Apple Mac mini (2018)

For four years, the Apple Mac mini had been the last true, egalitarian entry-level Mac. Since its last major rework in 2014, it came in configurations priced as low as $ 499 that scaled up from there. The 2018 reboot ($ 799 as tested, which is the entry-level model) rethinks the Mac mini’s innards but also lays a new, ritzier price floor. Despite the price bump, with a move to 8th Generation Core desktop CPUs, PCI Express SSDs, and a new roster of connectivity, the Mac mini remains a compelling (if, mind you, the only) desktop space-saver for macOS users looking for a home theater PC, a desktop workstation, or a music- and video-editing sprinter. What tips it into our Editors’ Choice zone is Apple’s deep included software set, which lets you do a tremendous amount right out of the box: office work, presentations, music dabbling, movie editing. You’ll pay a premium for the trim dimensions, and expandability is all external, but rest assured: The Mac mini is the same dynamo as ever, now with 2018 trimmings that do justice to a classic design.

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The Design: Old Dog, New Spirit

The new Mac mini doesn’t look much different from its elder siblings unless you flip it around 180 degrees. The chassis is matte metal, made up of aluminum that, according to Apple, is 100 percent recycled, in part from the chassis-manufacture remnants of other Macs. The only feature on the front or sides is a power-on LED on the front face. A chromed Apple logo is up top. The feel of the all-aluminum chassis is stolid and inflexible, the same rigid-enough-to-support-an-elephant build as ever.

Turn the Mac mini over to view the underside, and you’ll see a plastic disk of a base that elevates the metal of the chassis from the desk surface. Rotating the disk does nothing; prying it up with a thin tool, though, pops it off. Underneath is a perforated panel that goes to the internals, of which, according to the company, the only serviceable element is the RAM.

That’s a change. Apple has implemented the memory in the new Mac mini as laptop-style SO-DIMMs. The company doesn’t deem this a user-accessible upgrade, though it says authorized service centers and Apple Stores will be able to perform memory upgrades. That said, a couple of Apple reps we spoke to suggested usual-suspect memory retailers (I’m thinking folks like Crucial and OWC) might be able to produce memory upgrade kits with instructions. When I popped off the bottom, I noted that the perforated panel was held in place by star-headed security screws. That’s an intimidating removal prospect for most casual users, but it’s definitely a step ahead of the soldered-RAM design that came before.

Around the perimeter of the plastic disc is a gap that allows for free airflow in and out of the chassis. I didn’t note a rush of air around the edges of the Mac mini during ordinary use or high-stress benchmarking. Apple’s schematics show an active fan over the core silicon that exhausts out from the only other ventilation evident on the chassis: a strip on the back panel, beneath some of the ports. (More on that in a bit.) The perforations in the bottom half of the case under the plastic disk are clearly inlets to the directed active airflow inside.

The Connectivity: A Fresh Array

In its physical connectivity, the Mac mini has seen a complete teardown, for the better. Like on its MacBooks, Apple has gone all-in on USB Type-C ports. On the laptops, that has pushed users to adapt with compliant peripherals or dongles. There’re a little more flexibility here.

The main array of ports on the Mac mini comprises four Thunderbolt 3/USB Type-C ports and two regular USB 3.0 Type-A ones. If you opt for wired peripherals, we’d expect the two Type-As to be occupied by a keyboard and mouse, but part of the appeal of the Mac mini is its trim minimalism, so Bluetooth-interface peripherals would keep those two ports clear. Depending on your work style and what you do, you might spring for Apple’s complementary Magic Keyboard With Numeric Keypad ($ 149) and the Magic Mouse 2 ($ 99) or Force Touch-enabled Magic Trackpad 2 ($ 149), all of which connect wirelessly via Bluetooth. They do add a bunch to the base cost, but I’d factor in these or other wireless peripherals to keep one or both of the Type-A USBs free. Apple loaned us the keyboard and the Magic Trackpad 2 for this review, and pairing them with the Mac mini took mere seconds.

That said, even if you plan to use the Type-As for input gear, don’t fret: You do get a lot of flexibility with the Thunderbolt 3 ports. Any can serve as a USB port, of course, via a Type-C cable or a C-to-A adapter. While we suspect most users will make use of the HDMI 2.0 port to connect a primary monitor or TV, Thunderbolt 3 makes possible various multi-display scenarios in concert with the HDMI, or by themselves. (Technically, the video connection itself isn’t Thunderbolt 3; the connectors support the DisplayPort spec over USB-C. But that’s just nitpicking.)

