(Pocket-lint) - Many thought the Apple Mac Mini had been forgotten about. While the iMac and MacBook families received a number of updates in recent years, Apple's most affordable Mac OS device seemed to stall. But it's just been on hiatus.
There's a new Mac Mini for 2018. Although the design more-or-less sticks to the same form factor of the 2010 refresh, the new Mac Mini has changed a whole lot: it's more powerful, pricier and designed for a new generation. But should it have been left to gather dust or is this rework a welcome return?
Designed to be as fuss-free as you can get
- 19.7 x 19.7 x 3.6cm, 1.3kg
- Space Grey unibody design
There's no shortage of small format PCs out there, but the Mac Mini has always been one of the simplest and most elegant. A compact box which has slowly lost distractions from the front: in 2010 there was an optical drive slot, in 2012 there were additional sensors, in 2018 the front is only punctuated by the status LED.
While the design is pretty much the same as it was before – with exactly the same footprint – spin it around and there's a big change: the 2018 Mac Mini loses some legacy connections, reducing USB 2.0 to two slots and offering four additional Thunderbolt 3 connections.
That's joined by Ethernet and HDMI as well as a 3.5mm headphone socket, so while the Thunderbolt 3 is ready to offer diverse connections, there's enough to let you conventionally connect this PC to existing devices. Thunderbolt 3 – those small-scale USB-C ports to the rear – really is a versatile and powerful connection and if you've been reluctant to upgrade, there's an inevitability about its growing dominance.
That's important because of what the Mac Mini is. When it launched it was very much a 'switcher' device: you could remove your old PC and connect this Mac to your existing hardware – so if you had an old mouse, keyboard and monitor then you were good to go. That's how we first came to the Mac Mini, replacing an outdated PC with something a lot smaller, running Mac OS, while keeping all our accessories.
Apple says that this proposition has changed slightly over the years, as the Mac Mini has found fame with studios and creatives who want power in a tiny package – which explains some of the hardware repositioning in 2018.
The Mac Mini is great at being hidden thanks to its small size: it can sit elegantly on a desk, but can equally hide behind a monitor, sit vertically on a shelf or anything else, while running quietly without the fan noise you'll find on some devices (although a large section of the rear panel is now an exhaust port to aid cooling).
Mac Mini hardware
- Quad-core Intel Core i3, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD
- Upgradable to hexa-core Intel Core i7, 64GB RAM, 2TB SSD
What's really changed for the 2018 Mini is the hardware. Previous versions of this PC have not been desktop grade, they've basically been laptop in desktop form – which, when it first launched, explains how the Mini became Apple's more affordable Mac.
With the shift to more powerful hardware, the Mac Mini has also had a jump in price. And it's a jump that might make you wince. The late 2014 Mac Mini brought the price down to £399, compared to a 2018 entry point that's now £799. So what's the explanation?
The justification for this price change is really in the hardware – and, perhaps, the types of people buying the Mac Mini. While it's great as a 'switcher' device at home, many of those people are abandoning the desktop computer completely and buying notebooks or tablets instead. The Mac Mini's hardware update, therefore, is really to appeal to those professionals who want the compact versatility but with added power.
The Mac Mini now starts with 8th Gen Intel Core i3 processor (quad-core at 3.6GHz), with 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD (as on review here), with a step-up option of 8th Gen Intel Core i7 (six-core at 3.2GHz (and at £270 more)).
You can specify up to 64GB RAM and can also choose options up to 2TB of internal storage – although the associated costs of these upgrades will likely exclude the average consumer from considering them, as it's just not worth it. An external storage solution is much cheaper.
When it comes to RAM, the 2018 Mac Mini can have the RAM upgraded by Apple or the user – if you know what you're doing – which is a positive, as the 2014 model's memory was soldered to the board. This process is not as simple as it was on the Late 2012 model, but it is possible – so if you want to save some money and upgrade your own RAM it can be done.
For the average consumer the £799 machine makes the most sense. In terms of performance the Core i3 might sound like it's going to lack power, but it really doesn't. We've found it to skip through all our normal tasks with ease. For typical domestic users we suspect it will meet your power demands for many years to come.
What's not on offer, however, is discrete graphics. The Mac Mini is equipped with Intel UHD Graphics 630. And while it will support external GPUs, that's again an expensive option really targeted at professionals.
Bring your own accessories
- No keyboard or mouse
It probably goes without saying that the Mac Mini really needs you to supply everything, including the soundtrack. There is a small speaker on board but it's only really good for system sounds.
You can run the Mac Mini with any accessories you might have lying around. We used it with an old Bluetooth mouse and a £8 USB keyboard and again, it's perfectly feasible to run this Mac with such devices.
The experience is enhanced with Apple's own trackpad or mouse and keyboard, but in terms of those upgrading an old PC, you can get away with just about anything.
The most obvious obstacle for the new Mac Mini is in justifying its price point. However, there's no denying that in updated spec it now feels like a fully capable Mac – whereas previously it didn't.
The Mini is simple and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't. That's core to its appeal, as it always has been. But as that's now backed up with a substantial boost in performance we feel it justifies the pricing.
While Apple's 'most affordable Mac' isn't the cheap computer it used to be, there's now a lot more grunt to this compact PC, which still makes it a great domestic 'switcher' device for a home office user who doesn't want a hulking great desktop PC.
Alternatives to consider
The Apple iMac is the complete package compared to the Mac Mini. It comes with the computer built into the display and has the cables, mouse and keyboard in the box, ready to go. The cheapest 21.5-inch model is a generation behind in terms of Intel hardware, but it does have a big 1TB harddrive and a Full HD display.