New Mac mini (2018) Preview: What will it be and why?

Fake Concept Mockup Mini
Fake Concept Mockup Mini (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Apple is holding its Mac and iPad Event on October 30, 2018. I've already posted a full preview on that. There may or may not be a new iPad Pro at the event. I've already posted a few preview of that as well. There may or many not be a new MacBook Air at the event. I've, you guessed it, posted a full preview on that as well.

And, a few spec-bumps aside, that just leaves us with one more big update to cover: A new Mac mini.

The original switcher

The Mac mini was the original switcher machine. It was announced back in 2005 as a small, inexpensive way for you to swap out a Windows PC for a Mac. Bring your own mouse, keyboard, and display, and you were all good to go.

Back then, it had a PowerPC G4 processor and megabytes — yes, megabytes — of RAM.

Over the years, the Mac mini got its fair share of design and spec updates, culminating in 2012 with a quad-core Intel Ivy Bridge chipset, and up to 8 gigabytes of memory and 2 terabytes of storage.

That's because, over time, the Mac mini customer had changed. Switchers became switched, and Mac minis became the darling of developers, server rooms and centers, media centers and producers, and more.

Then, 2014 came around and, when Apple revved the Mac mini, it axed the quad-core version and 2TB option.

Then, in 2016… nothing. And, in 2017… still nothing.

In the last four years, Apple has released the new 12-inch MacBook, the new Touch Bar MacBook Pro, the new Retina 5K iMac, the new iMac Pro, and has even announced a new, non-thermally cornered new Mac Pro for 2019 along with a new Pro Display.

But the Mac mini… nothing and more nothing.

Until, maybe, now.

The new mini

Rumor has it we'll see a new one this year, this very fall, and if accurate, it will not only mark the return of the Mac mini, but of the Pro mini as well.

In April of 2017, Apple invited a very small group of media to Cupertino to talk about that new Mac Pro. While they wouldn't say anything specific about the mini, senior Vice President of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, said the following, via Daring Fireball

"The Mac Mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren't bringing it up because it's more of a mix of consumer with some pro use. … The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today."

Pike's Universum, the very next day:

The next Mac mini won't be so mini anymore. Well. The top model that is.

That was alongside a rumor about a Xeon iMac ahead of the iMac Pro announcement, so take it for what it's worth. More on the top model in a moment, too.

WWDC 2017 came and went with new MacBooks, MacBooks Pro, and iMacs, but not some much as a word about Mac mini.

Not until October of 2017 when Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, responded to an email saying, via MacRumors:

"I'm glad you love the Mac mini. We love it too. Our customers have found so many creative and interesting uses for Mac mini. While it is not time to share any details, we do plan for Mac mini to be an important part of our product line going forward."

Kuo Ming-Chi, back in July, also via MacRumors:

Kuo didn't have a lot of information to share on the Mac mini, but he says a processor upgrade is expected. The Mac mini has not been updated for more than 1,300 days, aka over 3 and a half years. It's not clear if additional upgrades will be included, such as a redesigned chassis, but at least some kind of refresh is on the horizon.

That processor should be Intel's 8th generation Coffee Lake. Intel did just announce 9th generation Coffee Lake Refresh chips — yet another optimization cycle place-holder as it still struggles to get its 10 nanometer Cannon Lake architecture to market… something that's taking what feels like as long as the Mac mini update to ship.

Intel announcing chips and Intel shipping the exact versions Apple needs for exact Macs are often two very, very different things. But given the 4-year gap between updates, any Coffee Lake is far, far, better than the Haswell architecture the minis been stuck with to date.

Mark Gurman, writing for Bloomberg back in August:

Apple is also planning the first upgrade to the Mac mini in about four years. It's a Mac desktop that doesn't include a screen, keyboard, or mouse in the box and costs $500. The computer has been favored because of its lower price, and it's popular with app developers, those running home media centers, and server farm managers. For this year's model, Apple is focusing primarily on these pro users, and new storage and processor options are likely to make it more expensive than previous versions, the people said.

Though Schiller had said consumers with some pro users, a focus on pros makes sense for several reasons.

Again, the original Mac mini customer doesn't really exist any more. New mainstream customers don't want old desktop boxes. They want notebooks. You know, with built in displays and trackpads. That's why MacBooks outsell Mac desktops to the extreme. And why iMacs outsell all other Mac desktops to the extreme.

But that does open the way for new customers. Including the aforementioned pros, who value small, headless Macs for all sorts of tasks at home and in the office.

It also fits in with Apple's new focus. As iOS and iPad continues to eat the mass market, Apple has been amping up the Mac for pros. That includes the new MacBooks Pro, iMac Pro, upcoming Mac Pro, and the new Pro team that brings audio, video, photography, and other hard-core, heavy duty, real-world producers and creators into the design process.

Mark Gurman writing for Bloomberg again, this time in September:

For the first time in more than four years, Apple is getting ready to update its Mac mini computer, a desktop that doesn't come with a screen, mouse, or keyboard. This time around it will focus on graphic designers and other professional users, who have been asking for new Macs that meet their more-demanding needs.

So. Many. Questions.

Aside from that it is coming, and that it will be focused more on pros — or pros will at least be a focus — not much else has been rumored about the new Mac mini.

  • Will it be a redesign or the same casing with new internals? If not, will the new design be more pro-friendly — for example, more easily rack mounted?
  • Will it have a T2-chip like the iMac Pro and latest MacBooks Pro, so it gets secure boot, hardware accelerated encryption, and all the latest controller architecture?
  • Will it have only USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 ports, like the MacBook Pro, legacy USB-A and Ethernet as well, like the iMac Pro, or will it keep more media-centric ports, like HDMI, like the Mac mini's we all know and love?
  • Will there finally be a new Apple Keyboard, for all desktop Macs, that includes Touch ID if not a full-on Touch Bar?
  • Will Intel's continued delays get Apple to switch at least this Mac to ARM? Wait, no, wrong column…
  • Will it come in Space Gray?
  • Will it get anywhere near the 32 GB and 4 TB options the new MacBooks Pro enjoy?
  • Will Apple still have a new Mac mini for those new to the Mac, or will that spot solely belong to the new MacBook Air?

So. Many. Questions.

And we'll have to wait for Apple's October Event to find out.

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Rene Ritchie

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.