Mac mini review—a testament to Apple’s stubbornness
By Peter Bright
9 - 11 minutes
This is probably not the byline you were expecting for a review of some Apple hardware. It comes as a bit of a shock to both of us, to be honest, but here we are: I have a Mac mini on my desk, along with a Magic Trackpad and Magic Keyboard. It's all hooked up to an LG 4K 21.5-inch display, all supplied by Apple.
To set your minds at ease; this isn't the first Mac I've used. I have owned a few MacBook Pros over the years, and there was a time a few years go where I was seriously considering giving up Windows and switching entirely to Mac OS X. For now, it suffices to know that if I were to get back into using macOS as my daily driver, the Mac mini is probably the machine I'd want to get.
With the newest Mac mini, gone is the two-core, four-thread 28W Haswell processor with up to 16GB soldered RAM. This machine boasts Coffee Lake processors, either a four-core, four-thread Core i3 base model or the six-core, 12-thread Core i7 chip as found in my review system. This processor is paired with up to 64GB socketed, user-serviceable RAM. Storage has also been shaken up. Instead of a range of hybrid and SSD options, the new Mac mini is all SSD, from 128GB to 2TB. There are four Thunderbolt 3 ports, one wired Ethernet port (usually gigabit, but optionally upgraded to 10 gigabit), an HDMI 2 port, two USB 3.1 generation 1 ports, and a 3.5mm headset jack.
It turns out that hardware can get a lot better when you wait four years between upgrades.
Specs at a glance: Apple Mac mini (2018)
macOS 10.14 Mojave
Intel Core i3-8100 (4 core, 4 thread, 3.6GHz, no turbo)
The new system includes Apple's new T2 security chip, and frankly this is one area where Apple's ability and willingness to build things that aren't quite PCs is a virtue. Approximately a thousand years ago, or perhaps in the early 2000s, various key players in the PC industry came together to try to make computers "trusted." What "trusted" means here is providing a system wherein the PC can detect, and block, certain kinds of tampering.
Some of these are valuable to end users: for example, a system can ensure that neither its firmware nor operating system have been modified, thereby blocking any attempts to attack a system with boot kits or modifications to core operating system files. Windows' BitLocker encryption uses the TPM to store encryption keys, with the TPM only letting BitLocker see the keys when it can show that it hasn't been modified. But other capabilities are more contentious: the same protection against tampering could be used to enforce DRM in digital media, for example.
The major output of the Trusted Computing project was the "Trusted Platform Module" (TPM). This is usually a small chip that contains some private cryptographic keys, a random number generator, some storage for secrets, and some cryptographic hardware. (Modern Intel and AMD systems also offer a firmware-based TPM.) TPMs are abundant in PC laptops and in corporate desktops, but they are often omitted from enthusiast systems and motherboards—while lots of boards have a slot for the TPM, it's usually left empty. Trusted Computing and the TPM engendered a lot of mistrust among certain parts of the PC community, with the DRM implications being of particular concern.
Some of Apple's earliest x86 systems, the ones used by software developers ahead of the company's actual transition away from PowerPC, included a TPM on the motherboard. However, Apple never actually used it, and no Macs today include a TPM. But they do include a T2 chip... which is a TPM and then some.
The T2 has a number of similarities with a TPM. To start, it includes secure storage for keys, which it uses to validate the boot process to protect against firmware and operating system tampering. But it goes further. It includes SSD controllers, and T2 transparently encrypts and decrypts everything written and read to the SSDs in the system. In a sense, it essentially converts any SSD into a self-encrypted drive. Apple has moved a range of encryption and key management tasks to the T2, making it an integral part of the platform.
It's also likely that the T2 can be used in all the bad ways that caused so much concern with Trusted Computing and the TPM. Still, the security implications are compelling, and in many ways the world seems to have made peace with DRM. The utility of streaming media services is overwhelming, and in general the DRM is so well hidden that you never really notice that it's there.
This is useful innovation, and it's a kind that's much easier for Apple to do (as Apple doesn't have the same compatibility concerns) than the PC industry. There's nothing in particular preventing a PC manufacturer from building its own SSD controller, high performance encryption engine, and secure TPM or TPM-like chip; they just haven't. It's probably not worth it for any individual PC manufacturer, because you need the software support within Windows, and not even Microsoft has the power to enforce this kind of thing from above. The company wanted to make TPMs mandatory on desktop systems to get a designed for Windows sticker but had to relent and remove the requirement.
