(Pocket-lint) - The Mac mini is perhaps the least celebrated of the Apple Mac family.
The iMac cuts its desktop swathe with luscious design and, recently, that 5K resolution panel has made it the all-in-one to beat. On the portable front, the MacBook Air remains one of the most lauded laptops designs around, while the MacBook Pro sits as the workhorse for many creative types.
Some think that the Mac mini has now outlived its usefulness - it garnered little more than a passing reference at Apple's recent special event - but we still think that Mac mini has plenty of appeal. But has Apple torpedoed the mini back to standard in 2014?
An easy choice for Windows migrants
The Mac mini is a small format desktop PC. In the box you get the elegant aluminium square unit along with a power cable and nothing else. That's what's behind the affordability, because the idea is that you hook it up to your existing monitor and use existing accessories.
If you're switching from an existing desktop PC, then it means you can pretty much plug right in. You might be ditching an existing Windows tower, or repurposing an existing display, like a TV.
If there's one thing we'd advise, it's that you use the Apple Wireless Keyboard and either the Magic Trackpad or Magic Mouse. We've long been fans of the Magic Trackpad (excusing the name) because it replicates the silky interaction experience of the MacBook.
There was a time when we considered the Mac mini a great choice as a home entertainment computer, to sit in your lounge. With the increasing sophistication of Apple TV or simplicity of Chromecast, those days of needing a computer to access online TV services are behind us, but if it's the lounge you're targeting, the Mac mini's design is certainly fetching.
The current Mac mini design was introduced in 2010 and the only change from that earlier model has been in the connectivity on the rear in the latest device, along with the loss of access to the internals through a bottom panel.
The aluminium enclosure measures 197mm square and is 36mm tall. The rear panel houses all the connections and ports, the aim being that you have this minimalist box on show and the wiring out of sight to the back.
Of course that leads to some impracticality, especially if you're prone to using the SD card port. Yes, it's not the prettiest of things, but having to reach around the back each time is terribly impractical - the same issue we found with the iMac 5K.
Otherwise, this design has stood the test of time. It still looks great with its slick and simple design, which should appeal to those looking for something elegant to side beside their monitor.
A step back in upgradability
Previously you could access the internals of the Mac mini so that you could perform some upgrades yourself - namely storage and RAM. This carried the advantage that you could buy in cheaper and then bump up the amount of RAM at that time you felt things were starting to slow down.
Equally, you could scrabble around to expand the storage, perhaps switching over to an SSD for the welcome speed/noise/energy gains that come with that over conventional HDD. Previous Mac minis also offered a spare SATA port, so you could add an additional drive if you wanted to.
Sadly in 2014 those options are gone. There's no option to upgrade the RAM even if you do get into the casing, as it's soldered to the board, as revealed in an iFixit teardown. That's a blow for the budget conscious, meaning you'll have to opt for enough RAM to see your Mac mini through the entirety of its expected life. You can't opt for the basic model and then jump in with more RAM or an SSD later when you've raised the cash.
This perhaps follows a growing trend in Apple devices, with fewer user upgrade options across the Mac family of late. Perhaps that doesn't matter for the Mac mini's target audience, but previously it was such an incredibly simple upgrade it required no technical skill at all.
The base offering for RAM is 4GB in the £399 model, which comes with Intel HD Graphics 500. To upgrade to 8GB is an extra £80, bumping the total to £479. The Mac mini might have taken a price cut, but you'll probably want to opt for 8GB of RAM at least.
We've been living with the 2.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor with Intel Iris graphics, 8GB RAM and the 1TB Fusion Drive. That places this Mac mini at £799, by which time you're moving into the MacBook Air's starting prices.
We'd most likely opt for the 2.6GHz Intel Core i5 with Intel Iris graphics. It already has 8GB of RAM as standard, but the option to add the Fusion Drive is then £160, bringing you up to £729, and coming in a mite more affordable than the £799 model on review here.
No quad-core options
The Mac mini broadly offers the same sort of processor options that you find in the MacBook Air. Starting with the entry point at 1.4GHz dual-core Core i5, and running up to the 2.8GHz Core i5, or the 3.0GHz Core i7 option will cost yet more.
There are no quad-core options in the line-up on offer, which there was in 2012, which might be a disappointment for some. The 2014 Mac mini refresh isn't giving you a compact desktop powerhouse, you'd have to opt for the iMac (at £1049) or MacBook Pro Retina 15-inch (£1599) if you want a quad-core chipset.
Perhaps this is Apple positioning the Mac mini more positively in its place: it's an affordable entry point into the world of Apple Mac computers. For your typical user, it will probably be all the computer they need. For those with a penchant for geekery, there may be a sense of disappointment. In some computational tasks, the new Mac mini is potentially slower than the 2012 Core i7 quad-core model.
However, fire up the top-spec Mac mini we had in for review and it's difficult to be disappointed with the performance for the sort of daily tasks it's designed for. It's a very nice compact desktop and it's swift setting about productivity and internet tasks.
Using Intel Iris graphics, this isn't designed to be a gamers' machine, nor is it aimed at those with heavy video editing loads, but it will take to iMovie editing or Handbrake encoding with enough expediency to keep the casual user happy, as well as being perfectly happy to play back high-resolution video content.
It also does so with getting excessive hot or noisy. It will sit quietly and get on with its work without disturbance.
There's a small internal speaker on the mini that is best left to system sounds: it is a poorer performer than the MacBook Air when it comes to producing audio, so a set of separate speakers also needs to be on the list.
Banished to the wastes of connectivity obscurity is FireWire 800, which is now gone from the Mac mini. The new model offers two Thunderbolt connections alongside an HDMI port. The latter will support displays up to 4096 x 2160 (4K) resolution, but only at 24Hz. You can connect two displays at up to 2560 x 1600 pixels, so you still get a range of available display options.
There are four USB 3.0, again all aligned across the back, so better for permanent connections than something you'll be swapping out regularly. We've mentioned the SD card slot already, as that's our biggest design complaint - no one leaves an SD card in a computer, so accessibility is important.
Apple probably intends for you to use Bluetooth 4.0 instead and we've taken to using the Bluetooth Magic Trackpad, Wireless Keyboard and speakers, which we've never had a problem with.
Along with the Ethernet connection, there's 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, giving you nice fast connections to your wireless network.
The Mac mini has been changed in 2014: updated, if not upgraded. There are tweaks and changes, but the thing we notice most is that the Mac mini now feels like it's been moved out of the hands of those who like to tinker. Perhaps that's just our inner geek coming through, but it's now a case of getting what you pay for - buy now and stick with it into the future.
We still love what the Mac mini sets out to do. It's an elegant compact desktop computer that will slave your existing display and bring you into the Apple Mac world without breaking the bank. For those who only need basic computing and internet functions, we daresay the base model will be an attractive option at £399.
This isn't going to compete with the upper echelon iMac models, however, and that's perhaps the reason for Apple removing user access for upgrading after purchase. If you're looking for power, look to iMac. But if you're looking for a cute little Apple computer to handle your daily computing needs, then the Mac mini may still be it.