Which Mac mini works best as a media server?

The Mac mini is versatile enough to use as a home media server or small business workgroup server — you just want to make sure you're getting the right Mac mini for the task. Aim too low, and you might not get the higher performance you need. Aim too high, and you may be spending more money than you need to spend.

L.C.B. asks:

"Is the Mac mini with 1 TB hard drive and 4 GB of RAM a viable option for a care home to use as a streaming server?"

L.C.B. explained that their goal is to be able to stream three to five videos simultaneously to their patients via Apple TVs connected on their Wi-Fi network. I do think this is within reach of the Mac mini, but not the low-end model.

Apple introduced a new $499 price point with the most recent refresh to the Mac mini — a price point not seen since the mini's original 2005 release. This new model comes equipped with a 1.4 GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive.

I've been using this machine since last October to serve up media and files on my home network, and it gets the job done. It's a versatile machine that's good for general use, but it's really not a heavy-duty system. It requires a fair degree of patience and limited expectations. In my home, we're not trying to stream lots of simultaneous content.

The mid-range model, priced at $699, sports a considerably faster 2.6 GHz processor, twice the RAM (8 GB), and a 1 TB hard disk drive. It also has faster graphics. But if you really want to use it as a high-powered server, I'd recommend the even faster system. $999 gets you a 2.8 GHz processor, 8 GB RAM, and a 1 TB Fusion drive — Apple's name for a hard drive paired with a 128 GB SSD — providing a nice balance of speed and storage capacity.

Unfortunately, with the 2014 refresh, Apple made a crucial change to the Mac mini: High-end models are no longer available with quad-core processors, which are better at handling multiple-threaded applications and multiple media streams than dual-core processors. That makes the current model a little less suited for server use than its predecessor — especially in environments where multiple users will be demanding the server's attention, as in L.C.B's case.

Of course, technically any Mac mini can act as a server. Practically, I'd restrict server use to only the high-end Mac mini model.

