Mac mini (Late 2014) 1.4 GHz review

It’s been way too long. Not our words but Apple’s, printed on the invitations to a product launch event in October this year. Unveiled then were an iPad Air 2, iMac with Retina 5K display... and a revamped Mac mini.

Of all those products it was arguably the Mac mini that was most in need of the attention, since it hadn’t been looked at by the running-upgrades department in two long years.

But we say ‘arguably’ advisedly. The 2012 Mac mini may have looked a little over-ripe in computer years but it also didn’t need much to improve it. Its Ivy Bridge-generation Intel Core processor was still an efficient chip that helped secure the Mac mini as one of the most power-sipping PCs on the planet.

It came with 4 GB of memory which could be upgraded up to 16 GB in seconds through a spin-off hatch on the underside. For storage it had plenty, either a 500 or 1000 GB hard disk; or optionally could be configured with a 1 TB Fusion Drive or 256 GB Flash Drive.

The new Mac mini (Late 2014) is built around exactly the same cool and understated ingot of aluminium, milled from solid into a perfect round-cornered square of 21st century computing.

Grabbing attention in this revision is the price drop of the entry-level model, from 2012’s £499 to a new low of £399. There are down sides though. The Mac mini’s performance peak has been eroded by striking any quad-core processors from the list; and system memory follows Apple’s new trend of being soldered to the logic board and cannot therefore ever be upgraded at a later date.

Also take a look at our complete guide to buying a Mac here and Mac mini versus MacBook Air, which Mac is best value

Mac mini (Late 2014): build different

The Mac mini (Late 2014) has two rather than one Thunderbolt ports, these now up to version 2 specification. But in the process it has lost its FireWire 800 connector. If you need FireWire there is an adaptor available (£25) although we note from Apple Store customer feedback that this has its own issues with some peripherals that otherwise work fine with a native FireWire port.

The Wi-Fi card inside has been upgraded to 802.11ac, and with the help of the mini’s three-antennae configuration is capable of wireless sync speeds up to 1300 Mb/s (with real data throughput typically up to around half this speed).

Mac mini (Late 2014): storage wars

For storage, the Mac mini still comes in 500 and 1000 GB hard-disk configurations, with the same additional Fusion Drive and SSD-only options, the latter now up to 1 TB Flash Drive for just the top 2.8 GHz processor model.

Since the optical drive was stripped from the Unibody chassis with the mid-2011 refresh, the Mac mini has had space for two 2.5in SATA drives inside. That’s still the case, although there’s only one SATA connector on the logic board now, since the Fusion or Flash Drive models now work with PCIe-attached solid-state drives.

Read about why we recommend you get a Fusion Drive.

That’s great news for performance. Apple’s PCIe-attached flash drives are close to twice as fast as those available to Windows PCs, which still uniformly rely on the SATA Revision 3 bus protocol. However even now, more than a year after Apple’s PCIe-attachment technology was introduced with 2013’s MacBook Air, there is still no third-party manufacturer able to make a drop-in replacement to upgrade capacity. So DIYers looking to make a dual-drive Mac mini out of a single-drive purchase will be out of luck.

When it comes to on-board data storage, the 500 GB SATA disk should be more than adequate in capacity for many people, if conspicuously short of élan when it comes to system responsiveness compared to, say, the MacBook Air.

We're also looked at the new Retina iMac recently, here's our Apple iMac with Retina 5K display review

Mac mini (Late 2014): getting inside and updating the disk drive

You can still upgrade the disk drive yourself, or find a competent technician to do the job – once you get past Apple’s tamperproof screws on the underside.

The black plastic ‘lid’ still comes off easily enough, but behind that, instead of the inviting innards of yore, there’s now an edge-to-edge circular steel bulkhead in place, sealed down with Torx T6T security screws. Get passed these and you’ll be able to swap the internal disk for something much faster, such as a SATA Revision 3 SSD from the likes of Kingston, Crucial or Samsung.

Soldered memory is perhaps the cause of most anguish among users with recent Mac models, since it means you’re expected to anticipate the amount of memory you’ll need for the lifetime of the product at the time of purchase; and moreover because you have to pay Apple’s inflated prices for SDRAM.

Take the entry-level £399 Mac mini we tested here as an example. This is built with 4 GB of memory, and to double that to 8 GB will cost you £80 from Apple.

For the previous generation, an 8 GB upgrade kit is available from Crucial, currently selling for £61. So the going third-party route saves you just £19 here.

The difference becomes more troubling at the next size jump. To make a 16 GB Mac mini, Apple charges £240 on top of the standard 4 GB model’s price. Turning to the Crucial UK website, it currently charges £123.59 for its 2 x 8 GB memory kit of DDR3 PC3-12800 RAM. And this is where Apple gets the bad press, for its near-100 percent markup on other retailers’ prices.

