thermal architecture that features a bigger fan, expanded vents and an overhauled power supply.

Apple has made some small changes to the Mac mini’s design – it now comes in the same Space Grey as the iMac Pro, though it’s the only color option this time around. Apple also asserts that the new Mac mini is made of 60% post-consumer plastic, mostly in the base, with the chassis made from 100% recycled aluminum.

The move to a PCIe solid state drive (SSD) for storage doesn’t just make the Mac mini faster. It means that it runs cooler and quieter as well – essential for a small form-factor PC.

Ports-wise, the Apple Mac mini (2018) comes with four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, an HDMI 2.0 port, two USB-A ports, audio jack and Gigabit Ethernet, alongside a 10Gb Ethernet option. On the back corner, there’s a power button as well as the increasingly rare (for Apple products, at least) 3.5mm headphone jack.

new Mac mini

With only one HDMI port, you'll have to either upgrade to a Thunderbolt 3 monitor or make do with an adapter if you want to connect to more than one monitor. Since the Mac mini is built as a creator's tool, multiple monitors are often a must, so many users will have to buy additional peripherals.

On the upside, with Thunderbolt 3 you'll be able to run two 4K displays at once and still have two ports leftover – maybe one for an external graphics card (eGPU) solution, which the Apple Mac mini (2018) supports. As per usual, the keyboard and mouse aren't included, so there's another two accessories to factor into your budget.

All these ports are kept at the back of the Mac mini for a minimalist look and to keep the wires from sprawling all over the place.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Apple Mac Mini isn’t easily upgradeable, unlike mini PCs like the Intel NUC or Zotac ZBox range. This means when the Mac Mini starts to show its age, you won’t be able to open it up and throw in more powerful components – besides the memory.

For anyone transitioning from a PC environment where upgradability is essential, this will be frustrating. For anyone used to Apple’s way of doing things, it won’t be too surprising.

Apple Mac mini review

There’s also a few things Apple has done to mitigate the user’s inability to easily upgrade. First of all, you’re able to configure the Apple Mac mini (2018) quite extensively, allowing you to upgrade various components before you make that purchase to make sure that you get a Mac mini that best suits your needs and budget.

It’s also worth noting that thanks to the modern technology in the Apple Mac mini, you should hopefully not feel the need to upgrade for a while, which – considering the gap between Mac mini releases these days – may be for the best.

Overall, we’re content that Apple has maintained the small form factor of the Mac mini while filling it with more powerful components and a good number of ports. Creatives that require multiple monitors, however, may want to reconsider due to the single HDMI port and lack of any DisplayPorts.

The Space Gray color looks great, as it does on other Apple products, and the 100% recycled aluminium case is a welcome environment-friendly effort, which also keeps the Mac mini feeling sturdy and robust.

Benchmarks

Here’s how the Apple Mac mini (2018) performed in our suite of benchmark tests:

Cinebench CPU: 587 points;
Graphics: 40.75 fps
Geekbench 4 Single-Core: 4,733;
Multi-Core: 14,447

Performance

The new Mac Mini has desktop-grade 8th-generation Intel Coffee Lake processors that come in quad- and hexa-core models, so we had high hopes for its computing power. The new square shaped desktop delivers five times the amount of performance over its predecessor, at least according to Apple.

Because the Mac Mini is aimed at creatives who typically count on processor- and graphics-intensive software and editing large files, the 2018 Mac Mini needs to be able to keep pace, more so than any previous version.

The quad- and hexa-core Intel Core processors with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 4.6GHz and support for up to 2,666MHz (which is four times what the last Mac Mini could hold) will definitely keep the 2018 Mac mini fast and responsive for most demanding tasks, and allow it to handle multiple tasks at once, thanks to the solid amount of memory on offer.

new Mac mini

The latest Mac mini comes with the Apple T2 security chip, which comes with an SSD controller with on-the-fly data encryption for "industry-leading security." The T2 chip also boasts HEVC video transcoding that's up to 30 times faster, which is great news for video editors who might be interested in using an Apple Mac mini for their creative work.

