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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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The new space gray Mac mini (top) with its silver second-generation predecessor.

By Jason Snell

Mac mini 2018 review: The Swiss army knife of Macs returns

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

When the Mac mini was introduced at Macworld Expo in 2005, what caught the eye was the $499 base price, the lowest price ever for a Mac1. In an era where the iPod was in the process of entirely rehabbing the Apple brand in the eyes of the general public, the Mac mini was for switchers—people who decided that the iPod was so good, maybe a computer made by Apple would be better than whatever PC they were using right then.

It was a good idea, and I suspect that the Mac mini drove a lot of switchers—or at least got them into an Apple Store, where perhaps they ended up walking out with an iMac instead.

Apple and the Mac are in very different place today, though. Most of the Macs it sells are laptops. The concept of the low-end desktop switcher feels outmoded. (Which is not to say there aren’t any, just that there maybe aren’t as many as there might have been in 2005.)

In the intervening 13 years, the Mac mini has become something different. As the one Mac without a built-in monitor that isn’t an expensive and large Mac Pro, it’s become a bit of a Swiss army knife, fitting as a tiny Internet or file server (I’ve had a Mac mini running in my house more or less constantly for more than a decade), running lights and audio in theaters and at rock concerts, and thousands of other small niches that are vitally important for the people who live in them.

Just last week, hours after an Apple media event, I found myself in an edit bay at the offices of Stitcher in midtown Manhattan, recording a podcast. The multi-microphone, multi-display audio setup was powered by—you guessed it—a Mac mini.

Apple has witnessed how the Mac mini has gone from being the best Mac it could build for $499 to one that’s a vital tool for professional and home users in a variety of contexts. And so, after a long time in the wilderness, the Mac mini has at last been updated—the right way. The last time the Mac mini got updated, Apple took away the highest-end configurations. This time, the Mac mini has been built with those many niche uses in mind.

You’ve gone gray, old friend

In the last few years, Intel has pushed the idea of extremely small desktop PCs, leading people like me to speculate that perhaps the next Mac mini would be even more mini. That didn’t happen. Instead, Apple has decided to use the existing Mac mini design, a low-lying slab of machined aluminum with curved edges. The only real difference is that now it’s darker, the old silver look replaced with a new space gray finish.

The New Mac mini sports four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports, HDMI, Ethernet, and even a headphone jack.

But on the inside (and on the back, where the ports reside), this is an entirely different beast. The ports are different, and versatile. Like the iMac Pro, the Mac mini recognizes that it’s useful to offer both USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 and USB-A ports. There are four of those Thunderbolt 3 ports, two classic USB-A ports, HDMI, a headphone jack, and Ethernet—Gigabit by default, with up to 10Gb Nbase-T Ethernet available as a $100 option. You can hang two 4K displays or one 5K display off of the Thunderbolt 3 ports. You can use adapters to connect to Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 2 or to give yourself more USB-A or… really, whatever you can think of. It’s a lot of ports.

Options aplenty

It was so sad when the four-core Mac mini was discontinued in 2015, leaving only two-core options and disappointing people who really wanted a more powerful device. Not a problem this time—every Mac mini comes with desktop class, eighth-generation Intel Core processors with at least four cores. The entry-level model is powered by a 3.6GHz i3, a higher-end model comes with a 3.0GHz six-core i5, and you can build a model with a 3.2Ghz 6-core i7 processor if you really want to max things out. Go wild. (Those processors can get hot, which is why Apple has taken the interior space regained by eliminating spinning hard drives as an option and used that space for a revamped cooling system.)

The Mac mini can now be maxed out with 64GB of memory, much more than the previous 16GB maximum, and it uses industry-standard SO-DIMM modules that can be swapped out later if you decide you need more memory than you initially ordered. Apple recommends that the upgrade happen at an Apple Store or with an Apple authorized repair person, because to get to the DIMMs requires some pretty nasty surgery on the Mac mini. Old models used to keep the RAM slots right under the computer’s removable base, but that’s the home for the cooling system now. To discourage user access to the insides of the Mac mini, the old base (which had little indentations so you could push with your fingers and twist it off) has been replaced one that’s perfectly flat.

In what’s becoming the standard for all modern Mac models, the Mac mini has an Apple-designed T2 processor that enforces security and acts as a disk controller. Flash storage is the only option on these systems, starting at 128GB and going all the way up to a massive (and expensive) 2TB of storage.

On the graphics side, Apple has chosen not to include a discrete GPU in the Mac mini—all the systems have Intel’s onboard UHD Graphics 630. However, given the Thunderbolt 3, if you’re someone who really wants a massive graphics boost, you can attach an external GPU via Thunderbolt 3.

Apple provided me with a base-model Mac mini to test, and I transferred the contents of my home server and ran it all weekend. Even the base model was dramatically faster than my 2011 Mac mini, no surprise there. That’s the combination of the modern processor, 8GB of RAM, and the speed of the flash storage boot drive. I attached my Thunderbolt 2 RAID to one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports via an Apple adapter.

Whether you’ll want to upgrade from the $799 base model really depends on what you’re planning on doing with your Mac mini. The base model certainly seems capable of running as a home server without skipping a beat2; if you’re planning on doing more intense work, you’ve got plenty of room to choose to upgrade. I admit to weighing the idea of ordering a model with the upgraded Ethernet port, just so I can max out the speed of the connection between my iMac Pro and my server. Everyone will have their own priorities.

It is what it is

This new Mac mini is exactly what it needs to be. Today the Mac mini is about flexibility and filling niches. This update allows it to span a wide range from basic server needs all the way up to high-end applications that require a great deal of processor power, fast storage, ultra-fast networking, and even beyond (via Thunderbolt 3). The high-end configurations might actually provide enough power for people to consider them over buying the Mac Pro, whenever it comes out. It remains to be seen just what ground the Mac Pro will cover, and what its starting price might be. The Mac mini may have just become the best (and best value) tool for somewhat high-end jobs that don’t require Xeon processors in large enclosures.

What is the Mac mini? It’s what you make of it. With this new update, it is once again a Mac that can be applied to whatever situations warrant it, hiding in cramped dark spaces or driving multiple monitors and extensive add-on accessories.

It’s not the space-gray exterior. It’s all the other options that come with this new model that re-establish the Mac mini as the Swiss army knife of Macs. Welcome home, little guy. We need you.

[Updated to indicate that the previous model maxed out at 16GB of RAM.

  1. For the record, you had to pay an additional $50 for Bluetooth, $79 for Wi-Fi, and $100 for a SuperDrive, and you could max out the Mac mini at $1200 if you tried. 
  2. My base model generated GeekBench scores of 4698 (single core) and 13468 (multi core), which, yeah, that’s better than my 2011 model by just a little bit… 

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