Four years since its last major update, the Mac mini re-emerges with pumped-up CPU speeds, new and faster storage options, and a wholly overhauled complement of connections (including a superfast one we didn’t expect).
Apple’s 2018 Mac event was a big-timecatching-up, making-amends session.
The 2017 MacBook Air, which in essence was more in line with a 2015 laptop, saw almost every aspect of it kicked into 2018 in a mega-overhauled new MacBook Air. The same with the long-neglected Mac mini: With this update, Apple essentially fast-forwarded matters by four years.
The Mac mini had not seen a major update in so long (2014!) that many Mac watchers had assumed Apple’s littlest desktop would just die quietly of neglect. But not so. This revision of the Mac mini doesn’t look as radical on the outside as the MacBook Air’s hard reboot (it only comes in space gray and looks much like its predecessor), but it gets an oversize component upgrade across the board. Let’s dig in.
What’s Inside the New Mac Mini?
More Core (and more-core) power is the big story here. In these days of eight-core/16-thread mainstream CPUs like the Intel Core i9-9900K, gaudy core/thread counts on desktop PCs are not unusual. I wouldn’t call the raw counts on the 2018 Mac mini quite that, but a four-core minimum (in a lean Core i3 SKU that I suspect most mini loyalists will bypass for the six-core beef) and the option to bounce that up is very promising for a machine of this size.
Apple did not specify which if any of the new chips (four-core or hexa-core) support Hyper-Threading, but gauging from the claims of up to “5x better performance,” I will hazard a guess that some, if not all, support the thread-doubling tech.
In some of the demos I witnessed, the core-crunching power was on full display. Apple’s Logic Pro X music-creation software, according to a rep I spoke with, is among the Apple software most highly extensible to using all available cores, and it managed a 100-plus-track song from Beck with aplomb.
This, of course, was a six-core model doing on-the-fly manipulation to maximum effect. In addition, some of Intel’s late additions to its recent-gen CPUs include specialized optimizations for video encoding, so Apple is making claims of, in some cases, immense gains for conversion tasks such as HEVC encoding. Chalk that up to the new silicon.
One surprise, and a bit of a bummer, is the reliance, across the board, in the Mac mini on Intel’s integrated graphics. The Mac minis up and down the line lean on Intel’s UHD Graphics 630 for their video acceleration. Now, for basic display-output purposes, this is a very capable solution. It will power up to three 4K monitors (two over Thunderbolt 3 and one on HDMI 2.0), or one 5K panel (on Thunderbolt 3) and one 4K (on HDMI). But for applications that benefit from dedicated graphics silicon for GPU-accelerated performance, or for Mac gaming, Intel UHD anything is not a powerhouse.
That said, the Thunderbolt 3 ports on the Mac mini support external graphics cards, or eGPUs, so the potential for better is there. But I rather expected to see an implementation of some kind of AMD Radeon RX graphics, at least as an option on an upper SKU, like with the MacBook Pros. If a Mac laptop can do it, I’d expect its latest mighty-mite desktop to, as well. Plus, you can configure a Mac mini as high as $4,199. (I did that, for kicks. That gets you a six-core Core i7, 64GB of RAM, a 2TB SSD, and 10-gigabit Ethernet.) Paying that much for a desktop with integrated graphics—integrated graphics!—seems wildly ludicrous.
Beyond the processor-muscle uptick and the decisions around graphics acceleration, the Mac mini is now getting 2,666MHz RAM. The standard complement is 8GB, upgradable at time of purchase to 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB, the latter a new ceiling for the Mac mini and a presumptive boon for renderers, demanding musicians, and media editors.
An Apple rep I spoke with noted that the RAM is technically not meant to be user-upgradable, but Apple is implementing the RAM here as SO-DIMMs—that is, not soldered down. So it’s conceivable that the usual-suspect aftermarket Mac-upgrade sellers like OWC or Crucial could sell kits and instructions that would allow for daring users to crack the case and boost the RAM if they need more later. (The memory itself is DDR4.)
The Storage Loadout
This is an interesting aspect of the 2018 Mac mini. First off, Apple has gone full SSD. You can’t get an internal 2.5-inch supplemental platter drive, and so this marks farewell to the long-running Apple Fusion Drive, its combined platter-and-flash solution that was available in the last Mac mini revision.
I’m in favor of the all-flash approach, especially as there is more-than-adequate port connectivity to drop an external platter drive onto the unit for supplemental storage, and the Mini’s back-panel connection technologies (USB 3, Thunderbolt 3) are mighty fast. Plus, Apple has moved the internal SSDs, like on its latest laptops, to the snappier PCI Express bus, supplanting Serial ATA.
The storage is not user-upgradable, so you’ll want to buy the capacity you need at time of purchase or resign yourself to external add-ons. The base-model Mac mini starts at $799 and nets you a four-core Core i3 and a rather meager 128GB of storage, while the step-up $1,099 model is a six-core Core i5 and 256GB of SSD. The time-of-purchase SSD upticks are to 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB. (But they are dear.)
Connectivity: Key Points
A lot has changed on the connectivity front, to my eyes all for the better. You have support for gigabit Ethernet standard, with massively upticked 10-gigabit (10Gb) Ethernet as a configuration option. Indeed, Apple was showing off Final Cut Pro rendering with stacked Mac minis acting as a mini render farm, connected to their respective networks via 10Gb interfaces. The ability to bring multiple Mac minis online for demanding render tasks brings a whole new face to what a team equipped with these machines can do on the fly.
Beyond the Ethernet enhancements, you get four Thunderbolt 3/USB Type-C ports, as well as two USB Type-A ports (likely reserved for workaday devices like a keyboard and mouse) and an HDMI output. Note the lack of conventional DVI or DisplayPort video-outs; you’ll use HDMI, Thunderbolt 3, or a dongle or two.
One nice detail for those trying to maintain minimalist workspaces? Note the power connector at left. That leads to a straight AC power cable, with no inline power brick. Apple managed to incorporate the power supply for this machine into the chassis itself, which considering the size is a feat of its own and will be overlooked by most buyers.
Around the Edges: Thermals and More
One of my first questions about these little Minis was how Apple was handling the core-upticked CPUs here in terms of cooling. It’s still an active cooling scheme, but one that, even as I watched several Minis do their stuff, including some harsh rendering tasks, ran very quiet. I also puzzled over how Apple pulled this off without a litany of ventilation grilles around the sides.
If you flip the Mac mini over, you’ll note a plastic disc that serves as its base. Removing it should give you access to a hatch that goes to the internals. (At my demo, Apple declared this verboten, but give us the chance…) Around the perimeter of the disc is a gap that allows for free airflow in and out. I didn’t note a rush of air around the edges of the Mini as it cranked away, but Apple assured us that there is a directed, active fan over the core silicon.
Here at PCMag, we expect to get our mitts on one of the Mac mini SKUs in the near future. Stay tuned for a full review of the machine.