Apple Silicon Mac mini could just be mightier... and mini-er
The Mac mini isn't as popular as any of the MacBooks or even the iMac. But it's beloved by every hobbiest and nerd and newcomer and cross-compiler — by anyone who wants anything from the cheapest Mac to just the last Mac server standing.
The really big question for the mightiest of mini Macs is this, though: Just how much mightier, how much mini-er, could Apple Silicon really make it?
When he introduced the very first model back in October of Twenty-Ought-5, Steve Jobs said everyone understood the iPod mini, so everyone should understand this as well — the Mac mini. (The iPod mini is what we had before the iPod nano which is… Wait, the iPod is what we had before the iPho— you know what, just, never mind!)
It was a tiny by back-then-standards extruded round-rect of a box, plastic on top, aluminium around the sides, with a front-mounted, slot-loading combo-drive of a DVD player and CD burner. (The DVD and CD is what we had before BluRay and streaming and… fine, whatever, wikipedia it.)
Over the years, it lost that drive and lost that plastic top. Now it has a sleeker, space-grayer, recycled full-on aluminium unibody. But it never lost that overall design. It even lent it to the Apple TV, the original being a shorter, broader version of the same, before it went even teeny-tinier, unabashedly black plastic.
I'd be tempted to call the design iconic if it wasn't just so basic. But not in a bad way. Maybe even the best way. It's job — from Jobs — was never to stand out. Just the opposite — it was simply to sit and fit right in.
That didn't change when it transition to from PowerPC to Intel the very next year, and I don't imagine it'll change when it transitions from Intel to Apple Silicon next… month, year, whenever it's scheduled to hit.
But I do think Apple silicon will allow for some level of change. Evolution maybe. And that could go in either of two directions.
First direction, the current, unibody design could stay about the same. I mean, this is like the only Mac not rumored to be getting an iPad Pro-style makeover, anyway. But there are certainly some details and trim Apple's industrial design team could play with.
Anyway, if it stays roughly the same, that opens up some space inside, and I'll go over just what exactly that could mean in a hot thermal minute.
Second direction, is to get rid of that space by shrinking the Mac mini down. Maybe not to Apple TV squared-hockey-puck-circle size, but more mini. Nano even.
That would let it just sit and fit, mount and hang, in even more places and spaces. Basically, massive Apple Silicon power, itty bitty living box.
And, yeah, hell yeah, I'm once again really tempted to ask, por qué no los dos?
I know what you're thinking: The Mac mini doesn't have a display. That's the whole point of the Mac mini. BYODKM. The D literally stands for display. But, I'm talking about an Apple designed and manufactured non-Pro, non-XDR display that you can bring to your own new Mac mini. One that may not have reference modes but also isn't 6K for 6K. More like 1K for 5K. Pretty much what Apple's last few non-Pro displays have been — the latest iMac panel, all packaged up for people who still want an Apple display.
Yes, sure, it's the same panel you'd get in an LG Ultra-Fine, which has been what Apple's abdicated to for the last few years. Only this would be driven by Apple's display team, which is way better, and Apple's Industrial Design team, which is astronomically better.
And before you persist in rage commenting on that, just look at the issues the LG's had with everything from Wi-Fi interference to ghosting, which sure they've fixed, and that decidedly not-candy plastic shell, which they haven't and is, still, I don't know, whatever's the opposite of extra.
But I'm a big believer in the horn effect. Where having one Apple product like the iPhone leads you to buy more Apple products like the iPad or Mac. And, vice versa, having non-Apple products like a display leads you to buying more non-Apple products, like… an Intel NUC.
So, I would just love, all-caps love, for them to announce a new Apple Display EDR as well, and sure, nano-texture for $500 extra. Why not?
But let me know what you think in the comments.
Real talk. Apple doesn't have the best track record when it comes to updating the Mac mini internals. They have just about the worst. The Mac mini uses mobile parts, like a laptop, rather than desktop parts, like a… desktop… not because it's mobile but because it's mini and operates under similar thermal constraints.
But not only did it lie Shrodinger-style fallow for years — like almost half a decade — before finally getting its big update in October of 2018… it hasn't gotten much of any update since then.