These multi-display gyrations make the Mac mini an intriguing centerpiece for super-high-res digital signage, or media-production setups that require discrete displays for master viewing of media or timelines on one panel and palettes/tools on another. You can always use the HDMI for a monitor up to 4K native resolution, alongside one or two of the Thunderbolt 3 ports; you can connect one panel at up to a 60Hz refresh rate on the HDMI, and either one 5K display on a Thunderbolt or two up-to-4K panels on two of the Thunderbolts.

Legacy monitors with other interfaces will work under certain situations, with dongles. The HDMI port will work with a DVI-interface display over a not-included DVI-to-HDMI adapter, while the Thunderbolt 3 ports work with Thunderbolt 2, DVI, and VGA panels via adapters.

Three other connectors grace the back panel. The first, the headphone jack, is notable only for the lack of a sibling line-in or mic port; the assumption here is that audio input (such as in a studio/production environment) will be handled via USB devices. Be warned if, for whatever reason, you need the usual analog mini-jack input; it’s AWOL.

Second is the Ethernet jack. You get support for gigabit Ethernet standard, with massively upticked 10-gigabit (10Gbps) Ethernet as a $ 100 configuration option. The 10Gbps Ethernet solution supports the NBase-T Ethernet standard, which handles up to 10Gbps transfers but can dial down automatically to 5Gbps, 2.5Gbps, or 1Gbps according to the traits of the attached network hardware and cabling. Indeed, in pre-release demos I attended, Apple was showing off its Final Cut Pro and Compressor rendering with a stack of Mac minis acting as a compact render farm, connected to their respective networks via 10Gbps interfaces. The ability to bring multiple Mac minis online for demanding render or development tasks brings a whole new face to what a team equipped with these machines can do on the fly.

The last connector is the power-cable jack, which stands out for the fact that the Apple power cable is just a straight-through cord leading to a compact two-prong wall plug. The power supply for the Mac mini is entirely internal, in keeping with the clean, clutter-free aesthetic of the platform as whole. In a 1:1 briefing with Apple personnel, I could not get a definitive answer as to the exact volume of the internal power supply, apart from the fact that it runs down one side in a strip and the maximum power draw is 150 watts. Given that the Mac mini employs only Intel integrated graphics and multiplier-locked desktop chips, that seems a reasonable ceiling—and the reason Apple was able to keep the supply compact enough to fit in the friendly confines of the Mac mini’s case.

I talked about the Thunderbolt 3 and HDMI ports earlier, but should point out that the multi-display capabilities that these ports afford are possible thanks to the Intel UHD Graphics 630 acceleration that powers all configurations of the 2018 Mac mini, up and down the line. The integrated graphics, tied to Apple’s choice of processors, is a topic worth delving into further, so let’s take a deeper look at the internals of the new Mac mini. The cool new stuff isn’t just on the back panel.

The Processor Picks: What the Core?

All of the CPU options in the 2018 Mac mini are, unsurprisingly, Intel 8th Generation chips. The two base models that Apple offers on the Mac mini—the Core i3 version, starting at $ 799, that we tested, and a Core i5 version starting at $ 1,099—can each be ticked up to a Core i7 in Apple’s online configurator.

These are “true” desktop chips—in other words, not the power-saving U-series or Y-series mobile chips seen in some ultracompact desktops (and in most laptops). In the course of my tests, various programs identified the chip in the testing sample as a “Core i3-8100B,” a processor that didn’t have a formal designation on Intel’s official directory of CPUs when I wrote this. But it maps closely to the desktop Core i3-8100: four cores and a 3.6GHz base clock. I do not have the Core i5 or i7 version of the Mac mini to verify the formal verbiage being used to describe those, but Apple reps I followed up with confirmed that only the Core i7 chip is Hyper-Threading enabled.

