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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

It’s not quite a Mac mini, but it’s my server

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Intel NUC server sitting atop my old Mac mini.

Over the past year I’ve written frequently about my love of the Mac mini. There has been a Mac mini running as a server in my house basically since it was first introduced in 2005. The specific uses for that server have grown and changed over the years, and I’ve bought new models and upgraded them when necessary. But I need to admit something: for nine months, no Mac mini has been running in my house. Instead, I’ve been running a different device as my server.

The Mac mini was last updated 1245 days ago, in October of 2014. (And that was a lackluster upgrade.) Taking a cue from my dreams about what a modern Mac mini might be like, I bought a tiny Intel NUC PC and installed macOS on it. My Mac mini was becoming unreliable and I was hoping to experiment with Intel’s hardware in advance of a real Mac mini being released.

This was intended to be a temporary experiment. And, in fact, I hope to replace the NUC with a real Mac mini just as soon as Apple finally releases that all-new Mac mini that’s hopefully percolating inside Cupertino. But in the meantime, I have been running macOS on non-Apple hardware, and it’s been an instructive experience.

I’m not going to go into great detail on how I installed macOS on a PC. There are plenty of instruction guides out there; I used this one and it worked well enough, though it took many hours and I had to repeat a few steps because I hadn’t followed the instructions to the letter. (If you miss even a small step, you will regret it. And please don’t email me asking for support if you decide to try.) Suffice it to say that this is not something that a non-technical user will ever want to do, and this is probably enough of a barrier to keep all but the most dedicated people from attempting it.

There are plenty of disadvantages even when you’re up and running. Software updates are opportunities for disaster, so you have to apply them sporadically and carefully. Some hardware isn’t supported properly; I had to install a copy of Windows 10 on the PC so I could write down a string of numbers that would allow my macOS installation to use the Samsung SSD I bought, the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi don’t work, and you can’t put it to sleep.

That all said… I have to say that as a server, it’s been a dream. It’s vastly faster than my old Mac mini, and it takes up a fraction of the space. My server has a 2.21GHz seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor with 16 GB of RAM and a 250GB SSD. It’s got four USB-A ports, one USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port1, Gigabit Ethernet, and HDMI video out.

The cost of all that hardware? It was $383 for the NUC itself, $133 for the RAM, $146 for the SSD, and $9 for an HDMI adapter. All in, $671. Compare that to the currently on-sale Mac mini: a fourth-generation Intel processor, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD will run you $1099. That’s depressing—$428 more for a computer powered by a processor that’s three generations older. But I prefer to look on the bright side, namely that there’s plenty of profit margin available for Apple to release a new Mac mini with specs and design that echo the box currently acting as my server.

I love the NUC hardware, mostly because it’s just so impossibly small. No, I don’t expect that Apple would make a box quite this ugly—those two USB ports on the front of the case would be the first to go—but Apple could definitely make a smaller Mac mini that had plenty of power and went all-in on flash storage.

I hope it does, and soon. I’ll be first in line to buy one. But in the meantime I’ve stuck an Apple logo on this Intel NUC and I’m just going to pretend that it’s a Mac.

  1. I added a Thunderbolt 3-to-Thunderbolt 2 adapter and attached my RAID to it. Works like a charm. 

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