If you elect for the middle Mac mini model (2.6 GHz, £599) or top (2.8 GHz, £799), you’ll already find 8 GB memory soldered in place. To configure either of these with 16 GB costs an extra £160 at time of purchase.

For the previous generation, to upgrade to 16 GB still costs £123.59 even if you had 8 GB already installed with the typical 2 x 4 GB arrangement), so the Apple markup over the independent memory-seller alternatives is reduced to only around £36 here.

If you have a Mac that you can update you may be interested in reading about the best solid-state storage for Mac upgrades.

Mac mini (Late 2014): lab results

There’s now a very wide range of processor clock speeds offered for the Mac mini, from the cheapest model’s 1.4 GHz Core i5 to a CTO model with 3.0 GHz Core i7.

We tested just the cheapest model here with its MacBook Air-style 1.4 GHz dual-core processor. We don’t have performance results for the entry model of 2012 with its dual-core 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics. But we did find that the new Mac mini’s processor and graphics performance was unsurprisingly close to that of the current MacBook Air range, which takes the same Intel chipset.

In fact the entry-level 2014 Mac mini has much more in common with the entry-level 2014 iMac, since they share the same Intel chip and slow 2.5in notebook hard disk.

The Geekbench 3 processor/memory test rated this Mac mini with 2803 and 5401 points, for single- and multi-core speed respectively.

When we tested the 21.5-inch iMac earlier this year, it scored 2838 and 5464 points respectively. The circa-1 percent difference in results is insignificant and as easily explained by the wholly new OS X revision of 10.10 on the Mac mini against 10.9 on the iMac.

For comparison, the ‘middle’ model Mac mini of 2012 had a 2.3 GHz quad-core i5 processor, and scored 2966 points in single-core tests (a little bit faster, just under 6 percent for the statisticians). And in multi-core mode it scored 11752 points, which can be written as 218 percent faster.

How much the top-spec Mac mini of 2014 may trail the top-spec Mac mini of 2012 remains to be seen.

In the Cinebench tests we also saw the same kind of performance figures as the iMac (Mid-2014, 21.5-inch). Version 11.5 of the CPU test ranked the Mac mini with 1.1 and 2.49 points (versus 1.13 and 2.58 for the iMac). Version 15 scored the Mac mini with 97 and 236 points (98 and 240 points iMac).

Mac mini (Late 2014): graphics & gaming

Graphics tests also showed the same kind of performance as the entry-level iMac, with both machines relying solely on Intel HD Graphics 5000 within the Core i5 processor. Cinebench played at 22 and 23.1 fps for versions 11.5 and 15 of Cinebench, with the latter result around 1.5 fps faster than the iMac – which again could be explained by revisions in the core OS.

Gaming, we found, is not really viable for the Mac mini unless you play older games and/or turn down video quality to very low settings.

Feral’s Batman: Arkham City could average 31 fps when set to 1280 x 720 pixels and Medium quality, albeit with minima at 15 fps which would be noticeable as stutters in gameplay.

Tomb Raider 2013 uses the latest OpenGL 4.1 API which seems to require much more horsepower to run smoothly, in this game at least. At 1280 x 720 screen resolution and Low detail settings, the Mac mini mustered just 19.4 fps. Stepping up to Normal quality lowered framerate further to 15.8 fps.

We switched the game to Legacy OpenGL mode, where it then returned framerates of 34.5 and 24.4 fps for otherwise exactly the same configuration. With no obvious difference in rendering quality to our eyes, this tweak makes the game a more viable option on this Mac.

Power consumption figures have been reduced, as you may expect from not just a slower processor clock, but a change from Ivy Bridge to Haswell generation silicon. This change introduced Intel’s later FinFET ‘3D’ transistors, along with numerous other power-efficiency adjustments to improve battery economy in the laptop and mobile computing age.

The last time we measured a Mac mini it was drawing just 10 W of power from the mains when at the idle desktop. Today’s most affordable Mac mini was found to have just 5 W requirements, rising to a maximum of 40 W when running flat out. That figure of 5 W is startlingly low, another important tick in the mini’s pros list.

Verdict

The entry-level Mac mini at £399 is effectively the most affordable Macintosh ever sold in the computer line’s 30-year history. Yes, the PowerPC G4 version of 2005 started at just £329 in this country, but adjusted for inflation that’s closer to £429 in today’s money. What you get today is a decently fast mini desktop PC using an older hard disk for storage but which is in every other way right up to date; bleeding edge in fact when you consider just how far ahead of the vast majority of Windows wannabees are its wireless and Thunderbolt credentials. For the cheapest model especially where a buyer is looking to keep initial cost down, our only complaint is the lifetime memory sentence. This means a bump to 8 GB for £80 on pay day is almost mandatory, if you want to future-proof the little marvel for several years to come. Storage, for today at least, can still be upgraded with care.

Karen Haslam's preview of the 2014 Mac Mini follows on the next page...

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