Mac mini (late 2014) review

Mac mini (late 2014) review

From most outward appearances, Apple's newest Mac mini looks the same as its predecessor: It measures 7.7 inches on a side and is about 1.4 inches tall. Except for some changes to the backplane of the device, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. But it's quite) different under the hood.

The Mac mini fits into a unique niche in the Mac ecosystem. It's Apple's least-expensive Macintosh computer, hundreds less than the cheapest MacBook Air. It's a transitional device for some customers who are coming to the Macintosh for the first time. It's a handy all-around general purpose computer as suitable for office work as it is for surfing the web and answering email at home. It can be the heart of a home entertainment setup as a home theater PC, and even makes a serviceable little server for small businesses and enterprise workgroups.

I've spent the last week with Apple's $999 Mac mini model - equipped with a 2.8 GHz processor, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB Fusion Drive and Intel Iris graphics.

So, is the Mac mini worth buying?

  • Thorough modernizing improves value and performance in key areas for many mainstream customers.
  • No quad-core processor makes it less suitable for some applications; no upgradable RAM affects do it yourselfers and people looking to save money.
  • A worthy upgrade to Apple's entry level Mac model that won't please everyone, but should please many.

Mac mini (late 2014) review

Mac mini (late 2014) hardware

Almost the same on the outside

In 2013 the first Macs based around Intel's fourth-generation Core processor (the "Haswell" chip) began to appear, and many of us wondered when Apple would get around to refreshing the Mac mini. A year and a half later, the Haswell Mac mini is finally here, and with it comes a host of changes to the product line, even if the box looks mostly the same on the outside.

Mostly. One notable change on the back of the Mac mini is the absence of FireWire 800. In its place is a second Thunderbolt port. Actually, Thunderbolt 2. That's right, the tiny Mac mini now sports a faster high-speed peripheral interface than the iMac (save the new Retina 5K iMac model).

The Mac mini still comes equipped with an infrared port on the front: A handy feature for people who are using their Mac mini as a media server in the living room or entertainment center, and who want to use a wireless remote control like the one included with the Apple TV.

The Mac mini no longer has user-upgradable memory sockets — RAM is now soldered on the main logic board.

One other notable change is evident when you flip the Mac mini over: The bottom plate, which could be twisted to be removed, revealing accessible DIMM sockets for memory upgrades, is now fixed. The Mac mini no longer has user-upgradable memory sockets. RAM is now soldered on the main logic board.

According to Apple, few Mac mini owners ever open their computer to put in more RAM, so this change shouldn't be a huge issue for many potential customers interested in Apple's least expensive Mac model. But DIYers — especially those who feel that Apple charges too much for RAM — and IT pros have been especially vocal about the change.

RAM can affect the performance of your computer — more RAM enables you to have more applications and larger documents open in memory simultaneously, without having to worry about your Mac "paging out" virtual memory to disk, which can slow things way down. 8 GB, included on the mid-range and high-end models, is more than sufficient. And there's a 16 GB option for people who need it.

One way or the other, be careful when you're buying your Mac mini to make sure that it has enough RAM for your needs, because you're stuck with what you have.

Mac mini (late 2014) performance

Inside the Mac mini

Going from Intel's third-generation "Ivy Bridge" Core processor to a fourth generation "Haswell" processor isn't a huge overall CPU performance bump for the Mac mini, though there are certainly some performance and efficiency improvements worth noting.

The Mac mini is now the world's most efficient desktop computer, according Apple. It consumes a scant 6 watts at idle and 11 watts under load. If you're environmentally concerned, or just worried about your electric bill, that's probably a good tidbit to tuck away, especially if you're upgrading from an older and less efficient computer. And if you're planning on buying whole banks of these for use in some sort of enterprise or institutional setting, that's good news for your bottom line.

