By Dan Moren
January 23, 2023 6:00 AM PT
M2 Mac mini Review: Whatever you want it to be
In 2005, when Apple first introduced the Mac mini, it was a carefully designed, strategic product: a low-cost computer aimed primarily at luring customers from the Windows PC hegemony with the promise that they could save even further by using all of their existing accessories, thus putting a dent into the argument that investing in the Mac was by necessity expensive.
Eighteen years after its debut, the Mac mini is, surprisingly enough, still going strong. At its core, however, it remains a machine of contradictions: it has become a bastion of Apple’s lineup, but it’s been updated more sporadically than any other Mac. It was one of the first Macs to make the jump to Apple silicon back in 2020, but at the same time, a more expensive model lingered as one of the last remaining Intel Macs. It’s an entry-level machine, but it’s also been deployed in server farms and modded and smushed into any number of applications.
With the most recent update to the M2 family of processors, the Mac mini is once again doing more than just one thing at the same time. In its base configuration, with an 8-CPU-core/10-GPU-core M2 processor, it’s a respectably performing desktop that can now be had for just $599, a $100 price drop from the M1 mini, solidifying its status as the cheapest Mac around. But bump the mini up to an M2 Pro, and it’s also a high-performing machine that will go up against the more expensive products in Apple’s desktop line, like the Mac Studio.
It’s hard to argue that the mini’s versatility isn’t the biggest part of why the product is still going strong, nigh on two decades after its debut. If the iMac, the Mac Studio, and the still-waiting-in-the-wings Apple silicon Mac Pro are the bricks of Apple’s Mac lineup, the Mac mini is the mortar, with its various configurations filling the gaps in between.
I’ve owned a handful of Mac minis over the years, though never as my primary machine. For the last decade, I’ve split my time between an iMac and a MacBook Air; prior to that, I was an all-laptop-all-the-time person for several years. But with the demise of the 27-inch iMac (and, more to the point, the demise of my personal 27-inch iMac), I’ve been waiting for a mid-range desktop—a machine that can bring a little extra performance without the heftier price tag of the Mac Studio.
And until now, that gap was unaddressed in the Apple silicon era. With the introduction of the Mac Studio last spring, desktop Mac users had to choose between an iMac running the company’s least powerful chip or a much beefier machine that not only carried a higher price tag but also required you to shell out for a separate monitor. Even if you were prepared to pay a little bit more for better performance, the realm in between the $1299 iMac and the $1999 Mac Studio was a barren wasteland.
The new M2 Pro Mac mini fills that gap quite nicely. The default M2 Pro configuration offers a 10-core CPU—six performance cores and four efficiency cores—with a 16-core GPU, but you can also upgrade it to a 12-core CPU with eight performance cores and four efficiency cores for an additional $300. With 200GB/s memory bandwidth and up to 32GB of RAM, the M2 Pro’s specs handily trump those of the M1 iMac. And given that it starts at $1299, it’s priced far enough below the Mac Studio to offer some cost savings. (The Studio’s base M1 Max configuration, by comparison, has the same total number of cores as the standard M2 Pro, but has two more performance cores, plus eight more GPU cores, twice as much RAM, and double the memory bandwidth.)
However, upgrading the stock configuration of the M2 Pro Mac mini can close that price gap in a hurry. Move up to 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, and you’re just $100 shy of the Studio’s introductory price—and that’s not even including that more powerful CPU and GPU option. All in all, a maxed-out M2 Pro mini will run you $4,499, surpassing the cost of the Studio’s standard M1 Ultra configuration—heck, now you’re in Mac Pro territory.
In short, the Mac mini is really two products. The base level $599 M2 mini is basically the equivalent of the MacBook Air: a pretty affordable machine that’s capable of handling almost any daily task thrown at it. The M2 Pro mini, on the other hand, is a mid-range Mac desktop that’s aimed at what you might have once called the prosumer market: a powerful Mac that can go the extra mile—for a price.1
Design of the times
The design of the mini is basically unchanged from its M1 predecessor, which itself was unchanged from its Intel forebears. From the front, it’s a nearly unmarred slab of aluminum, broken only by the tiny pinprick of a power light. On the back, you’ll find a solid array of ports, including gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, two Thunderbolt 4 ports (four on the M2 Pro configurations), a 3.5mm audio out, and—hurray for those who hate dongles—two USB-A ports.
