Mac mini: Which entry-level options should you get?

Mac mini
Mac mini

At $499, the Mac mini is the entry-level Mac computer. It's $400 less than the next least expensive system, the MacBook Air. It's 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.

Comparing Mac mini models

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.

Mac mini comparison

All Mac minis also come equipped with the same external features: Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, four USB 3 ports, audio in and audio out jacks and an SDXC card slot, all on the device's back side.

For $499, you get a 1.4 GHz dual-core Intel i5 processor, 4 GB RAM and a 500 GB 5400 RPM hard disk drive. Intel HD Graphics 5000 comes standard.

Apple offers two other standard configurations for the Mac mini. The first, priced at $699, upgrades the Mac mini to 2.6 GHz with 8 GB RAM and 1 TB hard disk drive. The second, priced at $999, bumps the processor to 2.8 GHz and adds a 1 TB Fusion Drive to the mix - a combination of a 128 GB flash drive paired to a 1 TB hard disk drive, to create a fast, big logical volume that combines the best of both worlds.

The latest update to the Mac mini puts it on a level playing field with other newer Mac models: It has 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking, up to three times faster than the older, slower 802.11n standard found on older machines. 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 Yosemite and all the requisite general-purpose software like Mail, Safari, various and sundry apps and utilities, as well as Apple's iLife suite, iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband, and iWork: 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.

Apple's gateway drug: Mac mini BYODKM (Bring Your Own Display, Keyboard, and Mouse)

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.

Faster processors, better graphics, more memory

Mac mini processor and RAM options

All Mac minis now use Intel's fourth-generation Core i5 dual-core processor, but the clock speeds are different: the $499 version runs at 1.4 GHz, the $699 version runs at 2.6 GHz and the $999 model runs at 2.8 GHz.

Obviously the faster the processor, the faster the Mac is going to work, but that's not the only difference between the machines. The low-end Mac mini also sports Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, while the mid-range and high-end models sport the peppier Intel Iris integrated graphics. No Mac mini is a powerful gaming rig or a spectacular system for graphics processing, but they do have the respective processing and graphics power of the MacBook Air (on the $499 model) and 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (for the mid-range and high-end system).

Another key difference between the systems is their on-board memory. Apple will let you configure the Mac mini with up to 16 GB of RAM, but for $499, you get 4 GB. The two higher-end systems come with 8 GB.

Unlike past Mac minis, the 2014 model does not have upgradable memory — it's soldered to the motherboard, and what you get out of the box is what you're stuck with for the life of the Mac. So order accordingly. For general use, 4 GB is adequate, but if you can afford more, more memory will enable you to have more applications and larger files open without slowing the Mac down as much.

What's the right balance for Mac mini storage?

Mac mini storage options

For $499, you get a Mac mini equipped with a 500 GB hard drive. The $699 mid-range model doubles that to 1 TB. The $999 model also comes with a 1 TB drive, but it's a Fusion Drive, mixing both SSD and conventional hard drive storage together, so it's markedly faster than either of the other models. You can add a Fusion Drive to the other models, too, though it'll cost you extra.

If you prefer, the 2.6 GHz and 2.8 GHz models can be instead configured with pure SSD storage. That'll cost a lot more, depending on capacity, but it's also the fastest way to go.

One change for the 2014 model year is that flash storage — both for Fusion Drives and for pure SSD configurations — is PCI Express (PCIe)-based. PCIe is a lot faster than the SATA bus used by hard drives, so there's an increase in performance. The increase isn't just in read and write times for loading files or applications — you'll see faster boot performance, and less lag if the Mac has to write out data to swap files.

SSDs are very expensive per gigabyte. Hard drives are much less so. Fusion Drives give you the best of both world.s The 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.

More than just a desktop: OS X Server vs. media server

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 worked great as a server.

In 2014 Apple excised from its standard price list a Mac mini configured as a server. The server software is still available — you can download it for $19.99 (opens in new tab) from the Mac App Store.

But the new Mac mini isn't available in the same server-ready configuration as its 2012-era forebear was. That machine came equipped with a four-core Intel processor; its mulithreading capabilities made it a good choice for many parallel-processing server functions. The new Mac mini isn't available with a four-core processor anymore.

That server configuration also included two 1 TB internal hard disk drives; the drives could be striped or mirrored as a RAID system. Apple says that's no longer necessary now that the Mac mini supports Thunderbolt 2. And in fairness, there are a few really good Thunderbolt 2-based RAID systems that are ideal for servers.

Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it'll be a little bit before we know just how good the new Mac mini is as a workgroup server.

As a media server, some interesting things have happened in 2014. For one, the mid-range and high-end Mac minis get better graphics support than before: Intel Iris graphics are now standard issue. The Mac mini remains a system with an integrated graphics processor. But Iris graphics are certainly faster than the integrated graphics in the previous model.

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.

What's more, the 2014 Mac mini supports, for the first time, 4K video output through HDMI. The 4K video is limited to 24 Hz or 30 Hz, depending on what 4K resolution you choose. That's not fast enough for gaming and isn't even optimal for daily use on the desktop, but if you're using your Mac mini as a media playback system for 4K video, it's fine.

Now, you'll probably want to install an additional third-party app to add some media center-style capabilities. There are a few good ones out there, like Plex, MediaCentral, and XMBC.

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.

Who shouldn't buy the Mac mini?

The Mac mini will never be mistaken for a performance Macintosh. It's designed to be an inexpensive model that balances a low price with the convenience and elegance of a Mac. I'd 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.

Who should buy the Mac mini?

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'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.

Still undecided?

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.

Peter Cohen
  • Double post? Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • If you look on Ebay, Amazon, or any Apple retailer like Macmall you can find older Apple displays, like the Cinema for reasable price. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Or get the 27" IPS from MonoPrice. $460, last I checked. Same panel from what I've read. Not the same backlight or connections, but damn good display for the $. I get 2560x1440@60Hz via miniDisplayPort to DisplayPort cable. Sent from the iMore App
  • Now that the RAM is permanently soldered to the board, I'd recommend everyone to avoid the new mini like the plague. If you absolutely have to get one, opt for the $699 and avoid the Apple RAM upgrade gouging. Better yet is to just build your own Hackintosh. Sent from the iMore App
  • You, I & fellow nerds hate the idea of soldered RAM, but the target audience for this "entry-level Mac" doesn't care, and will likely never need 16Gb. I work with AutoCAD on my PC with 16Gb, I barely ever go over 5 used. Only when I open a 500Mb Revit model do I use more than 10Gb. Entry level users will almost never use that much RAM. To be honest, I only need a Mac mini for iPhoto & iTunes, neither NEED more than 8. I rarely use iMovie. (I have premiere CS6? On that PC). We naturally want more for less, but we rarely need it. If you truly need it, pony up for the iMac or Mac Pro, or dare the Hackintosh... I am considering it. Sent from the iMore App
  • I disagree. soldered ram means expensive repairs or buying a whole new computer for a bad piece that costs under $50. The lay person cares about that.
  • Only time I ever ended up with damaged RAM (in a Windows PC) was when I overclocked the %!#& out of it. Overclocking not a factor with Macs.
  • Yeah, soldered RAM sure has hurt MacBook Air sales. Wait what?
  • I actually do think the soldered RAM will hurt this units potential sales because it will offend one significant portion of the target audience. I know a lot of long time PC users who've been interesting in trying Mac and who otherwise would have bitten on the $499 Mini. Change is hard enough for these folks, but many are interested in trying if the terms are right. Getting under $500...I had their attention! Ready to set the hook -- re-use your old monitor, keyboard, mouse....WAIT! They don't mind going with 4GB to start, but they want the ability to upgrade if they get hooked on the machine. They don't understand Mac pricing and limited expandability. Apple almost had this group with the sub $500 price, but Apple let them go with the soldered RAM. Damn shame, this was a great opportunity to add to the Mac user base and it has been squandered for a very small detail.
  • I just bought the 2012 model with an i5 2.5 Ghz from B&H for $499. It's going to run as a server and I can upgrade the memory if and when I need to Sent from the iMore App
  • How many audio channels output has a mac mini ?? may I reproduce bluray movies with True HD sound ??
  • I don't think this audio output jack is the hybrid analog/optical. Unfortunate. HDMI is another story. In my experience, iTunes doesn't like to decode AC3, I used to be able to get it to work with Perian, on my old Mac Pro via toslink, but I haven't tried with my 2010 mini via HDMI. Unless Yosemite changed something, you also won't get more than 2-channels from system sounds, which means games as well. Unless the game can "take-over" the audio channel of the HDMI, and provide its own 5.1 PCM or Dolby mix, you're likely going to have to suffer stereo. -Dolby Digital = license = money. Sent from the iMore App