That’s the money info for content creators, not emphasized in the tech specs around these chips but good to know. Intel has dialed back support for the thread-doubling technology in its late-model desktop chips (in the 9th Generation Cores we have seen so far, Hyper-Threading has only been the province of chips like the elite Core i9-9900K), and that’s reflected here in the Core i3 and i5. For tasks that push the CPU hard and are threaded to take advantage of as many cores and threads as possible, the cores you get dictate all the threads you can weave. In some earlier generations, desktop Core i3 CPUs supported Hyper-Threading to get you from two cores to four threads. The four-core Core i3 and six-core Core i5 in the 2018 Mac mini, though, are straight four- and six-thread chips respectively. (The Core i5 supports Turbo Boost, however, so though it’s lower clocked at 3GHz, the 4.1GHz boost can jet it at times ahead of the snappy 3.6GHz base of the Core i3.)

What does this mean? Not having hands-on access to the Core i7 version of the new Mac mini means that I can’t quantify it with certainty, but heavily threaded applications will likely see a big delta between the four-core Core i3 or six-core i5 Mac minis and the six-core, 12-thread ones. There’s no way to tell exactly how big without testing; it’s also possible that the thermal situation in the chassis may cause the Mac mini to slow things down a bit with 12 threads cranking at once over a long period. That said, the chip that the Core i7 is based on is a 65-watt TDP chip like the Core i3-8100, so in theory the thermals should be workable in the same chassis. Plus, the i7 chip is rated for a 4.6GHz boost clock from a 3.2GHz base, so clearly Apple designed with some thermal headroom at play.

The thing that gives me pause, or at least causes me to issue a sigh, is that given the state of the desktop space today, none of the Mac mini versions makes use of dedicated graphics. I had my mind set on the Core i7 “Kaby Lake-G” series chips that Intel launched earlier this year, unique in that the chips were supplemented by light AMD Radeon RX Vega M graphics. (See, for example, PCMag’s reviews of the “Hades Canyon” Intel NUC mini-desktop and the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 for the rare sightings of these chips.) Now, granted, these are rated as mobile GPUs with a 100-watt TDP, but they support Hyper-Threading (four cores/eight threads) and significantly upticked graphics performance. Indeed, their relative lack of adoption elsewhere in the mini-PC market led me and others to believe that they may have been made just for an Apple-specific implementation like the Mac mini. But alas: No.

Storage and RAM: Big Leaps Forth

That said, the reason that you can get a CPU as perky as a six-core/12-thread desktop Core i7 into the Mac mini’s chassis at all has to do with what’s been taken away, not just what’s been added in terms of thermal hardware. Moving to pure flash storage and away from any kind of platter drive frees up a lot of internal volume. The test unit I have on hand has a relatively scanty 128GB boot drive, which really is too small for almost any mainstream use apart from digital signage or productivity use by a dedicated cloud hound. If you’re willing to fork over for a capacity upgrade, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB are the waypoints; these upgrades cost $ 200, $ 400, $ 800, and $ 1,600, respectively, from the 128GB base and are unquestionably a major profit center for Apple given the cost of PCI Express NVMe drives on the market today at similar capacities. If you’re starting from the 256GB-SSD-equipped Core i5, you’ll pay $ 200 (to get to 512GB), $ 600 (to 1TB), or $ 1,400 (to 2TB) to boost the internal storage. No gigabyte bargains there, either.

That said, you should be happy with your storage speeds, whatever you opt for. The move to pure PCI Express storage is indeed a major uptick from Serial ATA SSDs or the longtime Mac mini staple speedup, the Apple Fusion Drive, which was essentially a hybrid drive with a small flash portion and a big platter portion. I’ll take a look at the raw speed of the drive in the Mac mini I have on hand in a moment, but bear in mind, like in most SSD-testing scenarios, you’ll often see slightly better throughput from the higher-capacity drives in the same SSD family, all else being equal, thanks to more memory modules operating in parallel.

You’ll want to fork over now for what you need in terms of internal storage, though. What you buy is what you get, and further storage increases will have to come via external drive upgrades over USB or Thunderbolt 3. For that, you have fast connectivity galore on the box, to be sure, but if speed matters most, external flash-based drives that will match the speeds of these internal SSDs will be pricey enough that the high cost of the Apple’s boot-drive upgrades might not seem so bad. That said, external platter storage is cheap for near-line mass storage, if speed isn’t your first concern.

