Mac buyers guide: The Mac mini is Apple's least expensive Mac computer, but that doesn't mean it's Apple's least capable
At $599, the Mac mini is the entry-level Mac computer. It's $400 less than the next least expensive system, the MacBook Air. It's also a step behind other Mac models because it hasn't yet been refreshed with the Haswell microprocessors or faster Wi-Fi that other Macs have gotten in 2013. But that low price tag and older processor don't make the Mac mini unworthy of consideration: It's still a powerful little computer that's very flexible for many different uses, from general-purpose desktop machine to media server to full fledged file server. Let's have a look at the different configurations to make sense of what Apple's offering.
All Mac minis look alike: They're 7.7 inches on a side and 1.4 inches tall, and weigh about 2.7 pounds. Like other Macs, Mac minis lack an internal optical drive - one of the reasons they're so short.
All Mac minis also come equipped with the same features: Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, HDMI, a single Thunderbolt port, four USB 3 ports, audio in and audio out jacks and an SDXC card slot, all on the device's back side.
For $599, you get a system equipped with a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel i5 processor, 4 GB RAM and a 500 GB 5400 RPM hard disk drive. Intel HD Graphics 4000 comes standard, as the Mac mini is based on Intel's "Ivy Bridge" processor hardware - not the newer "Haswell" chips that have been adopted in the MacBook Air, Retina MacBook Pro and iMac.
Apple offers two other standard configurations for the Mac mini. The first, priced at $799 replaces the dual-core i5 processor with a quad-core i7 processor clocked at 2.3 GHz. 4 GB RAM is standard. A hard drive with twice as much capacity - 1 terabyte - is also included. The second configuration, priced at $999, squeezes a second 1 TB hard drive inside, comes with OS X Mavericks Server preinstalled, and costs $999.
Because Apple hasn't refreshed the Mac mini since 2012, it's still working operating at 802.11n Wi-Fi networking speeds - the faster 802.11ac protocol, which transfers up to three times faster when used with a compatible base station like Apple's AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule, has been fitted to Macs introduced since the first Haswell systems shipped in June, 2013. The Mac mini also supports Bluetooth 4.0.
For software, Mac minis come with the standard suite of apps included on other Macs: OS X Mavericks and all the requisite general-purpose software like Mail, Safari, various and sundry apps and utilities, as well as Apple's iLife '13 suite, iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband, and iWork '13: Pages, Numbers and Keynote.
Now that we know what the price range is, let's break it down and figure out how to configure your new Mac mini in a way that makes sense.
Unlike Apple's other desktop computers, the Mac mini doesn't include its own keyboard and mouse. You're certainly welcome to buy one - Apple's own Wireless Keyboard, Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad work wonderfully.
You'll also need to supply your own screen. Apple only makes one display: the $999 Thunderbolt Display. Hooking one of those 27-inch behemoths up to a Mac mini is a bit of overkill, but you can attach any commodity monitor to the Mac mini with good results. You just need to use the right Thunderbolt adapter to connect to DVI or VGA (Apple sells them separately). You can also use HDMI directly (also useful if you're using your Mac mini as a media server. More on that in a bit.)
Why, you may ask, doesn't Apple include a keyboard or mouse? It helps keep the cost low, for one thing. But for another, the Mac mini really is Apple's gateway drug for new Mac users. It's the ideal computer to switch from if you have a Windows PC and you don't want to make a big investment in the Mac, but want to see if it's right for you.
With the Mac mini, you simply unplug your existing keyboard, mouse and monitor, then plug them into the Mac mini and keep working. It's a nice way to recycle hardware you've already invested in. When you first turn the computer on, OS X is smart enough to know that a keyboard isn't connected, and it walks you through the process of pairing (if it's Bluetooth) then identifying the kind of keyboard so it knows how the keys work. It'll also try to pair with a Bluetooth mouse if one isn't connected via USB.
The major difference between Mac mini configurations is the processor inside. Sure, you get twice the hard drive space too, but the processor is the big deal. The $599 model presents you with a dual-core i5 processor. It's a very similar configuration to Apple's non-Retina MacBook Pro, which is also clocked at 2.5 GHz.
It's an excellent general purpose system that will suit many users' needs perfectly well. It works great for email and web browsing, productivity software like Apple's own iWork apps or, optionally, Microsoft Office, and even for light gaming that doesn't hammer a GPU too hard (some hardcore games have system requirements outside the reach of the Mac mini's integrated graphics).