The only place the Apple Mac mini (2018) is a let down, specs-wise, is with the Intel UHD 630 integrated graphics. We would much rather see some form of discrete graphics. Anyone utilizing the Apple Mac mini for graphically-intensive creative work, such as video editing and 3D modeling, may find the integrated graphics considerably limiting and time-consuming.

On the other hand, those looking for a boost in performance on this front can always plug in an eGPU.

We tested just how flexible the Mac mini (2018) is with a Black Magic eGPU plugged in. Editing raw 4K video files and adding effects on the fly in Final Cut is impressively smooth for such a diminutive machine. Of course, the external graphics card is still doing a lot of heavy lifting, but it’s still a good indication of the potential the new Mac mini has for creative work.

new Mac mini

Apple also showed us an interesting setup where a single Mac mini (2018) was connected via a network switch to a network cluster of five Mac minis (piled on top of each other). By putting the 10Gb Ethernet port on the Mac mini (if you choose that option when purchasing the Mac mini) to good use, you can offload intensive processes (such as rendering video) to these other Mac minis. The process of doing this is impressively simple in Final Cut – it’s a matter of opening up a menu and selecting the attached Mac minis.

Once setup, the tasks are completed by the other Mac minis, while the main one may be utilized for other tasks without any noticeable impact on performance. Perhaps most impressively, the stack of five Mac minis remains pretty quiet, even when working on those intensive tasks. For anyone who has used multiple PCs at once for complex projects and had to put up with the sound of fans blasting off, this is definitely a welcome solution.

Of course, there won’t be many people who will be using a pile of Mac minis like that, but it’s a good demonstration of how versatile the new Mac mini is.

We are really impressed with how the new Mac mini feels fast and responsive when running macOS 10.14 Mojave in day-to-day use. Apps open and close instantaneously, and even more challenging processes, such as video transcoding, are accomplished quickly, not to mention silently.

What we really like about this new Mac mini is that Apple has designed a powerful and versatile mini PC that’s compact enough for effortless transport or to be hidden out of view behind a display.

In our benchmarking, the Mac mini doesn’t quite hit the highs of professional-grade Apple devices such as the MacBook Pro or iMac Pro, but it still performs beautifully, especially in the multi-core tests thanks to that quad-core Intel processor. If you go for the Mac mini configuration with a hexa-core processor, expect even better results.

It’s also worth remembering that the Mac mini is less expensive than either of those other devices, even when you factor in the peripherals (monitor, mouse and keyboard) you might need to purchase for it.

Compared to the previous generation of Mac mini, there’s no competition: this year’s Mac mini blows it out of the water, performance-wise. If you love your Mac mini and have been waiting for an upgrade, then you’re going to be very pleased with the new Mac mini.

Apple Mac mini review

Verdict

Many of us have been hoping for a follow-up to the popular Mac mini for years now, so we couldn’t hold back our excitement when the Cupertino company finally announced the new Mac mini earlier in 2018. However, this isn’t just an afterthought or a quick and dirty update to keep the more vocal Mac mini fanatics happy.

Instead, we’ve got a substantially overhauled Mac mini that, in many ways, goes far beyond what we had been hoping for. This is a very accomplished little machine that packs some brilliant new features and components for a level of performance that puts many other small form-factor PCs to shame.

Apple has acknowledged that the computing landscape has changed since the last Mac mini was released. Back then, the Mac mini was designed with casual users in mind and as an accessible device to win over people from Windows.

With the rise of laptops and the entry-level MacBook now acting as that crossover device, Apple has pitched the Mac mini towards creatives and professionals. 

That might sound crazy, but you know what? It works. This is an excellent little machine in its own right, but pair it with an eGPU (or even a few extra Mac minis) and you’ve got yourself a powerful machine for heavy-duty tasks. By being scalable in this way, as well as allowing you to use your own monitor and peripherals, you’ve also got a very flexible device.

It’s also very competitively priced next to other small form factor computers that offer similar levels of performance. We waited a long time for an updated Mac mini, and the Mac mini 2018 has definitely been worth that wait.

First reviewed November 2018

Image Credit: TechRadar