Along with the faster Thunderbolt 2 on the outside of the Mac mini, it now has faster Wi-Fi on the inside. It's been updated with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which runs up to three times faster than the 802.11n found on the 2012 model. Paired with a newer Apple AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule or a third-party 802.11ac router, you'll get a significant improvement in Wi-Fi performance if you go this route. Gigabit Ethernet remains an option for you if you prefer a hard-wired connection or need to use one for security reasons.

Bluetooth 4.0 (LE) comes standard. That means that the Mac mini fully supports Handoff with iPhones and iPads equipped with iOS 8.1 or later, so you can do things like read a web page on your iPad then go to your Mac mini and pick up right where you left off. So did the last Mac mini, but if you're upgrading from a more elderly Mac, you'll find that the Mac mini brings you up to date with everything that's going on with Macs these days.

Graphics remain integrated, rather than discrete. The low-end model uses Intel HD 5000 graphics, comparable to the MacBook Air, while the mid-range and high-end models get the Iris graphics that are included with the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

The new Mac mini is serviceably better than its predecessor, but you still have to temper your expectations with reality.

The Mac mini won't set anyone's heart ablaze as a game machine or 3D rendering workstation. This isn't the Retina iMac we're talking about, after all. It is serviceably better than its predecessor, but you still have to temper your expectations with reality. Read on for some performance benchmarks that should put my qualifiers in context.

If you want to eke as much performance as possible out of your Mac mini, options include a 3.0 GHz processor for another $200, upgrading RAM up to 16 GB (another $200) and going pure SSD ($800 for a 1 TB, with 256 and 512 GB options available for less). But at that point you're well into MacBook Pro and iMac territory, so compare your options to see where the best value is.

One thing you won't find on this year's Mac mini is a quad-core processor option. The quad-core processor was the standard issue for the server version of the 2012 model, but there is no server version anymore. OS X Server is still available if you'd like to purchase it separately for $19.99, and it'll work quite well, but Apple no longer sells a a Mac mini that comes with it pre-installed.

John Poole at Primate Labs, makers of the Geekbench benchmarking software app that we use as part of our performance testing here at iMore, recently blogged about the omission of the quad-core processor in this Mac mini refresh.

Poole says that Haswell processors are a bit different than their Ivy Bridge counterparts: the dual-core and quad-core processors use different sockets. That would require Apple to maintain two separate logic boards for each Mac mini model — something they didn't have to do in 2012.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that quad-core processors are no longer an option on the Mac mini. Applications that are thoroughly optimized for multithreading and ones that take advantage of Intel's hyperthreading capabilities may suffer in performance as a result, because there simply aren't as many processing cores in the high-end Mac mini model anymore. As in all things, your mileage may vary.

Enough bloviating. If you're a spec-monkey and you're concerned with how the Mac mini performs, here are the results. This is a 2.8 GHz Mac mini equipped with 8 GB RAM, 1 TB Fusion Drive and Iris graphics. In order, Geekbench, GFXbench, Cinebench and Spider.

Mac mini (late 2014) Cinebench benchmark

Fusion Drive is standard issue on the high-end Mac mini configuration, and a $200 or $250 option on the other models. Besides having enough RAM — 8 GB is enough for most users — I'd strongly consider upgrading to Fusion Drive if you want to experience optimal performance in whatever Mac mini configuration you buy.

Pure SSD is great if you can afford it, but as I said before, Fusion Drive is really the best of both worlds: The instant performance of a flash drive mated to the enormous capacity of a conventional hard drive mechanism.

Here's how the 1 TB Fusion Drive performs on Black Magic's disk speed test:

Mac mini (late 2014) connections and expansion

The Mac mini is the only Mac besides the Mac Pro to ship without a keyboard, monitor or mouse, so you're on the hook to provide all that yourself (or purchase it separately when you get your Mac mini). Many people buying the Mac mini end up recycling gear they're using with another computer, like an older Mac or a PC.

