Apple's least expensive desktop computer has grown into a competent performer even in its base version. Step-up versions are performance powerhouses -- except where it comes to gaming -- that can keep up and even beat like-priced Windows competitors.
Apple's baby is all grown up. Experts say that the Mac mini was conceived as a low-cost but also low-powered entryway into the world of Apple. It's still the least expensive Apple computer you can buy, at least in its base version. More powerful configurations raise the bottom line considerably, but also give the Mac mini the computing chops to more than hold its own against like-priced Windows machines.
The base mini is equipped with a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, a 500 GB hard drive, integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 and 4 GB of memory. Few reviewers spend much time with that configuration, but Macworld does put it to the test. James Galbraith notes that the base mini has received an across-the-board upgrade over its predecessor. As an example, the processor is the equivalent of what was found in last year's high-end Mac mini, except that this year's base configuration also benefits from the jump to Intel's current Ivy Bridge technology. The bottom line is that the current base Mac mini slightly outperforms last year's step-up version, and handily beats last year's base model in Macworld's testing.
The fun really starts, however, when you step up to the i7-equipped version of the Mac mini (*Est. $800). That configuration ups the price tag by $200, but what you get for your money is a far more powerful 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel i7 processor and a 1 TB hard drive; the rest of the component lineup is the same as the base version.
But opting for the step-up configuration also opens the door to all sorts of additional upgrade options not available in the base model. Most notable among these is Apple's 1 TB Fusion Drive, which speeds up overall performance by transferring the most often-used files and applications to an integrated 128 GB solid-state drive. Those who've tested the Fusion Drive say that once you've experienced it, there's no going back. Unfortunately, most who praise the Fusion Drive also note that at $250, it's a pretty expensive upgrade, and the total of *Est. $1,050 for the i7 Mac mini with Fusion Drive takes it out of the cheap desktop computer range.
Apple's top-of-the-line Mac mini is the Mac mini with OS X Server. That configuration adds a second 1 TB hard drive and OS X software to the mid-tier mini. It's not really considered a consumer configuration by most, and we saw no reviews for it.
While this year's mini sees lots of improvements over its predecessor, there's at least one area in which it falls behind: We saw lots of grousing about Apple's decision to not offer a discrete graphics option. That leaves the Mac mini as a distinct also-ran for gaming (not that it was ever a top consideration for serious gamers in the first place). Ironically, however, benchmark testing by Macworld showed that the base mini is improved in that regard compared to its predecessor. That's a direct result of the Ivy Bridge CPU technology, which improves integrated graphics performance over previous solutions.
Monitor, keyboard and mouse not included. One of the perpetual knocks over the Mac mini is that those pretty-much essential peripherals are not included. On the other hand, except for all-in-ones, monitors are rarely included with any desktop computer, and the keyboards and mice that are packaged with typical systems are, ahem, not always of the best quality. A bigger concern is the lack of an optical drive of any kind. One of the mini's popular uses is as a home theater PC, and that shortfall puts a little bit of a crimp in home theater viewing, as you'll need a stand-alone Blu-ray Disc or DVD player if you want your entertainment in physical as well as streaming format.
Beyond that, the Mac mini is well equipped with a good assortment of connectivity, including an HDMI output. You'll also find four USB 3.0 ports, and a FireWire port, Thunderbolt port, SDXC memory card slot, Ethernet port, Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-FI. There's also an IR receiver for easier integration with a home theater setup.
Little changed, and that's a good thing. Reviewers say that from the outside it's tough to see any changes from the previous version of the Apple Mac mini. The brushed aluminum exterior, rounded corners and small dimensions result in a box that can be left out to be admired, or tucked away easily. "No matter your sworn brand allegiance, you'd be hard-pressed to deny the Mac mini's simple, refined build," says Engadget.com's Joseph Volpe, and most agree.
Great build quality, average warranty. Apple's warranty is nothing special at one year, but only 90 days of telephone support. But that's supplemented by what's considered to be the best customer service in the industry and generally solid build quality. For those near an Apple store, there's also the convenience of a visit to the Genius Bar if you run into problems.
The Apple Tax is quite small. Most reviewers note that you pay a premium for Apple's ecosystem and solid build quality. With the Mac mini, however, several follow that up by saying that the price is competitive with Windows boxes of similar quality and power, even if you opt for the admittedly expensive Fusion Drive add-on.
Review Credibility: Excellent PCMag.com grants the Mac mini its Editors' Choice award based on its review of the middle model in the series, upgraded with an optional Fusion Drive. Brian Westover calls the configuration the best Mac mini yet, and compliments it for its powerful and fast performance.
Review: Apple Mac Mini (Late 2012), Brian Westover, Nov. 20, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent CNET also reviews the step-up Mac mini. Rich Brown very much likes the Fusion Drive. He says that even without it the mini is a serious competitor to Windows desktop computers in the same price range, as the component lineup is solid and performance is fast.
Review: A Strong, New Mac Mini, with or without Fusion, Rich Brown, Nov. 9, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent David Pierce says that the Mac mini might be small, "but it packs a wallop." There are lots of positives, especially in the step-up model with Fusion Drive, but the decision to remove discrete graphics makes it a less appealing option for gamers.
Review: Apple iMac and Mac Mini Review (Late 2012), David Pierce, Nov. 30, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent Macworld is one of the few to rate the base Mac mini (with a Core i5 processor). It also looks at the step-up Core i7 version. The step-up version is called more attractive, but the base Mac mini is improved as well, and remains "an affordable option for anyone wanting the Mac experience without paying a high premium."
Review: Review: New Mac Mini Offers an Attractive Bang for the Buck, James Galbraith, Nov. 2, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent Joseph Volpe puts the step-up, i7-powered configuration of the Mac mini through its paces and finds a machine that can excel in many roles. It's called "a perfect bridge" for those considering moving from Windows to Apple, and an attractive choice for "frugal shoppers." However, while gaming is competent, it is far from cutting edge and some compatibility issues with newer titles are noted.
Review: Mac Mini Review (2012), Joseph Volpe, Nov. 9, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent This review at ArsTechnica.com is among the longest and most in-depth we spotted for the latest version of the Mac mini. The mid-tier mini with Fusion Drive is called a "quick" system that leaves Lee Hutchinson fairly pleased after days of testing. There are downsides, however, including price and the lack of a discrete graphics processing unit.
Review: Review: The Mac Mini Takes the Ivy Bridge to Fusion Town, Lee Hutchinson, Nov. 12, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Britain's TechRadar.com offers its take on the mid-level Mac mini. It finds a very competent performer but one that's only a modest improvement over its predecessor. The lack of discrete graphics is called an "unwelcome surprise."
Review: Apple Mac Mini Review, Ian Osborne, Dec. 4, 2012
8. PC Advisor
Review Credibility: Good PC Advisor, another British site, offers a brief but testing-based report on the Mac mini. The focus, however, is on the mini's use as a home theater PC, and the evaluation is largely based on that.
Review: Apple Mac Mini (Late 2012) Review, Paul Monckton, Dec. 10, 2012