If there’s a disappointment with the design of this latest revision, it’s that Apple seems to believe ports on the front of its machines are a luxury to be reserved for those who want to spend two thousand dollars on a Mac. The Mac Studio got high marks for prioritizing function over form with two USB-C (or Thunderbolt, depending on the version) ports and a card reader on the front, handy when you just need to just quickly pop in a flash drive or, say, a hardware security key. Nobody wants to go rooting around behind their computer. The new Mac mini, alas, offers no such consideration.
In the pre-Apple silicon era, the mini’s versatility was bolstered by it being one of the only upgradable Macs that Apple sold, but that ship has long since sailed. As with the M1 mini, you won’t be removing the black plastic foot on the bottom and popping in extra RAM or somehow wedging in another drive. So what you buy is what you get and what you have forever.
Also lost with the departure of the Intel Mac mini is any color choice in the mini line. Once again, the Mac mini is available in any hue you want, as long as it’s silver. So long, space gray, wherever you are out in the cosmos. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded some other options—even Apple’s midnight or starlight tints would at least shake things up a bit, but I guess the mini is a “serious” computer.
All right, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. If you’re in the market for an M2 Pro mini, what you really want to know is: how does it stack up against the rest of Apple’s Mac lineup?
As the benchmarks bear out, the M2 Pro ends up exactly where you’d expect it to fall: in the same neighborhood as the M2 and M2 Max for single-core operation (because the cores are pretty much the same) and about 68 percent faster than the M2 on multi-core tasks, largely by virtue of having an additional four performance cores.
Graphics performance was likewise predictable: the M2 Pro blew the vanilla M2 out of the water, thanks to having more than twice as many GPU cores, but can’t match up to the 38 cores of the M2 Max (or, for that matter, the 32-core M1 Max). In short, while it’s a very capable machine for graphics work, if that’s your bread and butter, it may be worth the investment to look at a more powerful machine—or wait until Apple likely takes the wraps off an M2 Ultra.
But those are benchmarks, which are by their nature an unrepresentative (if easily quantifiable) measurement. What prospective buyers really want to know is real-world experience.
In my everyday usage over the better part of a week, the M2 Pro mini delivered as expected: everything from loading web pages in Safari to crunching spreadsheets in Numbers was fast and fluid, with no significant hiccups.
For fun, I fired up Ghost of Tsushima, which I’m currently playing on my PlayStation 5, via Sony’s PS Remote Play app, and the gameplay was excellent (with occasional graphics artifacts because it’s still streaming over the network, and even via a wired Ethernet connection these things happen).
Apple has also touted the performance of games that take full advantage of its Metal graphics framework, such as Resident Evil: Village,2, and in that case, the mini performs admirably. I played the first bit of the game, which Apple provided, and gameplay was smooth and impressive looking: with the Prioritize Graphics settings on, the framerate stayed steady at around 60fps—the same happened even when I activated the MetalFX upscaling feature that improves graphic quality. It’s clear that Apple silicon can be an impressive platform for gaming—if developers embrace the tools that the company is providing to help get the most out of its hardware.
However, the big caveat to that statement is that there simply aren’t that many games that are designed with Apple’s tools in mind. One of the titles that Apple demoed in its video announcing the latest M2 Macs was No Man’s Sky, which it described as “demanding”—and though it may be, it’s also a title that debuted in 2016 and just this past year came out for the Nintendo Switch, not a console usually lauded for its graphics performance. Is the M2 Pro a very capable gaming machine? Absolutely. Does it change the state of the gaming market on the Mac? Sadly, no—but that’s about way more than just Apple’s hardware.
Of particular interest to me in the performance realm was video streaming. I have, in the past, broadcast many episodes of Total Party Kill, our live play Dungeons & Dragon podcast at The Incomparable, to YouTube. That involves sharing a browser window as well as video and audio of six participants via Zoom. On my old Intel iMac, using the popular free streaming app OBS, this was an extremely intensive task that chewed up a lot of my CPU and didn’t perform particularly well to boot. Video was often bad quality with low frame rates or dropped frames entirely. In later streams, I switched over to Ecamm Live on my M1 MacBook Air, which had the benefit of being a native app; managing it on a separate computer added a degree of complexity, but the performance was much better.