  • I wish this had an optical out connection. Would make it so much more accessible as an HTPC.
  • Can anyone make an argument to justify the $200/300 for i7 upgrade? Just wondering where it would be needed. Main uses for me will be iTunes hosting (HomeSharing & iPhoto. Occasional Safari, iMovie. Sent from the iMore App
  • Grammar quibble -- of course it is Apple's *least capable* Mac, unless you have some other machine in mind. That doesn't mean it is a bad machine -- we are moving our front office computers off low-end Wintel PCs to minis -- just that it is less capable than an iMac or a Mac Pro. Sheesh, it is no shame to imply that some Apple products are in fact higher end than others.
  • Is the Fusion Drive a single drive? Like the Seagate 2.5 Hybrid. Or is it a 128Gb SSD on the PCI-E *AND* a 1Tb HDD on the SATA connection? Sent from the iMore App
  • It is the latter. The SSD is likely a blade on PCI-e and the 1TB is likely a 5400rpm on SATA.
  • Thanks! Sent from the iMore App
  • Sigh... I'm sticking with my 2011 model with 16gb ram and SSD. I use it to run VMWare Fusion and to do development work. I run Mac Office 2011 as well. If you're in the market, get at 2012 or 2011 model online and upgrade it yourself to save you a few bucks if you need more than what that base model offers. This will be my last Mac Mini. I'll probably move to the Macbook Pro at this point. It costs more for the config that I want, but I also gain portability in the process. Sigh... That soldered RAM is a non-starter for me to upgrade to it.
  • One other thing about the Mac mini is that if you want to use certain features like FaceTime, you will also need a Mac compatible webcam. So it might be BYODKMW.
  • Don't forget speakers. Sent from the iMore App
  • That is true. The built-in speaker is only good for basic system prompts.
  • I have myself connected a standard model Logitech webcam to a 2012 Mac mini. I didn't even check compatibility. I think it was a XP/Vista era webcam. In the settings, the webcam was just listed as "USB Camera". Same Mac mini also worked automatically with a Logitech proprietary non-bluetooth receiver dongle for a Logitech wireless keyboard. And Mac mini has an internal speaker.
  • Many webcams sold in the last few years are UVC compliant, which means they will work with Macs without any other drivers. I have plenty of webcams (including expensive Logitech and Creative models) that are not UVC compliant, nor do they have Mac drivers.
  • Weak sauce and overpriced for a low end- entry model that isn't crippled Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't do video processing, audio processing, graphics processing, or gaming. I do the Web, Netflix, and standard office applications. I also want to store my 1500 CD digital library locally and feed it to an Apple TV. That said, what are your thoughts on which model/upgrades I should get? The $499 or $699 model? Are the processor or RAM upgrades worth it for me?
  • Sounds like any Mac mini will get the job done for you. Ripping audio from CD is going to be faster on a mid-range or higher-end model, but any will do.
  • I was planning to move to Mac after years on PC. Was aiming the i7 Quad Core. The news of new Minis coming out put my purchase on hold. The new line-up seems less powerful and am a bit confused. Music, photo edit on PSE, LR4 and Fuji RAW File converter, may be bit of home video trimming and such stuff, emergency office work and maintain my personal accounts, study aid for my kid. That's what I expect to do. My 7 yr old PC with a 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo struggles a lot. Have only 6GB RAM. With a 16GB RAM would the i5 2.8GHz will I have the same struggle or should I go for i7 3GHz?
  • With a 16GB RAM would the i5 2.8GHz will I have the same struggle or should I go for i7 3GHz?
    Honestly, at that point, you're in iMac territory. I'd consider a 21.5 inch iMac upgraded to 16 GB RAM. Better bang for the buck (quad-core processor, beautiful built-in display).
  • Thanks Peter for the reply. I leant towards Mac Mini as I already have a full HD IPS 24" display, a $100 KB + Mouse and an additional Apple KB that I got for iPad. All these are only 2-3 yrs old. I cannot sell off used electronics in UAE. No resale value for them. With a iMac these would become redundant. The current PC will go to a school run by my colleague in Pakistan.
  • Compared the highest mini Mac with lowest of iMac but both with 1TB FD and 16 GB RAM. Added a Magic Mouse to complement the Apple Wireless KB I have to go along with Mac Mini. I save about $300 and save the monitor and Apple KB from going to the dump. Would iMac still have any big advantage over Mac Mini for my applications? I just noted that previous Mac Mini had extended 3 yrs warranty for $160 and now it is only $100!!
  • Hi,
    Does the Fusion Drive connect to the Logic Board with the same connection as a PCIE Flash Storage? (I don't fully understand SATA vs PCIE or PCIE Flash Storage vs SSD?)