16 Comments
  • So, despite being $300 more expensive, you'd recommend opting for the 2.8 GHz model, with 1TB Fusion drive (with respect to the needs listed)? That's been my debate, also. I'm just at home, but I stream to up to 3 devices, at once (as well as Plex to a fourth, every now and again). But $300 is a substantial difference, at the Mac Mini's price points.
  • With respect to the needs listed, I think the higher end model is the best choice. Fusion makes a big difference in performance.
  • I would think the biggest variable in a media server would be storage, not CPU horsepower or streaming limits. How often do you really need to stream 3 HD movies to 3 different end units in your own house? In regards storage, IMO any machine with a 1TB hard drive is simply not suitable for a media server. My library is not that big but it's easily over 1.5TBs. Every movie you buy from iTunes is multiple GBs. TV seasons can be in the 10-13GB range. I realise this next part is an irrelevant comment considering we are talking about rolling your own server and not using iTunes, but a multi-TB drive connected to your Mac by Thunderbolt and used as an iTunes library, would stream much faster, be more reliable, and is literally hundreds and hundreds of dollars cheaper than using a Mac mini. The downside being of course that you have to put everything in your iTunes library and keep it all tidy etc.
  • I run a plex media server and share it with many people. So at times my hackintosh runs 16 streams at once but I have a dual quad core server. But i have about 12tbs of space in a array. But im running 10.8 it still works and yea im too lazy to upgrade it :)
  • In the particular case this was in response to, streaming multiple HD streams to different units on the same network is exactly what's expected. So yeah, CPU matters.
  • Peter,
    Could you explain how you think that streaming data over ethernet or Wi-Fi is a CPU or memory intensive process? The network will always be a bottleneck. Even the slowest modern SATA platter drive can serve up 1Gbps sequential reads all day long, and they can easily handle 3 reads simultaneously (especially with caching). Since network cards use DMA transfers, there should be little CPU overhead. Fusion drive will also be rather worthless for large video libraries, since the flash cache is only 128GB. Most MPEG-4 encoded video files are streaming at a bitrate FAR below 1Gbps (the most generously encoded 1080p stream I've seen tops out at around 10Mbps), and MPEG-2 will top out at 19.2Mbps for a broadcast 1080i/720p stream. If you assume the person utilizing this setup will stream 3 broadcast MPEG-2 files, that still only tops out at roughly 60Mbps. I'm running a Plex server off an old Athlon-II based system with a large platter software RAID-5 disk array and my CPUs never go above 10% under stress-testing. No way will this person need such an expensive system.
  • While an old question, I'll reply because I'm redirecting people to this thread and this comment confuses them thinking they're in the same situation. Using Plex your Plex Server will transcode every time a client can't support a file (format, encoder, etc.). So if in Plex your files are mostly MKVs or AVIs and your clients are iOS or Chromecast then files served will often be transcoded. Also, having external subtitles always forces transcoding for iOS or Chromecast players (*always*). If your clients support lots of codecs (for example, the Plex client for Samsung Smart TVs, Rasplex or using a PC/Mac as client) then this is not an issue, but everything that requires transcoding is a huge hit on CPU performance (each 720p stream transcoding requires 1500 passmark from your CPU, a 1080p transcode up to 2000 passmark).
  • Just grab an Xbox one or ps4. They both do great jobs, have easily expandable hd, and can play decent games as well. They are also cheaper. Sent from the iMore App
  • First of all, thanks to Peter for answering my question (I was not really expecting an article out of it, though... ;-) ).
    Personally, I don't know if quad core would make much difference in this case, as the only thing this machine will be doing is streaming video to Apple TV's (I had thought of using some other devices, but there are very few tech savvy people in this care home, so the simpler the interface/remote, the better). It will not all be purchased content either; there will be some staff generated content as well (much smaller projects). Hard drive storage of course can be expanded via USB drives later. My may concern was that, having 3-5 streams going at once would be too much bandwidth (and seek times) on a physical drive only, thus my thinking of a Fusion drive (128 GB SSD built into this should cover even 5 HD movies, completely on the SSD, and read only). How OS X/iTunes buffers the stream in RAM is why I was thinking 8 GB RAM might help a lot more than 4 GB. Game playing is not something that would often (if ever) be used in this situation. Have airplay for visitors (to show pictures, etc.) was another plus of the AppleTV system.
    For total storage, an external drive could add a fair bit of storage, and one can still stream movies, etc. from iTunes servers once in awhile (or re-download later, if one needed to clean out some room).
    From comments here, and Peter's original article, I think the middle to high end tier (with a Fusion drive) should be fine. Thanks for everyones help, and suggestions.
  • I had an older Mac Mini, I think it was a Early 2009 model with 4GB of ram with a 500GB drive in it that I upgraded too. I forget the processor, I want to say 2GHZ. But it was slow and I was very tired of lag and so fourth. I just purchased a new model about a week ago running at 3.0Ghz, 16GB Ram, 2TB Fusion from the Apple refurb store and have been very pleased with it. I can have things downloading on it and still be able to login to it with ARD and not have to deal with lag. I chose to do 16GB as I always plan for the future (soldered Ram, Yuck!) along with the fusion drive to get both connectors inside, just incase I want to upgrade later on. Maybe get rid of the platter hd and just upgrade the PCIe storage if anyone has them at the time, etc. I also use Kodi (xbmc), I started with Plex and it was too buggy for me. Moved to using Kodi and I like it alot better and on this new machine its faster than heck. I also use the mini for DVR for my security cams and downloading stuff. Its probably overkill for what I am using it for, but I hate running into bottle necks, this will hopefully last me for many years!
  • Soldered ram, my pet peeve as well. Some folks have a budget and so would like to upgrade the ram on a Mac Mini. Come on Apple! Consider that some of your customers have a budget. This sadly, could force some to find a PC that will boot the Mac OS - nothing i'd recommend, but gosh this designed obsolescence is not serving Apple or its faithful customers.
  • Or just find a pc and run, you know, windows. Sent from the iMore App
  • My personal one is a late-2012 with quad-core i7, 8G RAM, and a 1T Fusion drive. I'd recommend finding one of these on e-Bay or refurb rather than one of the current models.
  • I have the late 2012 entry level i5 with 8GB. That was a server streaming to 2 AtVs and it worked fine. I added other services and had issues. The internal drive was OS only. The media library is on an external Lacie thunderbolt array. I did upgrade it to the 2012 i7 with 8GB ram because it's running OS X server for Time Machine Mail and website, along with the media server. Works well. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'd say, "Whichever one you aren't using at the moment." I still use a "Sawtooth" G4 for some crap like that because I can shove like nine hard disks into it between internal bus and FarWar.
  • I have old Mac Mini with i3 and 4GB ram. It runs ArkMS, DLNA and UPnP server, works flawlessly, able to stream HD video to TVs/iPads, music to wireless speaker. I'm thinking about replacing 500G HDD to bigger one.