Mac Mini Review: Apple's Tiny Computer Is Finally Worth Your Time

The Mac Mini has always been that runt you might buy if you couldn't afford any other Apple computer. Which is to say: it was the Apple computer you bought when you should have picked up a budget Dell or something. No longer. The 2012 model is a fantastic, affordable and small.

In models past, the Mac Mini was an underpowered joke, best used to serve up media or pull down your torrents in the background: an auxiliary computer. But the new Mac Mini can be a few different things, all of them worthy. Starting at just $699, it can be a budget computer that still packs great guts and, of course, OS X. For a few hundred more, you can stick in massive storage, gobs of memory and a quad-core CPU that will more than handle any normal computing tasks you throw at it. We priced ours out at around a grand — a decent price for a desktop — and took it from there, using a keyboard, mouse and LCD display we had sitting around.

What Is It?

A small desktop Mac. BYO mouse, keyboard and monitor.

Who's It For?

Anyone who wants a new computer, doesn't need a monitor and wants to save a little cash.

Design

It's like a big Apple TV. The same compact puck idea is at work here. Important ports are stuck in the back, and that's a real screwup for anyone with hands.

Using It

Plug your peripherals in and go — the screw-off hatch on the bottom is a wonderful touch, giving you the option to swap out guts in mere minutes.

The Best Part

Performance. If you're not planning on heavy gaming or video editing, there's little reason to buy an iMac over this. I was able to play multiple 1080p videos simultaneously, which is absolutely pointless, but shows how much processing power this thing has inside.

Tragic Flaw

The graphics. You're stuck with an integrated chipset, which precludes hardcore gaming with titles from the last several years.

This Is Weird...

Apple: why did you make something so beautiful and good, yet stick the often-used headphone, USB and Thunderbolt jacks in the back of the computer? It's a crowded mess, and this will be a daily annoyance for anyone who regularly swaps accessories.

Test Notes

  • If you care about synthetic benchmarks, the Mac Mini scored an 11,761 on Geekbench. My mid-2011 MacBook Air with a Core i7 at 1.8 GHz hit 6189, and a 2.7GHz Core i5 iMac pushed 8797.
  • On the PC side, browsing Geekbench's public listings shows the Dell XPS 8500 closely matching or beating the Mac Mini — but it's a full tower computer. The Inspiron 660 cranks about two-thirds of the Mac Mini's Geekbench score.
  • Some gaming is definitely feasible. Half Life 2 (I know, I know, an old game) ran at 1920x1080 with every setting maxed out. Sure, not so impressive. But the notoriously resource hoggy civilisation V ran decently with settings turned all the way up.
  • It's hard to measure how much of a difference the Fusion Drive makes, given that it helps in certain areas and not others without letting you know, but read and write speeds were both quite good: 301 MB/sec average write, 428 MB/sec average read. Frequently-used programs like Safari bounced open in less than a second.

Should You Buy It?

If you're OK with specs that are less than top of the line and don't want the design grace of an all-in-one iMac, the answer is absolutely yes. This is a small, fast, affordable thing. But be warned: you will find the rear-positioned jacks a pain.

Apple Mac Mini (as tested) • CPU: 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (up to 2.7GHz) • Memory: 4GB (up to 16 GB) • GPU: Intel HD Graphics 4000 • Hard drive: 1TB Fusion Drive • Ports: 1Gb Ethernet, 1x FireWire 800, 1x HDMI, 1x Thunderbolt, 4x USB 3, SDXC slot, audio-in, audio-out • Wireless: 802.11 a/g/b/n • Price: $1199 RRP in Australia (as configured)


Comments

    "Apple: why did you make something so beautiful and good, yet stick the often-used headphone, USB and Thunderbolt jacks in the back of the computer?"

    I've always wondered this about the iMac design, they should have these ports along the side where they're easily accessible. The way it is now, you have a really big monitor in the way.

    However, looking at the photos in this review, it appears the power button on the mac mini is also on what the author calls the back. Perhaps it should just be turned around so that all the ports are at the front?

      Stop being sensible!

      But then the apple would be upside down. Can't have that.

      They put the SD card reader on the side of the previous generation iMacs right below the optical slot, and countless amounts of users would come in saying "my DVD drive no longer works". Open it up, and there's a couple SD cards in there.

      Not entirely the fault of Apple, but same goes for the user.

    Anyone who wants a new computer, doesn’t need a monitor and wants to save a little cash.

    Save a little cash? It's $1199!

      I think he means a cheaper alternative to the imac for those who want osx

        That should have been the caveat included in the article. There are many other options WAY cheaper if you just want a portable device for movies, net and torrents.

      buy the mid-level $800 QC-i7
      - add 16GB kit from MSY $90
      - add dual hdd kit $50 from ifixit
      - add 256GB SSD from MSY ~$200

      $1150... comparable server version from apple.. $1700.. YOU save ~$600

      It should probably read

      Anyone who wants a new Mac, doesn’t need a monitor and wants to save a little cash.

      There are always going to be cheaper PC options, but if you want a machine that runs OSX then this is the cheapest one you can get.

    i bought one this week... love it! was looking at buying a secondhand mac pro via ebay, but alas... i paid half the amount for a 2009 mac pro, got a brand new box, geek bench that are scores higher and can crunch my data in less than half the time... (mysql db with 1M+ rows of data)

    setup as a server, and does everything as it should... a must buy for those wanting a home server or media centre connected to your LED/LCD TV...

    i leave gaming to my PC rig...