Listing image by Peter Bright
As much as the internals of the Mac mini are greatly improved, the exterior is almost unaltered. The size and form factor have stayed the same, and that's a decision that has consequences. The processors are 65W parts, a decision I suspect is driven by thermal concerns. The Mac mini does have a (very quiet) internal fan, but there's only so much that the diminutive fan and heatsink can achieve. There are no discrete GPU options at all—not even one of Intel's quirky Intel CPU/AMD GPU hybrids. There isn't even any integrated eDRAM cache, which Intel has used to give a healthy boost to the performance of the integrated GPU. Intel's latest 95W eight core, 16 thread chips? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Overall, performance is what we've come to expect from Intel's Coffee Lake chips. Thermal management seems good—I couldn't provoke any serious thermal throttling issues—but the performance peak just isn't as high as it would be with a desktop chip or a discrete GPU. SSD performance is good, though.
And now a brief detour via memory lane
Those of you with long memories might remember that I intended to switch from Windows to macOS a few years ago. At the time, Windows as a piece of software seemed neglected and unloved, hamstrung by wretched legacy APIs. It had a lack of attention to fit and finish from both first- and third-party developers alike. But when I ultimately tried to switch, I just couldn't.
The problem was simple: the hardware. I wanted a machine with a competent spec for gaming (using Boot Camp to switch to Windows) and with at least some level of upgradeability. After all, a mid-life memory, video card, and perhaps even storage upgrade can extend the useful life of most systems.
Problem is, Apple doesn't sell anything like that. Even most of the company's desktop systems are built with low-power mobile parts, and there isn't a PCIe slot to be found across the entire range of systems. In a very fundamental way, Apple does not build the hardware I wanted. I suppose in retrospect this was obvious, but my dissatisfaction with Windows at the time blinded me to this fact.
Almost perversely, the old Mac mini was, and the new Mac mini is, probably the closest system Apple builds to what I would have liked a few years ago. Except for the pair of RAM slots, it's entirely inextensible, of course, and it retains the soldered down, mobile-oriented components in spite of being permanently tethered to an outlet. But at least in principle, the abundance of Thunderbolt 3 ports means that I could add an external GPU and additional storage. That's not unique across Apple's line-up, as the company has done a good job of embracing Thunderbolt 3, but the new mini has a couple of aspects that make it a better fit: it doesn't have an integrated screen, and it's not cripplingly expensive. Given that I already have monitors and am not made of money, these are both important factors.
While it's probably the best fit for what I wanted, it's still not a great fit. I am, however, really excited about using external GPUs with laptops: put a big fat video card, maybe an extra disk, and wired Ethernet into the eGPU enclosure and use it like a docking station. One cable to provide better graphics, a hookup to my triple-head monitors, charging, and wired access to my home network? That's a great solution.
Square peg, meet round hole
But the thing that makes this setup great is that I want my laptop to be highly portable. I don't want the bulk of a high-end discrete GPU in my portable device, so paying a few hundred bucks for an eGPU enclosure makes sense. Conversely, eGPU feels like a monumentally stupid solution to improving the graphics of a dedicated desktop device. It adds a lot of expense and a reasonable amount of complexity, when all I actually want is a PCIe slot. Same story for storage: I don't want the bulk of multiple terabytes of RAID storage in my laptop, because I don't want to have to carry that around with me. But on a desktop machine? I'd rather have that storage be internal instead of using a pricey Thunderbolt 3 enclosure.
This more or less sums up my feelings about the Mac mini across a wide range of use cases. It's the machine Apple is pushing for a range of usage scenarios, and while it might be the best fit for at least some of them, it's never a great fit.
So, for example, Apple suggests using the Mac mini for build and render farms. If you're writing software for macOS or iOS then fair enough; it's the smallest Mac by far, so it's probably the one to use in your build farm. But if you were designing a machine to go into a build farm, you probably wouldn't come up with the Mac mini. Most sizeable compilation tasks yield a ton of benefit from having more cores, and even more logical threads. They also benefit from as much single-threaded performance as you can throw at them. The desktop-oriented i9-9900K (rated at 95W) will clean the Mac mini's clock when it comes to compiling large projects, thanks to both a higher clock speed and an extra two cores/four threads. That's what I want in my build farm!
And if you're a suspicious sort who wants ECC in their build farm, then a Xeon or an AMD processor of some kind would be a better fit. Add a few mounting brackets so they fit into a 19-inch rack, maybe some kind of out-of-band/lights-out management system, and replacement power supplies so they can run off DC instead of 120V AC. On the other hand, there probably won't be a ton of use for the integrated Wi-Fi, Thunderbolt 3, or Bluetooth in these scenarios.
