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Apple Mac mini review: A pint-sized powerhouse for the rest of us

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Apple’s Mac mini has finally gotten some respect, with a major update that makes it a pint-sized powerhouse of a desktop.

To say Apple’s (AAPL) Mac mini has been neglected over the years is an understatement. The last time the company updated its pint-sized desktop computer was back in 2014. In the years since it became so painfully underpowered compared to more modern desktops that there wasn’t much reason to even consider buying it.

But that’s all in the past now. Apple has finally given the Mac mini the upgrade it so desperately needed. The new Mac mini, available November 7 at a starting price of $799, is a fully redesigned desktop that packs more power, more capability, and more functionality than any mini before. And for desktop users it’s certainly worth considering.

What’s old is new

The Mac mini has a fully redesigned body. It still looks a good deal like its predecessor, but this time around the mini’s shell is made of 100% recycled aluminum. Combined with the recycled plastic used for the mini’s base, Apple says the desktop’s overall carbon footprint is 50% of the previous mini.

While the new mini’s styling is largely the same as the version that came out in 2014, Apple did give its latest model a new space-gray paint job. Around back, the Mac mini features a wide array of connectivity ports.

The mini packs 4 USB C Thunderbolt 3 ports, which can be used to connect an external graphics card if you’re doing heavy video editing work; an HDMI 2.0 port; 2 USB 3 ports and a gigabit ethernet port. You can also update that to a 10GB port if you’re looking for some seriously high-speed connectivity. Oh, and the mini has a headphone jack, unlike, you know, the iPhone.

Apple has loaded up the mini with a slew of connection ports that will let you do everything from connect an external graphics card to run several minis as a server.

To ensure that the mini’s more powerful processors don’t cause the little desktop to overheat, Apple added in an improved cooling system, which is why the exhaust port on the mini’s rear is so much larger this time around.

Bring on the power

The big news for the mac Mini, of course, is its drastically upgraded power. Apple says its top-of-the-line model is five times faster than the last generation best-in-class mini. But considering that mini is four years old, that’s to be expected.

The base model gets you an 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, Intel integrated graphics and a 128GB solid-state drive for $799. Not a bad price. Of course, you’ll need a display, keyboard and mouse, since the mini doesn’t come with any of those.

The mini’s processor isn’t some low-power laptop version of Intel’s Core i3, either. It’s a quad-core desktop-class chip, which means it’ll be able to handle your daily tasks with ease. My review unit came packed with the Core i3 and 8GB of RAM, and took care of everything I threw at it without issue. Granted, this isn’t a machine that’s meant to play graphics intensive games, but it can take care of your video and photo editing needs.

The Mac mini boasts a desktop-class Intel processor giving it a serious performance boost over its predecessor.

Part of the reason the mini is so capable is that Apple builds both the software, in this case macOS Mojave, and hardware, just as it does with iOS and the iPhone and iPad. The result is a machine that runs beautifully, and should keep plugging along for some time.

If, however, the base mini just doesn’t doesn’t do it for you, Apple offers both Core i5 and Core i7-powered models. And like the Core i3, these chips are desktop-level processors. In fact, both the Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs offer 6 processor cores compared to the Core i3’s 4 cores.

Apple even pumped up the amount of RAM you can throw into the mini, all the way to 64GB. That’s just, I mean, ridiculous. Top that off with the option to push the mini’s storage up to a 2TB SSD, and you’ve got one heck of a powerhouse desktop.

Apple knows that the mini isn’t just a home desktop. It’s also meant for use as a server, by businesses, graphic artists, and video and photo editors, so the company wanted to ensure that the system was a flexible as possible in terms of capabilities.

Going for that super-powered version of the mini will cost you though. Opting for the Core i5 processor pushes the starting price up to $1,099, but you get a larger 256GB storage drive along with it. Go for the Core i7 chip and you’ll add another $200 on top of that. I’d go with the Core i5, myself, just to ensure I had a little extra performance headroom for the future.

Max everything out with the Core i7, 64GB of RAM, 2TB SSD and 10Gb ethernet port and you’ll end up spending a whopping $4,199. That’s a ton of money for a tiny system. But it’s also a ton of firepower for building out a set of servers or as a heavy-duty workstation. The average consumer, though, won’t need anything nearly that powerful.

Should you get it?

The Mac mini has always been a value proposition for bringing consumers into the macOS and Apple ecosystems at a relatively low price. This latest generation of mini continues that tradition with aplomb. You’ll have to supply your own display, keyboard and mouse, but if you’re already a mini user, you can simply connect your new unit to your old peripherals.

If you’re new to the mini, getting a new monitor can add anywhere from $150 to $400 or more, depending on the size and type of display you’re looking for. Even so, the mini is the perfect gateway to Apple’s macOS, which also happens to work nicely with the iPhone’s and iPad’s  iOS.

The mini has been the sturdy little box that could for years. And finally, it’s back to being worth your time and money again.

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