Apple Mac mini (Late 2012) review

It’s only 36 mm high. But the innocent-looking flat box with the rounded corners remains the most subversive little personal computer made by Apple Inc.

The Apple Mac mini has long been the entry point for Mac ownership – first as the PowerPC G4 version in 2005; then the following year when it became one of the very first Macs to get an Intel processor, even if it was only a lowly single-core Intel Core Solo.

Before turning to the simple but beautifully elegant chassis, let’s kick the processor tyres. At this time in October 2013 the state of the art in Mac mini performance takes a third-generation Intel Core processor.

Cheapest option, just inside the psychological £500 barrier, is a Mac mini with a 2.5 GHz dual-core processor. For followers of Intel part numbers, that’s an Core i5-3210M and, like most components inside the diminuitive mini, is designed for laptops.

This model also includes 4 GB of memory – enough for most people that don’t edit large media files, for example – and a 500 GB hard disk. The memory is now faster, 1600 MHz rather than 1333 MHz as found on the Sandy Bridge generation. And the storage can be configured as a Fusion drive.

The Fusion drive combines a fast but smaller solid-state drive, with a large but slow hard disk. In the case of the Apple Mac mini, we're looking at a 128 GB Samsung 830 SSD and a 1 TB notebook SATA disk. But as a user, all you see is one speedy drive, and OS X’s Core Storage process intelligently moves data from SSD to hard disk as required for best performance.

Like last year’s entry model, this £499 Apple Mac drives a screen with the graphics controller that’s integrated into the Intel chip. These are not quite the joke they used to be – you can now turn such a PC toward some action games without getting a slo-mo slideshow. Provided you keep the detail level low of course.

We called in the next model from the range of three to retest. It does add a whopping £180 to the price, and it only has two material differences from the base model: it has double the storage capacity, so offers 1 TB of storage from its notebook-sized 2.5-inch disk inside. And it includes a quad-core processor, the same 2.3 GHz chip that appeared in the original 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

In both models, the Intel processor includes Hyper Threading – which lets OS X think and run as if there were twice the number of real cores – and Turbo Boost to dynamically push the clock speed up for short bursts, to get the harder jobs done quicker.

Apple Mac mini (Late 2012): Ins and outs

To get on a local network, you can use the gigabit ethernet port or 11n Wi-Fi. The latter is dual-band, letting you roam on the less-trafficked 5 GHz band (faster than 2.4 GHz wireless too, if only useful for short distances, below around 10m). And it’s also a full three-stream version, with three internal antennae, to give the best possible performance with 802.11n Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth is your other wireless option, good for connecting keyboards and mice, and is the latest version 4.0 too. While current Apple peripherals like the Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad and Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard are using older Bluetooth v2, recent Macs have v4.0 which will prove handy for other low-power peripherals when they become available.

For connecting a monitor to the Mac mini – or television or projector when in its media-centre roles – we have two options: Thunderbolt and HDMI. Thunderbolt is the high-speed data bus that still provides a DisplayPort-type video and audio connection. This is also the only option available for high-resolution displays with greater than 1920 x 1200-pixel resolution, since the HDMI port is limited to an older version of v1.2 or below, which does not support screens like Apple’s 2560 x 1600 Cinema Display.

FireWire is thankfully still included, a single FireWire 800 port which is invaluable for certain high-end video and audio interface units.

A memory card slot behind supports all form of SD Card up to the latest SDXC incarnation, which handily allows up to 128 GB of storage to be added currently.

Two audio ports are available, 3.5mm input and output. The output jack can serve as a headphone port or line-level output, and both connections support Toslink digital audio to at least 24-bit/96kHz standard.

Finally, and the only outside material change since the previous Mid-2011 generation of Mac mini, the four USB ports have been upgraded from USB 2.0 to 3.0. This is a major asset, not least because there’s no other way to connect high-speed storage should your Thunderbolt port be occupied with a connected display.

Apple Mac mini (Late 2012): Performance

We tested the £679 model with 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7-3615QM processor. In the Geekbench 2 test of processor and memory speed, it scored an average of 11,752 points. Compared to the previous second-up model with its 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5-2520M dual-core processor, and which scored 7049 points, we can see a 67% increase in raw performance.

Geekbench 3 wasn’t around when we tested that earlier model, but the Mac mini on test here scored 11,502 points in multi-core mode; and in the benchmark app’s new single-core mode we saw an average of 2966 points.

Graphics performance is perhaps more interesting now, since Apple abandoned a separate graphics processor in favour of the Intel HD Graphics 4000 option built into the main chip. But can this solution, traditionally slower than most discrete GPUs, still play games?

In the Batman: Arkham City game for OS X, the Mac mini could play at 39 frames per second, when set to 1280 x 720-pixel resolution and Medium detail. That’s a usefully high figure, suggesting that gameplay is still quite possible.

Moving to full-HD resolution though, the Mac mini struggled at 20 fps, too slow for smooth playing.

A more challenging routine can be found in the Unigine Heaven benchmark for OpenGL, where the Mac mini mustered an average of just 16 fps at 1280 x 720 and Medium detail.

Power consumption remains incredibly low even for the quad-core Mac mini. At system idle at the OS X desktop, it drew only 10W of mains power. And its maximum consumption was also very low by any desktop PC standard: 42W when ploughing through CPU-intensive Geekbench; and 44W when playing the Batman game.

Apple Mac mini (Late 2012): Usage scenarios

Thanks to its small size, minimal power consumption and consumate power for productivity, the Mac mini lends itself to many potential uses at home and in business.

Aside from its first role as small desktop PC for office or the home, it works well as a server – in fact Apple spotted this application a few generations ago and started offering the Mac mini pre-configured with OS X Server edition, and two internal disk drives instead of one disk and one DVD drive.

Now all Mac mini models are optical disk-free, and if you do need CD, DVD or even Blu-ray capability, an external USB powered unit can be found for around £30-60. Or there’s Apple’s own DVD-writing SuperDrive for £65.

Complete businesses have been established around the Mac mini server, hosting colo (co-location) services which maintain the Mac mini hardware under their own roof, while letting you remotely access the unit and set it up as a web server, for example. Most well-known are www.macminicolo.net and www.macminivault.com.

Another popular use for the Mac mini is as a home media hub. Whether running just the native OS X interface, or with media-centre software like Plex or XBMC, the Mac mini is ideally suited to lounge locating too, thanks to its quiet operation and understated good looks.

NEXT PAGE: Original Macworld US review from October 2012 >>

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