Apple's least expensive desktop computer has grown into a competent performer even in its base version. Step-up versions are performance powerhouses -- except when 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 3rd generation 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, a 500 GB hard drive, integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 and 4 GB of memory. 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.
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.
We see lots of grousing about Apple's decision to not offer a discrete graphics option for the Mac mini. 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).
The biggest handicap that the Mac mini faces compared to PC competitors is that it's yet to see an upgrade to 4th generation (Haswell) processors. Haswell offers better performance and integrated graphics (especially in the Core i7), but its biggest benefits lay in the area of power consumption. Were the mini a laptop, that would make missing out on Haswell (thus far) a big deal. However, since it's a desktop computer, the Mac mini remains competitive with other desktop computers in its price range. An upgrade to Haswell has been rumored for the mini, but is yet to be announced.
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.
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 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. There's also an IR receiver for easier integration with a home theater setup.
Great build quality, average warranty. Apple's warranty is nothing special at one year -- but only 90 days of telephone support. However, 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.
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PCMag.com grants the Mac mini an 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
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: Apple Mac Mini with Fusion Drive Review: A Strong, New Mac Mini, with or Without Fusion, Rich Brown, Updated Nov. 11, 2013
3. The Verge
David Pierce says 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
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
The base version of the Mac mini has attracted more than 300 user reviews at Amazon.com, and satisfaction runs high. This Apple desktop computer earns an overall rating of 4.5 stars, with most owners granting it a perfect score (5 stars). Elsewhere on the site, the middle configuration in the series earns a similar score (4.5 stars) but that's based on less feedback (around 180 reviews at last look).
Review: Apple Mac Mini MD387LL/A Desktop (Newest Version), Contributors to Amazon.com, As of April 2014
Satisfaction with the Mac mini appears even higher at BestBuy.com. Feedback for the base version is more extensive (around 415 reviews) and the rating is an impressive 4.7 stars. Around 96 percent say that they would recommend this Apple desktop computer to a friend. The step-up configuration gets about half as many reviews, but fares even a touch better with a rating of 4.8 stars and around 98 percent saying they would recommend the Mac mini.
Review: Apple - Mac Mini - 4GB Memory - 500GB Hard Drive, Contributors to BestBuy.com, As of April 2014