The last major internal component that has seen a big evolution is the RAM. The Mac mini is now on DDR4, and much faster clocked, at that: 2,666MHz. That should, to an extent, help boost the performance of the integrated graphics processor (IGP). Integrated solutions like Intel’s HD and UHD Graphics and AMD’s mobile Radeon Ms tend to do better with faster RAM, again all else being equal. As noted earlier, Apple has implemented the memory now as SO-DIMMs, rather than soldered-down, so upgradability is an option, though it’s officially not sanctioned as a user upgrade. The test model I have in hand has 8GB, with upticks to 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB possible at time of purchase. The 64GB level has never been possible in the Mac mini and is a presumptive boon for demanding musicians (looking, say, to load huge virtual-instrument sets into RAM), photo editors, and users manipulating video.

Testing the Core i3 Configuration

As noted earlier in places, the test configuration of the Mac mini I have in hand is the $ 799 base model, comprising that Core i3-8100B 8th Generation processor (bringing with it Intel’s UHD Graphics 630 IGP), 128GB of SSD storage, and 8GB of RAM. I made use of our newly rebooted test regimen, which brings aboard a host of new tests for Windows PCs and a few for macOS machines. Because of the new test set, I have a limited range of comparison numbers to present below; I didn’t have access for retesting, for example, to the 2014 Mac mini that PCMag reviewed. So the comparison systems are an eclectic mix of compact desktops that illustrate the low and high ends of mini PCs we’ve tested of late…

Apple Mac mini (2018) Config

I didn’t have very long with the Mac mini on the test bench, as I received the sample only a few days before this review launch. So the basic test set here just outlines the rudiments of what the system is capable of. Our Cinebench, Photoshop, and Handbrake trials mostly stress the CPU, with the Photoshop test the one that’s most holistic in terms of illustrating the system performance, factoring in, to an extent, the speed of the storage, the amount of RAM, and any GPU acceleration.

First, a bit about our comparison systems. The Intel “Hades Canyon” NUC kit was tested with 16GB of RAM and an M.2 SSD installed, and the Intel/AMD hybrid CPU inside is one of the processors I mentioned earlier that I regretted not seeing in the Mac mini as an option. That unit costs a near-comparable $ 899 but does not include the OS, RAM, or storage in the price. The ECS Liva Z2, meanwhile, is a low-cost, low-end Pentium-based mini-PC decidedly meant for light cloud usage or digital signage. The HP Z2 Mini G4 is on the far other end of the spectrum, a compact workstation that’s of similar shape to the Mac mini but larger and thicker, packing a potent array of Xeon core silicon and Nvidia Quadro workstation graphics at a much higher price. It’s there essentially to illustrate what’s possible in the same rough form factor, but it’s by no means a price-wise competitor to our Mac mini test SKU.

Cinebench R15

Cinebench, as ever, well illustrates relative performance with software that is efficiently multithreaded and takes advantage of all available cores and threads on the CPU…

Apple Mac mini (2018) Cinebench

Here, the Mac mini falls just where we would expect: between the lightweight Pentium in the ECS machine and behind the four-core/eight-thread chip in the Hades Canyon NUC.

Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud

Adobe’s Photoshop CC is the latest version of the software. Here, we task the test system to apply 10 demanding filters, in sequence, to a standard test image, timing each process and adding up the lot…

Apple Mac mini (2018) Photoshop

The Mac mini, though last of the three systems here that completed the test, performed admirably, especially against the Hades Canyon NUC and its 16GB of RAM. I suspect the fast PCI Express SSD came into play here for the Mac mini.

Handbrake 1.1.1

The last of the test tasks employs a recent version of the popular video-conversion utility Handbrake. The source file is a 4K-resolution test file of the open-source Blender demo film Tears of Steel, the challenge to the system in question being rendering the file down to 1080p…

Apple Mac mini (2018) Handbrake

Handbrake, like Cinebench, scales well with more threads, so no surprises here: The Hyper-Threading capable NUC and Z2 Mini chewed through this harsh test faster than the four-core Mac mini, which in turn dusted the ECS budget model equipped with just two (relatively) slow cores.