Now, sure, you could argue the 8th generation Intel processors Apple's kept in there haven't exactly been blown out of the water by the 10th generation Intel processors now on the shelves, and that just adding the extra cores Intel's been welding on as a work-around would just add power-draw, heat, and a hundred bucks or more to the already non-mini priced box. And yes. Sure. Granted.
It's one of oh-so-many reasons why Apple is making the switch from Intel to their own, custom silicon.
The current developer test kit has an iPad Pro A12Z in it. And while that's cased up to look like a Mac mini, it's not a real machine ever meant to see a real customer.
So, my biggest hope with Apple Silicon is that we start getting Mac mini updates every 12-18 months, just like iPad Pro updates. Whatever the next-generation equivalent to the AX-Series for iPads is, put it in the Mac version of that. 14X, 15X, 16, and on.
Other than that, I expect we'll see the same type of improvements from Apple Silicon in the Mac mini they we'd see from Apple Silicon in the MacBook Air — way better performance, especially for graphics, and especially especially for anything and everything Apple includes custom accelerators for, like 4K and above video rendering, H.265 encode and decode, hypervisor acceleration for virtual machines, and a few other things to make developers and power users alike just smile just a little or a lot wider.
Of course, Apple Silicon SoC may mean only Apple integrated GPU cores from now on. And maybe a lot of them. But, I'd love to see something like what Apple's doing for the new, modular Mac Pro. Whether that's GPU expanders or even something like Afterburner — a reprogrammable ASIC to accelerate video rendering or other, higher-demand tasks. Basically, let it turn your Mac mini into a Final Cut mini or Logic mini or Maya mini or whatever.
The biggest question I have going into an Apple Silicon Mac mini — just how extensible will it be? In other words, will we be able to change the SSD, the RAM?
The current Mac mini has already locked down the SSD. It's fused with the T2 security chip for realtime encryption so you're basically stuck with whatever internal capacity you buy, and whatever external storage you choose to hang off the back.
The RAM story is only slightly better. You can get the memory changed but it's not easy. So, unless you have Kyle Wiens style home repair skills, you need to take the box to an Apple Store or Apple Authorized Repair place just to get the RAM swapped.
With Apple Silicon, that story may stay the same, maybe even get worse. That's because Apple Silicon will be a system-on-a-chip. Which means the RAM isn't in separate modules, isn't even chips soldered to the board, it's often on the same chip as the CPU and GPU. Not always, but often.
That's what allows for universal memory, or the CPU and GPU sharing the RAM.
It's possible Apple could keep some RAM universal and break out some other RAM, probably as CPU only, but that would get really ugly really fast.
If I were writing fanfic, I'd theorize about some special, modular system, fast enough to use for RAM, that Apple would make so you could pop different expansion modules in or out. But that makes more sense with a Mac Pro or even mythical mini tower budget, which probably isn't what we're getting with the existing mini box.
A nerd can dream, though.
What could be more likely is what we started seeing already with the 2018 Mac mini: Stacks. Essentially, you treat each one as a compute unit and then cluster together as many as you want or need. Twice the cores, twice the memory, twice the Mac minis. Same for three, five, ten… until you hit MacStadium.
You know, like LEGOs. That may not be practical for everyone but may work really well for the people with massively scalable workloads.
The current Mac mini has a T2 chip, which handles all the encryption, component controllers, and accelerators. It's basically a variant of the A11 from the iPhone 7. And that'll just get folded into whatever new Apple Silicon chip the new Apple Silicon Mac mini gets. Like an A14X variant. Not a problem.
But, see, the MacBooks use T2 and will use whatever-14X for Touch ID as well. It has the secure element that matches the math derived from your fingerprint and releases the authentication token to the system. That's how it works.
But unlike the MacBooks, which put the capacitve Touch ID fingerprint scanner in to power button on the keyboard… the Mac mini doesn't have a keyboard to put it into.
Now, Apple could make a Magic Keyboard for the Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro that builds in the Touch ID sensor, but they'd probably want to keep the secure hardware channel for the authentication, so that means putting at least a T1 chip in the keyboard as well. T1 being a variant of the S2 chip from the Apple Watch 2, which has a similar secure element from authentication handling. It's what the 2016 MacBook Pro used before the T2.