    I have a 2009 mac mini, and I love it! its always been connected to my TV and use as a media centre, all my video, music, picture files all fly over the network from my external hard drive.

    Only thing I wish Apple had thought of with the design is the USB ports. one or two in the front would be nice.

    Only recently I added some more ram as one of my friends had done it, (which was fun working out how to pull it apart to install), and now the speed is even better, not that i wasnt happy before. Its still the longest computer/gadget i've ever held onto, and if it ever stops performing, i'll be happy to upgrade to the newer model.

    Ports at the back wouldn't bother me, as if I had a mac mini I'd be mounting it to the back of a monitor.

    The other downside being, no Wireless N Support, another 4gig RAM ?, ideally systems should now start becoming proactive and start with 8gig RAM for smooth performance and convenience for consumers.

    Although im not much of a MAC User, is it possible to wipe the MAC Operating system and put Windows 7 or 8 on it ?, you could even run a server for a small business on it by maxing 16 gig ram if it can run Server 2008 / 12.

      It's got wireless N built in. RAM is at a point of diminishing returns ATM unless you do heavy video editing, in which case there's the option if you want it out of the box.

      You can run windows in bootcamp if you want.

      Macs aren't RAM hogs like PC's. If you WERE a Mac user you would know. If you could read, then you would have seen wireless n support. "• Wireless: 802.11 a/g/b/n"<------ See the "N"?

      Wipe Mac OS, oh thats funny. NO! But you can install windblows on any Mac, but that would be like having Kim Kardashian in the passenger seat of your Ferrari.

        PCS's aren't ram hogs, not since the last time I checked. 1GB can run windows 7 and 8 fine and at quite a reasonable speed too.

          I was comparing it to a Mac. Mac OSX uses less RAM than windows and shuts off virtual memory to apps not running. It is also smaller in GB size than windows 8.

      Should be able to run Windows without bootcamp. Swapped my friends dead HDD with Mac OS in it with a HDD with Windows Vista installed in it from another laptop and the macbook boot straight to windows! I don't think she ever had Bootcamp setup. i think its as easy as installing Windows or swapping HDD?

    I have an older model of the Mac Mini and the thing never skips a beat. Have it running some server software and use it for testing Mac stuff.

    I have it connected to the second input on one of my monitors. Way more convenient than an iMac.

    I picked up one of the new ones only a week ago. Using it mainly as my central iTunes box and for iOS development, and have had no problems at all. Could be faster, but I think I'm just used to having an SSD in my gaming PC. Loving it so far, though I wish they had more options for mouse tracking/movement/acceleration, as my mouse just feels sluggish all the time. That's more of an OS-level thing though, not Mac-Mini specific.

    love these reviews/opinions.

    My 2005 Mac mini is still going strong, never misses a beat.

    I have mine mounted on its side with all the ports facing forward, : ) it's not hard, you just turn it round.

    It's always been a good basic computer.

    If you want a cheaper PC great buy one, if you want a solid reliable basic mac, they've been here for quite a while now!

    This is also considered a great audiofile source. If you use Amarra with iTunes and output it to a good D.A.C unit fewer setups sound better. The key is the S.S.D which makes the sound sweeet!

      WTF? Seriously, WTF?

      The key is the S.S.D which makes the sound sweeet!

      o.O

        Yep I know it sounds full of it but some reason it makes a huge difference. There are plenty of forums dedicated to this. Basically the amarrra plugin which is bad ass for iTunes works well with SSDs. If any geek could explain why I would like to know. But all I'm saying don't knock it till you try it.

          Fair enough - I'll take your word for it and give it a try when I get a chance.

    The CPU upgrade is actually a 2.6GHZ not 2.7GHZ.
    Adding to that the fusion drive is a waste of time and money its 128GB of SSD and is linked up to 1TB HDD that the OS disguises as one drive. It puts your OS and apps on the SSD which takes up around 40-50Gb, this leaves you hardly any space on the SSD taking into consideration it should not be filled over 80% capacity in order to function properly. Your are better off getting the SSD upgrade not the Fusion drive.

      The OS swaps Apps not in constant use to the HDD automatically, allowing you to use the SSD for immediate storage and other uses. You should read a little more about it before looking like a dick in comments. http://arstechnica.com/apple/2012/10/more-on-fusion-drive-how-it-works-and-how-to-roll-your-own/

        Maybe you should read a little more. The amount of storage that you get is minimal for the price you pay, point being get an SSD. It swaps out files and apps after it sees a pattern which means you it does not do it immediately.

        Maybe you should practice what you preach and read a little.
        http://macperformanceguide.com/blog/2012/20121108_3-Fusion-MacMini.html

        So who looks like a dick now? hmmmmm

        Bottom line bang for bucks SSD is better.

      Last I checked an OS X install was nowhere near 40GB.

        Read it again : "OS and apps on the SSD which takes up around 40-50Gb"

          How did you come up with that figure? What apps factored into your calculation? How would you know what apps other people might install?

    I have the mid 2011 mac mini,, 2GHz i7, I edit xdcam 1080p footage on it daily, sometimes it struggles, but for the most part it handles itself well. For the most part the usb port on the keyboard does the trick too!

    You know with that attitude you'd be perfect to waok at the genius bar.

      Funny because 3/4 of them are just fanboys who don't know squat about the products.

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