However, OBS has come a long way in the year or so since I moved away from it. It’s now native to Apple silicon, takes advantage of hardware encoders, and has fixed a bug with display capture (thanks to Apple itself). The difference was immediately apparent. Streaming some of my PS Remote play of Ghost of Tsushima along with video of myself via Continuity Camera was smooth as silk, and the CPU never went over 5 percent. After my experience on the Intel Mac, it was night and day. I cannot overstate how impressive I found this after all my streaming struggles on Intel Macs; it just goes to show, as with gaming, how much of a difference optimizing for Apple’s platform makes.
I also put the M2 Pro mini to the test with another processor-intensive task that I do on the regular: exporting a podcast from Logic Pro. For my test project, I chose an episode of my nerdy game show, Inconceivable!, because it’s among the most complex podcasts I produce: an hour-long show with eight people, lots of cuts, and a few filters to even out rough audio. In a bake-off test, Logic on the M2 Pro bounced that project to a WAV file in 4:15; my M1 MacBook Air took 6 minutes flat. Granted, that’s a task I’d usually do in the background or even walk away from my computer, but at the end of the day, it’s still time saved.
Oh, and since I know fan noise is of particular concern to segments of the market that might be interested in the M2 Pro mini, I’ll say this: I could not hear the machine’s fan. Ever. I fired up all the cores and left them going for a while, and still nothing. I held my Apple Watch’s decibel reader near the back of the mini, and I noticed no appreciable change. I even installed Fanny, an app that reports fan data, to make sure there was indeed a fan inside. (There is, but apparently it is very quiet.) Apple’s not blowing smoke when it says low power consumption is a cornerstone of how it develops its chips.
For those users who have been waiting for a Mac desktop that can offer a step up from the M1 mini or M1 iMac without breaking the bank, the M2 Pro Mac mini delivers. While I can’t speak to the non-Pro model’s performance, one can extrapolate pretty well from the benchmarks of the M2 MacBook Air, given that the chips are basically the same.3 Moreover, at a $599 price point, the entry-level mini continues to fill a niche as pretty much the only sub-thousand-dollar Mac that Apple sells4, even if it might require additional outlay in the form of peripherals.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison for the M2 Pro Mac mini is putting it up against the Mac Studio. Yes, even the $1999 M1 Max Mac Studio—and isn’t that a mouthful—continues to offer some advantages, namely superior graphics performances, faster memory speed, and, of course, ports on the front. But on pretty much anything but graphics performance, the M2 Pro Mac mini not only outpaces the Mac Studio but definitely offers more bang for the buck.
In short, the M2 Mac mini is extremely good at what most users will want to do, and the M2 Pro Mac mini will satisfy the section of the market that needs to do tasks that require a little more oomph (or a couple more ports). The only real question, to my mind, is how much of an audience there is for an inevitably more powerful desktop Mac model, whether it be an M2 Mac Studio, the promised Apple silicon Mac Pro, or both. It’s a lot of products at the faster (and more expensive) end of Apple’s product line.
But for now, the M2 Pro Mac mini ably fills the mid-level gap in Apple’s desktop range, which will be a relief to the many people waiting for such a machine—myself included. Apple silicon continues to impress in this second generation, there’s no question, but it’s hard not to feel like the company’s resting on its laurels somewhat, especially where the mini’s design is concerned: it’d be nice to see the outside of the product keep up with what’s inside.
- Yes, there’s a model in between: the $799 Mac mini. But it’s not really a different product: it’s just the $599 M2 mini configured with a 512GB SSD instead of 256GB. In fact, you can get the same exact thing by ordering the base-level mini and configuring it with the larger SSD. So why does it exist? My guess is that somebody at Apple marketing really wanted it to feel like a “good, better, best” lineup, despite the fact that both the MacBook Air and Mac Studio lines offer just two stock configurations. ↩
- A game written by our pal and Incomparable panelist Antony Johnston! ↩
- It’s worth noting that the base-level mini comes with the same M2 core configuration as the more expensive $1499 MacBook Air. It seems safe to assume that the Mac mini would have a slight performance edge, given that there are no concerns about prolonging battery life and the mini, unlike the Air, has a fan. ↩
- No, I am not counting the M1 MacBook Air. $999 is under a thousand dollars in only the most pedantic sense, sorry. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]
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