But that would add whatever the cost of the T1 chip and fingerprint scanner are, at the very least, to the cost of the keyboard. More if, for whatever reason, you want a Touch Bar might-as-well-be thrown in there as well.
The easier-to-imagine workaround for the iMac is using Face ID with a TrueDepth camera where the FaceTime camera is now, right above the display.
But, say it with me now, the Mac mini doesn't have a built-in display. And with a separate display or webcam, you get the same problem as the keyboard. So, yeah, no.
Now, Apple could put a Touch ID sensor on the body of the Mac mini itself, even though the power button is nowhere nearly as conveniently located as it is on a MacBook. And, of course, the Mac mini may not be anywhere nearly as conveniently located either — across the desk, across the room, across the house, across the data-center… you get what I'm saying.
So, my guess is Apple could just double-down on remote authentication. If you have an Apple Watch with its built in S-chip or iPhone with it's built-in A-chip, on the same Apple ID, in close proximity, you can just double click or Touch ID or Face ID on that, and it'll unlock and authorize the Mac.
It keeps the mini, mini.
Apple's been avoiding WiFi 6 on the Mac line, which is all shades of odd given how fast they've shoved it into the iPhone and iPad. Now, there have been issues with WiFi 6, so it's possible Apple's been waiting on their own custom silicon before bringing it to the Mac. So, hopefully, this gives us that.
Now, fanfic me very much wants to wonder out loud if there'd be a way for Apple to not only bundle Apple TV functionality into the Mac mini for the ultimate in Home Theater experiences, but to bundle in AirPort Extreme functionality as well, for the ultimate in home router privacy protection. Also manages HomeKit, iCloud, staging updates across the home network.
But that would probably be better left to an actual new AirPort mesh system and a future video. Hit that like button if you want it.
I really like the current Mac mini port compliment and layout. You've got your ethernet, 4x USB-C / Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, USB A, and 3.5mm headphone.
Pretty much what I asked for in my Apple Silicon iMac video last week, just with HDMI instead of SDXC. And given the Mac mini doesn't have to be located anywhere near where you're actually working, I think that's a fair trade.
The USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 should be upgraded to USB4 and Thunderbolt 4, of course, and let you drive just all the displays, but otherwise, it's set.
When it was first introduced, this Mac's price was as mini as its size — $499 for the base config. The current model starts at a much pricier $799.
Even including Apple's usual margins, the reason for that is simple: It's using more expensive components.
And… I don't really expect that to change with the Apple Silicon. I mean, it's not like Apple was paying a small fortune for Intel's 10th generation silicon. It was still 8th gen and the costs were distributed throughout the system
I also think the first generation of Apple Silicon will be used to pay down Apple Silicon.
But, even if it takes a generation, I think it'd be great if Apple could use the transition drive back to that $499 base config price.
And if they could double down and use the current iPad strategy, where the 10.2-inch model gets better and better each year, with a price that's gotten much better over the years. Even the iPhone SE strategy where every few years we get a new, entry-level iPhone.
That way, we could eventually see something like Mac mini SE at $300 or $350. Basically an Apple TV with better SoC, more ports, and more RAM.
But let me know what you think!
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
Thanks Rene. I'm currently using a 2018 Mac Mini for work and it's a great device. Also using three 27" displays.
For a lot of families who only occasionally need something more "computer-like" than an iPad or smartphone, a great home-computer solution could even just be the existing AppleTV if Apple would just give it Safari. Pair a Magic Keyboard and Trackpad with the device, and you have a pretty capable living room computer for handling webapps.
Yes, Nano enclosure please. And put Apple Silicon on sticks (mac/tv/airport/storage) so we can upgrade.
“It's basically a variant of the A11 from the iPhone 7” Actually, the iPhone 7 had an A10 Fusion chip, and the iPhone 8 and iPhone X had an A11 Bionic chip.
It doesn't need to be smaller. Just burlier (i.e. lotsa CPU, lotsa disk, lotsa RAM, lotsa ports). Probably should have Intel Iris graphics, so it's not quite as limited as the current one, but with Thunderbolt ports for external graphics cards for gamers or video pros or whatever, as a low cost alternative to the Mac Pro. I don't understand why we would want it to compete with the Intel NUC - as per the commenter below, just add Safari to the Apple TV for that.