On the back of the Mac mini you'll find four USB 3 ports, HDMI 1.4, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, an SDXC card slot (useful for transferring photos and video from a digital camera), and 3.5 mm audio input and digital audio out.

The HDMI port will accommodate up a 4K TV, though you'll be limited to a maximum of 30 Hz refresh. That's suitable if you plan to use your Mac mini as a media server, but you'll probably want something faster if you're using it as a 4K desktop display.

Apple no longer includes an HDMI to DVI adapter in the box, so you're on the hook to get your own adapter to connect whatever display (or displays — the Mac mini can support two of them through Thunderbolt) you plan to use.

OS X Yosemite on the Mac mini (late 2014)

OS X 10.10 — Yosemite — introduces a new, modern look to Apple's Mac operating system. It favors flatter gradients but more vibrant translucency, condensed toolbars and more uniform icons, and a new system font in Helvetica Neue.

Yosemite also brings Continuity which lets it AirDrop and Tether with iOS, call and SMS relay to transit iPhone communications, and Handoff, so you can move from working on your Mac mini to your iPad to your iPhone and back from right where you left off.

There's also Extensibility to make plugins more modern, updates to Mail and Safari, and much more.

Mac mini (late 2014) pricing

Apple's used this refresh to realign the price of the Mac mini: It now starts at $499, back to the price it was originally when the Mac mini debuted in 2005. The mid-range model is also $100 cheaper, priced at $699 instead of $799, and there's still a high-end model for $999.

Apple's taken a page from its iMac playbook, introducing a stripped down entry-level system. That cheaper Mac mini uses a 1.4 GHz processor, Intel HD 5000 graphics, 4 GB RAM and a 500 GB hard disk drive — half the capacity, half the RAM and almost half the clock speed as other Mac mini models. It'll be well-suited for general users who have modest performance expectations from their Mac — checking e-mail, surfing the web, using the software included with the Mac. Many people using Mac minis as business computers will be just fine with this less-expensive configuration.

The mid-range model bumps up the processor to 2.6 GHz, with 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB hard drive included. Graphics get a bit of a boost, too, using the Iris integrated graphics design.

The high-end model gets a 2.8 GHz bump, also with 8 GB RAM, and a 1 TB Fusion Drive. The Fusion Drive combines 128 GB of flash storage with a 1 TB hard drive in one logical volume. It's the best of both worlds — the speed of a flash drive, the capacity of a regular hard drive. This is the model that I tested for the purposes of this review.

Mac mini (late 2014): The Bottom Line

The 2014 Mac mini is a solid upgrade for those coming from PCs or older Macs. If you're on a tight budget or if you've invested in a great keyboard, mouse and monitor that you're perfectly happy with, the Mac mini can help you get the most out of your money.

Apple's decision to make the Mac mini's memory non-upgradeable isn't sitting well with folks who have long appreciated the chance to save a few bucks by doing it themselves, and I have to acknowledge their point. The Mac mini has always been a budget-friendly computer, and we've taken for granted for the past few Mac mini design iterations that we can save even more cash by easily bumping up the RAM if we needed to.

I recognize Apple's too, however — this simply isn't a big deal for many of the people who buy Macs these days. But I do strongly recommend that you consider how much memory you'll need before you order your Mac mini.

In the hierarchy of the Macintosh, the Mac mini is easy to overlook. It doesn't have the sex appeal of the sleek iMac, the raw processing power of the Mac Pro or the sleek sophistication of the Retina MacBook Pro.

Those who give it short shrift are ultimately cheating themselves, however. The Mac mini is a fantastic workstation that's versatile, efficient and now better than ever thanks to an upgrade that's brought the system in line with in its counterparts, keeping what's great about the Mac mini already.

Starting at $499, the Mac mini is now the same price it was back in 2005, when it first debuted. But this new Mac mini is light years ahead of where it was nine years ago. If you're buying your first Mac, or just don't want to spend a lot of money, the Mac mini is definitely worth checking out.

Peter Cohen