Apple Mac mini £679

4th Dec 2012 | 16:21

Apple Mac mini

Apple's small form factor Mac takes a step forward, but not a giant leap

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Excellent new processors; USB 3.0; Better integrated graphics; Faster memory;

Dislike:

No optical drive; No discrete graphics; No media centre software; SD card reader awkwardly placed;

Introduction

The Apple Mac mini has long been the cheapest way to own a Mac. Since its introduction in January 2005, the small form factor desktop Mac has offered a low-cost alternative to the all-in-one iMac or the high-end Mac Pro.

Although it's sold without a keyboard, mouse or screen, everything else you need is in the box. It's internet-ready, through Ethernet or wireless N, and comes with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and all its bundled apps pre-installed.

The 2012 generation Mac mini is based on an aluminium unibody design. It's available in two models. The cheaper one has a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and a 500GB hard drive, and costs £499 in the UK, AU$699 in Australia or US$599 in the US.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

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The more expensive late 2012 Mac mini reviewed here has a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, a 1TB hard drive and costs £679/AU$899/US$799. Both models offer 4GB of onboard RAM.

There's also a server version of the high-end model, which includes the server edition of Mountain Lion and twin 1TB hard drives, for £849/AU$1,099/US$999.

At just 19.7cm (7.7 inches) long and wide, 3.6cm (1.4 inches) tall and weighing only 1.22kg (2.7lbs), it's comfortably transportable.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

If you want to use the same computer at home and at work, for example, you can set up a keyboard, mouse and monitor at each, and then when you're ready to leave, unplug the Mac mini and slip it in your bag.

Since the mid-2010 refresh, the Mac mini's transformer has been built into the body, so the power supply is a cheap figure-of-eight lead.

The Mac mini lost its optical drive with the previous generation, in the summer of 2011, and unsurprisingly, it doesn't make a return here. If you want to use CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray discs, you have to buy an external device such as Apple's own USB SuperDrive, or if you also have computer with an optical drive fitted, a Remote Disc.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

The 2012 refresh isn't a radical overhaul. It retains the same basic form factor as the last generation of Mac mini, and makes no major changes to its functionality. But it's more than a mere incremental upgrade.

The step up in processors, from the second generation Sandy Bridge chips to the new third-gen Ivy Bridge CPUs, bring a welcome increase in power. Their integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset is around 60% more powerful than the Intel HD Graphics 3000 used in second-generation Core-i processors.

Unfortunately, the discrete graphics chip that made its Mac mini debut in last year's high-end model has now gone, so both 2012 Mac minis rely solely on integrated graphics. This is annoying, considering making room for the discrete chip was given as a reason for dropping the optical drive.

Specifications

The two 2012 Mac minis have Ivy Bridge processors, with a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor in the entry-level model, and a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 for the more expensive one. This is up from the previous generation, which used 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 chips respectively.

The new processors feature Hyper-Threading, enabling two threads to run on each core, for four virtual cores on the entry-level dual core chip and eight on the more expensive quad core model.

At times of high needs, Turbo Boost enables the processors to temporarily operate above their maximum clock speed. The 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 can reach up to 3.1GHz under Turbo Boost, and the 2.3GHz Core i7 can manage 3.6GHz.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

Overall, the new processors represent a welcome step up for the entry-level model, and a very significant increase in power for the more expensive Apple Mac mini.

Once again, the Mac mini has a single Thunderbolt port, a versatile I/O protocol that can handle video as well as data. With two 10Gbps channels, it's up to 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0.

You can daisy chain up to six devices to a single Thunderbolt port, and it can even handle two Apple displays. If you've got an older Apple screen that uses a Mini DisplayPort connection, you can plug it straight into the Thunderbolt port with no adaptors required. Alternatively, there's an HDMI port, which is ideal to connect your Mac mini to an HD TV or a monitor.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

Like the previous generation, the new Mac mini has four USB ports, but they now use the high-speed USB 3.0 protocol. As before, there's an Ethernet port, FireWire 800, an SD XC card slot and sockets for audio in and audio out.

For wireless connectivity there's 802.11n Wi-Fi internet and Bluetooth 4.0.

If you order on the Apple online store, you can upgrade the memory in either Mac mini model from 4GB to 8GB or 16GB.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

Opt for the more expensive of the two models, and further configuration options are available. The processor can be upgraded to a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, and the 1TB hard disc drive can be replaced by a 256GB solid state drive or a new 1TB Apple Fusion Drive.

The Fusion Drive combines 128GB of solid state storage with a 1TB hard drive. By storing the operating system, regularly used applications and commonly accessed files on the flash section of the drive and everything else on the hard drive, a Fusion Drive gives near-SSD speeds without compromising on storage capacity.