It’s worth noting that some of Intel’s late additions to its recent-gen CPUs include specialized optimizations for video encoding, and Apple notes that content creators may see major gains for conversion tasks such as HEVC encoding, with help in that regard from silicon in the Apple T2 security chip that’s part of the machine. (It lends some dedicated hardware.) I didn’t have adequate time to investigate these very specific scenarios, but know that if that kind of encoding is a big part of your workflow, that may be an added boon. The T2 chip also provides for boot-level startup-settings security and on-the-fly encryption/decryption of the contents of the internal SSD.

I didn’t have the time to run a battery of graphics tests. That said, PC Labs has tested enough Intel UHD and HD graphics solutions to know that the level of performance (single digit frame rates at 1080p and up for any heavy graphical tasks or AAA games) will fall in a predictable range. Our review of the Intel Core i5-8400 should not be far off the mark. The bottom line: For programs that benefit from dedicated graphics silicon for GPU-accelerated performance, or for Mac gaming, Intel UHD is not a powerhouse. Apple has been co-marketing external graphics cards (eGPUs) from partner Blackmagic, which in parallel with this launch unveiled an $ 1,199 Blackmagic eGPU Pro model with an AMD Radeon Vega 56 card inside. That’s the kind of solution that demanding, high-res AAA gaming or specialized programs with serious GPU-acceleration aspects will crave.

Time precluded detailed gaming tests or storage-speed trials, but I’ll be running some disk storage benchmarks shortly after this review publishes to see if the internal SSD attains the PCI Express transfer rates that Apple claims.

An Icon Raises the Ceiling

The Mac mini was overdue, in a big way, for a sprucing-up, and we’re actually surprised Apple didn’t get a little more radical with it. The outer design is mostly unchanged, and the teardown was almost exclusively internal, apart from the wholesale rework of the back panel and the thermal hardware. The 2017 MacBook Air, in contrast, was really a 2014 laptop well past its expiration date, and it saw almost every key bit kicked into 2018 in the much-overhauled MacBook Air that’s launching alongside this new Mac mini. The Mac mini’s modernization is more subtle but no less subversive.

First, the main quibbles. A 128GB SSD boot drive needs to be catapulted back to the year 2016 from whence it came. And I’d have liked to see the Mac mini come in some variety, however small, in terms of graphics options. Intel introduced the innovate hybrid Intel-and-AMD Kaby Lake-G CPUs earlier this year, and I had that chip or a variant of it as a dark horse for inclusion, given its limited rollout in desktop circles and Apple’s disposition toward AMD for its dedicated graphics solutions. (Max out the RAM and SSD, and go Core i7 and 10Gbps Ethernet, and it’s possible to up-configure the Mac mini past the $ 4,000 mark. To pay that for an IGP-based desktop just seems irrational.) Then again, Apple is putting full-fat desktop chips in these machines, not mobile ones, so that is a positive offset.

Apple, in its demos showing off the potential of the Mac mini the week before its launch, had it in environments ranging from video production (in a multiple-Mac mini rendering cluster) to powering a pro-level music-production workstation. And indeed, the four-core model we tested, while no megacore powerhouse, will suffice for the majority of tasks that everyday users perform, and then some. That’s not to say you can’t get the same raw oomph for the same or less money in the Windows mini-machine world. But you also won’t find a machine that’s as snappy to set up, with as complete a software suite out of the box.

The last is oft overlooked, in all of the hardware analysis of Mac desktops and laptops. It’s easy to take Apple’s installed app set for granted, given its constancy. But fire up a Mac mini with two of Apple’s peripherals, and you can be up and running in five minutes, with key software right on hand to work up a presentation, type up a document, jam on a virtual piano, edit photos or videos, and much more. Windows 10, of course, has some of the same, but considering the ease and speed of the setup process, the Mac mini stands in a class of its own in terms of hitting the ground running, and fast.

My colleague Tom Brant opines that Apple killed the entry-level Mac in the new Mac mini. I don’t disagree, but I would counter that this machine redefines it, in an age where base-level expectations have changed. Four years is forever in core-tech terms. Sure, the 2014 Mac mini started at $ 500, but the $ 799 entry point on 2018’s machine, apart from the too-modest dollop of storage, delivers enough speed, flexibility, and connectivity to satisfy a wide swath of possible Mac shoppers, at this point. Only those needing the sheer muscle of a many-core solution will need to look higher up the stack of Mac. And there, still in the Mac mini family, a dozen threads are waiting.

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