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.

Peter Cohen