The quad-core processor is actually clocked at a lower speed - 2.3 GHz - but that quad-core processor makes a big difference when it comes to applications that are designed to take advantage of it. What's more, Intel's processors support a technique called hyperthreading, which increases the mulithreading capacity of the processors.
The number of cores a processor has determine how many instructions it can run simultaneously; the more cores, the more instructions. Applications that are optimized for parallel processing take best advantage of this - file conversions, for example. Ripping movies from DVDs you own. Compressing and decompressing ZIP archives. You may even see a difference when you're running a bunch of different apps at the same time (though memory and hard disk speed may become bottlenecks there as well).
Bottom line: If you're using your Mac mini to do media conversion like movie or audio file ripping, or if you plan to use it for heavy data calculation in scientific or research work, you're definitely better off with the quad-core processor. Otherwise the dual-core processor should be enough.
The other difference between the $599 Mac mini and the $799 model is its storage capacity. The $799 Mac mini ships with a 1 terabyte hard drive. It's simple math: twice as much storage gives you more space for your stuff. That part is easy to figure out. That is, however, a feature that's only available on the $799 Mac mini. Apple won't let you configure a $599 Mac mini with a bigger hard disk.
If you opt for quad-core model, you're presented with additional hard drive options: For $200 you can replace the existing system with a 1 TB Fusion Drive or you can opt for a 256 GB SSD.
Solid State Drives (SSDs) are more expensive that hard drives because they are, as the name implies, solid state. They incorporate flash memory chips that store data even when the computer's turned off. SSDs are incredibly fast, but chip memory density hasn't reached the same economy of scale as hard drive data density, so you pay a lot more for a lot less space - one-quarter the amount of storage, compared with a Fusion Drive. Having said that, if maximum file transfer speed is your most important measure of performance, it may be worth considering.
The Fusion Drive is the best of both worlds. Fusion Drive combines a 128 GB flash drive with a 1 TB hard disk drive, configured as one logical volume. Frequently-accessed files stay on the flash drive, where they can be read from and, if necessary, written to without delay. Files that aren't needed as frequently are moved to the hard disk drive.
The net result is that you get the performance benefit of SSD and the storage capacity of a conventional drive. It's a very nice compromise for users who are looking for extra performance for their Mac mini.
The server configuration of the Mac mini, which I'll discuss in a bit more detail later, incorporates two 1 TB hard disk drives. The extra storage space is handy for the server; using Disk Utility included with OS X Mavericks, you can reconfigure the drives as a RAID system for improved performance or fault-tolerance.
For $200 more you can replace the 2 1 TB hard disks with a single 256 GB SSD. And for $600 you can get two 256 GB SSDs.
No matter which standard configuration you choose, Apple provides 4 GB of RAM in the Mac mini. More memory will enable you to keep more apps running without paging out swap files to the disk drive, which slows things down (even a fast SSD is slower than memory).
4 GB is enough for general use for Mavericks for now, but if you're planning on keeping a few apps in memory simultaneously, or if you're planning on doing anything memory-intensive like content creation with high-resolution imagery, video editing or music composition using Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software - even Apple's own GarageBand - you're much better off boosting memory. Having enough memory and a fast enough storage system is the difference between getting work done and sitting around waiting for your Mac to actually do something.
Apple offers memory upgrade options: 8 GB for $100 or 16 GB for $300. Apple's 8 GB upgrade is, quite frankly, higher-priced than what you can find online from Apple-friendly RAM vendors, but not unreasonably so - especially if you don't feel comfortable putting more in by yourself. For any more than that, you might be better off shopping around - I did a quick check and found 16 GB upgrade kits for the Mac mini for half of what Apple charges.
The Mac mini has easily user-accessible RAM SO-DIMM slots - you can find them underneath the rubber base, which twists and comes off. The Mac mini itself can accommodate up to 16 GB of RAM, using two 8 GB SO-DIMMs. Even if you've never installed RAM, don't worry - it's very easy. Apple even provides instructions on its web site.
When Apple discontinued the rack-mounted Xserve in 2011 it looked like the company was abandoning the server market all together, but that didn't happen. Instead, the company repurposed the Mac mini as a workgroup server. The net result? They sold them by the truckload. The Mac mini works great as a server.