    Anyway, I guess my question is:
    Does it matter what type of storage I originally choose (Fusion or PCIE Flash Storage) when I buy a 2014 Mac Mini if my goal is to later on replace the Fusion Drive with a 1TB SSD/PCIE?
    (I'm not talking about dual drive here, I just want to later on replace the 1TB Fusion Drive with 1TB of non spinning storage)
  • Based on what I've read so far, replacing the hard drive on the new Mac mini is non-trivial: It basically requires a complete motherboard disassembly to manage. So I wouldn't buy any Mac mini with the expectation of cracking it open to replace storage. Having said that, "Fusion Drive" is a logical device grouping: It combines PCIe flash storage with SATA hard disk storage. So the flash drive and the hard drive use two different interfaces to connect to the main logic board. It's entirely possible that a third party may come out with a PCIe-based SSD upgrade for Macs like the Mac mini in the future. But since Apple switched to PCIe flash with the Haswell MacBook Air in 2013, no vendor has come forth with a compatible upgrade yet (some have said they're working on them, but still nothing). So at this point if you do replace go the SSD route, you'll likely be replacing the HD with a SATA-based Flash drive, which will yield slower performance than PCIe (still way faster than a hard drive, tho).
  • I would be getting the 3.0GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7 with 16GB of RAM and 1TB Fusion Drive.
    I'm trying to get get the most longevity out of it but by only putting money now where I have to (ie processor and memory since I can't change them later) So in a year or two, when or if it becomes available, I could take out the whole Fusion Drive and install something like a 1TB PCIe SSD (or SATA if that's the only option then) and give my Mini a boost performance so it can last me long time. Is this scenario possible?
    I just want to make sure that the logic board is the same if I choose the Fusion Drive instead of PCIe? If so then l'm sure that later on I can switch the whole fusion drive by PCIe only. Thanks! Thanks!
  • I am about to go to my local applestore and pick up my custom Mini. Mid-range model 2.6 GHz with 16GB RAM and the Fusion drive. I cancelled the order twice, once just with the RAM and once with just the Fusion drive. I figure I want this computer to last five years, to get my 8th grader through high school. I can always upgrade the spinner part of the Fusion to SSD when prices drop significantly over the next few years. This replaces my son using my 2007 17-inch MBP for minecraft and the 2002 15-inch PowerBookG4 for homework. Yes, I really drive my machines into the ground. He'll probably try out minecraft tomorrow evening - it will be interesting to see if the on-chip IRIS graphics can beat the 256MB VRAM on the NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT from 8 years ago. I'm sure I'll hear about it if the mini can't out perform that.
  • I think your config should be great. No matter the RAM or processor, any Macs with only a spinning hard drive "feel" much slower when launching applications.
    Given a budget constraint and a choice between a faster processor or a flash drive (Fusion or full SSD), unless your work load is primarily video or audio encoding, or server needs, I would almost always choose the flash. As an example, go into an Apple store and try out the new base model Mac mini and compare it to a base model Macbook Air, Both are similarly configured as far as processor and RAM, except one has a 5400rpm HD and the other PCI-e flash storage. It is no contest.
  • Well my son says he can max out everything in minecraft and it runs smooth. He is happy. Video ram reads that it is using 1536 mb of ram. Dramatic improvement over 2007 17-inch MBP, FWIW.
  • I think that Apple has made a pretty reasonable design decision. Computer users/buyers have evolved over the years. In most cases, people who are all good with 4GB RAM know who they are and those who need or may need 8GB or more definitely know who they are.
  • If you look on Ebay, Amazon, or any Apple retailer like Macmall you can find older Apple displays, like the Cinema for reasable price. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Peter...question for you. I have our immense stack of DVDs all ripped and stored on a external drive attached to my iMac. I share this to the big TVs in the house via AppleTV with iTunes home sharing. The iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches all watch via this method too. What am I missing with this method vs. aMac mini and/or plex?
  • So what will it cost to equip a mac mini with thunderbolt 2 raid dual drive.
    We know the 2012 costs from $999
    Thunderbolt drives are hilarious expensive so the inexpensive workgruop server has just got into an uninteresting price range. Does Apple have an inexpensive workgroup server anymore. I my view no they have not.
  • Peter, if you upgrade the ram and CPU on the mid and top level Mini's there is a $200 difference between them. I don't see any other changes, do you know what justifies the extra money?