Performance

It's disappointing that the more expensive 2012 Apple Mac mini doesn't have a discrete graphics processor.

While most releases of Apple's small form factor Mac have relied on integrated chipsets, the previous generation gave us an AMD Radeon HD 6630M in the high-end model. Indeed, it was said that the optical drive was in part dropped to make room for the extra graphics chip.

Yet in the late 2012 Mac mini, neither model has discrete graphics and nor has the optical drive returned. If you want to watch DVDs, rip CDs or burn discs on your Mac mini, you'll have to buy an external drive such as Apple's own USB SuperDrive or use OS X's Remote Disc feature.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

In fact, no Mac owner should get too attached to its optical drive. Since dropping it from the Mac mini, Apple has released the MacBook Pro with Retina display and the 2012 iMacs without optical drives, and no doubt its days are numbered in the rest of the Mac range too.

The lack of a discrete graphics chip doesn't mean the new Intel Core i7 Mac mini is underpowered. The Intel HD graphics integrated chipset has improved with every new generation of Core i processor.

The Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset used in these Ivy Bridge processors is up to 65% faster than the Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset it replaces.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

The top-of-the-range late 2012 Mac mini boasts a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor running at 2.3GHz too, which far outpaces the 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 in mid-2011's high-end model.

Our benchmarks bear this out. Call of Duty 4 ran at almost exactly the same frame rate, despite being limited to integrated graphics.

Benchmarks
Xbench: 147.7
Cinebench 10 Single core: 48.19
Cinebench 10 Multi-core: 18678
iTunes encoding: 449.5 seconds
Movie encoding (iMovie): 148.3 seconds
Doom 3: 99.1fps
Call of Duty 4: 72.4fps

In our Cinebench 10 rendering test, the new Mac mini was almost 9% quicker than its equivalent predecessor when using only one core, but with all cores in play, it almost doubled its performance.

The Mac mini runs incredibly quietly. In fact, it's almost silent. This is great news if you want to put it under your TV and use it as a media Mac.

Apple Mac mini 2012 review

It has an HDMI port, so it's the perfect companion for your HD TV. If you want to use it with a computer monitor, you can plug a Mini DisplayPort into the Thunderbolt port, and there's a DVI-to-HDMI adaptor in the box.

The Mac mini hasn't come bundled with media centre software since Apple stopped bundling its ageing Front Row application with the operating system, but there are several third-party options such as Plex or XBMC.

With no optical drive or discrete graphics to get in the way, there's no excuse for the SD XC card reader slot to be on the back of the new Mac mini. There's plenty of room at the front now, where it would be far more accessible, especially if you're using it as a living room media centre Mac.

Verdict

The late 2012 Mac mini refresh brings welcome improvements, but no real surprises. The step up to the new Ivy Bridge processors was inevitable, but the benefits they give us aren't to be taken lightly.

The Mac mini now uses faster 1600MHz DDR3 memory, too. Both versions have 4GB of RAM where the entry-level model had only 2GB before, and the more expensive mini has a 1TB hard drive, where the previous generation used 500GB drives in each.

But there's no radical overhaul. The form factor remains the same, and apart from upgrading to USB 3.0, the connectivity options are unchanged.

We liked

The 2012 Mac mini retains the qualities that endeared us to previous generations of Apple's small form factor Mac. It's very convenient; if you want to use the same computer at home and in the office, you can set up a monitor, keyboard and controller on each desk and carry the small, lightweight mini between the two.

Since the transformer is built into the unit, the power supply is a cheap figure-of-eight cable. You don't even need to carry around a power brick.

The new processors are awesome, giving a significant increase in power, and the USB ports have been upgraded to high-speed USB 3.0. And for those on a budget, the Mac mini is still the cheapest way to buy a Mac, priced at £679/AU$899/US$799 for this more expensive model.

We disliked

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Apple appears to be phasing out the optical drive. It was dropped from the Mac mini in the previous generation, and unsurprisingly, it doesn't make a return here.

We miss the discrete graphics processor we got with the more expensive of the two mid-2011 Mac minis, though improvements to the Intel Core i-series chips' integrated graphics chipset means this isn't as big a loss as you might expect.

We wish Apple had put the SD card reader at the front of the machine. It would be far more accessible there, especially if the Mac mini is used as an under-the-TV media machine.

Final verdict

The hackneyed old phrase, 'an evolution not a revolution' could (to use another hackneyed phrase) be written for the late 2012 Mac mini.

With the Ivy Bridge processors and faster memory already having debuted on other Macs, it was inevitable they'd come to the small form factor Mac with this year's refresh.

Dropping the discrete graphics processor was an unwelcome surprise, though the unexpected but much appreciated Fusion Drive, a hybrid solution combining a hard drive and solid state storage, is a great configuration option.

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