A Mac mini running OS X Server certainly isn't a replacement for an enterprise-class server, but it's very good for workgroups. The OS X Server license covers connections for an unlimited number of clients: a nice change of pace for Windows admins who are used to paying by the seat.
If you're running a small to medium-sized business, it's certainly possible to use a Mac mini for much of what you're doing. It can serve up web pages, wikis, files, shared calendars, contact directories and e-mail; manage standard system configurations for new users on your network, speeds up downloads from iTunes and the App Store by caching frequently-accessed content locally; it can even work as a Time Machine server, backing up Macs connected to your network.
In recent years, Apple's made it easier than ever to configure OS X Server. It's now available as a $19 download from the Mac App Store, so even if you buy a Mac mini for other uses today, you can reconfigure it down the road later as a server with relatively little effort.
Apple used to provide an app called Front Row that would activate a full-screen mode which made it easy to listen to music and watch videos on your computer. It marked one of the first times Apple acknowledged that the Mac had practical applications in the living room as media center.
Front Row hasn't been part of OS X since version 10.7 "Lion" came out in 2011, and Apple's moved a lot of that media center effort into the $99 Apple TV, which has sold very well. But the Apple TV doesn't solve everyone's media server needs, because it's very locked in to the idea of streaming content stored somewhere else.
The Apple TV is great if you've purchased music, movies and TV shows from iTunes (or if you have iTunes Match, songs you've gotten elsewhere too). There are other apps besides, though many of them are dependent on having a subscription to an additional streaming service or cable or satellite television.
Where does that leave those of us who have acquired movies, television shows and other multimedia content from other services, or have ripped movies and TV shows from DVDs we own? In short, the Apple TV doesn't really help us there.
That's where a Mac mini media server can come in really handy. The built-in HDMI connector makes the Mac mini trivially easy to connect to a flat-screen television. Connect a bluetooth keyboard, and perhaps a pointing device like a mouse or trackpad, and you have the hardware you'll need to serve up whatever content you want.
Bottom line: the Mac mini isn't a one trick pony. It works terrifically as a desktop machine. But its flexibility also allows it to work very well as a workgroup server, all-around server for a small to medium sized business, or home media server.
One thing to keep in mind: the Mac mini is still working with last year's technology. I suspect that because of its common platform similarities with the non-Retina MacBook Pro, it wasn't refreshed - just as that machine wasn't refreshed when Apple bumped Retina MacBook Pros earlier this year.
Having said that, I have little doubt that the Mac mini is due - it's only a matter of time. I laid out my rationale for why I feel that way in a recent editorial which I'd encourage you to read.
So if you're looking for some of the features and functionality that the Haswell bump brought to the Mac, like improved efficiency, some mild performance bumps and considerably better graphics performance; if you want faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi; or if you're looking for a more future-proof system, you may be better off waiting until Apple gets a new Mac mini on the market.
I'd also suggest passing on the Mac mini if you have more intense graphics needs - if you're planning on playing a lot of hardcore games; if you're planning on rendering video effects using Apple Motion or Adobe After Effects; if you're going to be working with really large graphics files or photographs - anything that's likely to hammer OpenGL and OpenCL technology - you will see improved performance from Macs with discrete graphics processors like most iMac models.
If you're just getting your feet wet with OS X for the first time and you don't want to outlay a lot of cash for the privilege, the Mac mini is hands down the most affordable way to do it. And if you can recycle a keyboard, mouse and display from your current setup, you'll be able to do it even less expensively.
Even if you're an experienced Mac user, you may find that the Mac mini's small size, MacBook Pro-like system specifications and all-around capabilities suit your needs better than other more expensive systems.
If you need a bit of extra processing oomph for code crunching, database work, or other operations that can benefit from more cores and hyperthreading, consider the upgraded Mac mini with the quad-core processor.
If you're an SMB business owner looking for an inexpensive way to manage file service, system maintenance and other key functions in house, or even a corporate IT pro looking to provide key workgroup server functionality, the Mac mini is a very inexpensive way to do it - especially when you factor in the cost of user licensing in other non-Mac server setups.
The Mac mini is an eminently capable little computer whose size belies its power and flexibility. If you've never gotten your hands on one, I encourage you to stop by an Apple Store or a Mac retailer and check it out - you might be pleasantly surprised.
I've given you a lot to chew on here but if you're still having trouble making up your mind about which Mac mini to buy, you might want to stop by our Mac mini discussion forum and take part in our terrific online community. You're also welcome to post questions and comments here.