The same tends to hold true of a render farm. Again, the size makes it the best Mac for high-density deployments, but you wouldn't want to use that processor (and that GPU) in a render farm. Beyond the compiling software, rendering is a massively parallel operation, the kind of thing that GPUs excel at. GPU-based render farms are widespread and effective. Mac mini? It's stuck with Intel integrated graphics. So, sure, you could use the Mac mini this way, and, if you're strictly wanting CPU-based rendering, then it may (due to size) be the best Mac for the job. But it ain't the machine you'd design for this task.
On top of all this, if you really wanted to build your server farm or render farm out of small desktop PCs, the Mac mini isn't even necessarily the smallest. Intel's NUC line has a smaller footprint, for example. Even within the context of tiny computers, the Mac mini is awkwardly positioned unless, specifically, you need macOS.
Where else does Apple pitch the mini? Live music performances is one thing. I'm sure a mini could fill some kind of a role here, but once again, you'd be hard-pressed to describe the mini as the ideal machine. One particularly obvious issue here is that live performers and DJs and many others in that field move from venue to venue, and hence prefer systems built to be portable. Laptops are abundant in these areas.
Perhaps most absurdly of all, Apple suggests that the Mac mini would be good for powering digital signage. Most of these tasks could be adequately handled by a $25 Raspberry Pi or $120 Intel Compute Stick, but sure, why not stick a Mac mini (starting price: eight hundred American dollars) in our digital signs?
If you eliminated all other options...
The Mac mini represents an enormous compromise. It's rarely, if ever, going to be the best form factor for any given role. Hell, it doesn't even have "cheap" going for it this time around, really: the 2014 version at launch had a base price of $499. The hike to $799 represents astonishingly bad value. Though spec-wise the new machine is unambiguously superior to the old one, it's by no means a high-end machine. It simply scratches one crucial itch: you're wedded somehow to the macOS ecosystem and need a computer.
That build farm? The Mac mini is a crappy choice for a build farm unless you really need to build software for macOS and iOS systems, in which case, hey, it's essentially the only option Apple has. Need a Mac because you're wanting to explore iOS development? Get the Mac mini and continue to use the keyboard/mouse/display that you've already got on your desk. It's no longer the affordable way into the macOS environment that it once was, but it's the best thing Apple really has to offer.
This is, I think, the general theme of the mini. I struggle to imagine any scenario where the thing truly shines—but Apple's refusal to build, y'know, a regular desktop computer means that the mini often ends up being the best option if you really are committed to using macOS.
Why was size the most important design criterion?
Overall, the mac Mini gives me the feeling that it has been designed not for any particular use-case or kind of user. It has been designed for its size. It's small not because that makes it do its job any better—quite the reverse, in fact. It's designed as such simply for the sake of being small. Why Apple's engineers should optimize for size as opposed to any other design parameter, I don't know. The Mac mini is far from the smallest computer I've used, and for me, the size and form factor doesn't open up exciting new use cases (unlike, say, the Intel Compute Stick, which is a pocketable computer). This size offers only constraints and limitations.
The Mac mini's small size makes it all the more impressive that it doesn't have a power brick. But why? This is a system that's going to be permanently plugged into the wall and other peripherals. Apple could have made it literally ten times bigger, and I daresay the vast majority of Mac mini users would never even notice the change in dimensions on a day-to-day basis; they'd just stick it on the floor or behind their monitor, out of sight, out of mind. But users would notice that this hypothetical big Mac mini (xMac?) had a desktop processor and a real video card.
And even if being tiny were important in some use case, the new Mac mini ain't gonna be tiny when you add an enclosure for an eGPU and RAID array and whatever else you might want to add.
The Mac mini is a kind of jack-of-all-trades system, with everything that implies. For some use cases, Apple already has better systems. For others, the Mac mini isn't a great fit, but it's the only hardware that Apple is actually offering that's even vaguely suitable, so Mac users can like it or lump it. It's just... it's not portable; it's not a full size, upgradeable desktop PC; it's not particularly cheap; it's not a great building block for server or render farms.
Instead, the new Mac mini is a compromised box that's engineered to be quite small. If you're wedded to macOS, then it does the job well enough. It's not bad as such, and it's certainly a solid upgrade over the 2014 system. But there's nothing this device particularly excels at, and there's no real scenario where it leaps out at me as being the ideal, obvious choice. It's the Mac you buy when you know you need to buy a Mac... and you've already ruled out all the other systems Apple has on offer.
T2 chip shows that Apple can be clever and innovative when it wants to be.
Cheapest new machine that's able to run macOS.
Small size leaves no option other than mid-range CPUs and integrated graphics.
RAM excepted, any kind of upgrade is going to leave you with a plethora of Thunderbolt 3 enclosures.
The small size has no utilitarian purpose; it's small for the sake of being small.
I have no idea who this machine was truly built for.
The Verdict: I'm not buying it (but you already knew that).