Apple Mac Mini with Fusion Drive review: A strong, new Mac Mini, with or without Fusion

I asked Apple if any software vendors had committed to optimizing their data handling for Fusion storage. I was told that as long as the vendors don't code in any aggressive data management techniques of their own, you should see a benefit. On Apple's Web site, it points to its Aperture photo management software in particular.

The problem with Aperture in this context is that it mainly involves file importing. Again, though, you only trigger the speed benefit of Fusion (when the SSD is already full) once you access a file two times previously. Importing files is generally a task you only do once.

Although I wasn't able to find an effective Fusion read test, that doesn't mean Fusion provides no benefits to file reads. Instead it seems situational. It won't help with every file read, but there's no reason to think that it would not speed up the load times of appropriately flagged large files when the application doesn't get in the way.

Apple Mac Mini (fall 2012) Apple Mac Mini (summer 2011) Asus Essentio CM6870
Price (at time of review) $1,049 $799 $999
Motherboard chipset Intel HM77 Intel P67 Intel H77
CPU 2.3GHz Intel Core i7 3615QM 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 2520M 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 3770
Memory 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6630M 3GB Nvidia GT545M
Hard drives Fusion drive (128GB SSD + 1TB 5,400rpm platter) 500GB, 5,400 rpm 2TB 7,200 rpm
Optical drive N/A N/A Blu-ray/DVD burner combo
Operating system Apple OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) Apple OS X 10.7 (Lion) Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

I like Fusion well enough, but I also like the core $799 Mac Mini. By moving to a Core i7 chip, and a 1TB hard drive in that model, the Mac Mini is finally feature-competitive with Windows PCs in the same price range. Yes, you might find a Blu-ray drive, a faster Core i7, or a discrete budget graphics card for that price during a particular sale weekend at Dell or HP. If you research those vendors and others, though, you will find their offerings and those of the $799 Mac Mini at relative parity.

Adding Fusion into the mix complicates things. For a similar price, the Asus system listed above brings a discrete graphics chip, a full 2TB of hard-drive storage, and a Blu-ray drive. Would you rather have all of that or faster file access? You can also get a decent, overclocked gaming PC for the same price as the Mac Mini. The $999 Velocity Micro in our performance charts, for example, provides the Mac Mini with a real performance challenge.

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking: iTunes and QuickTime (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking: iTunes and Handbrake (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Mini (2.3GHz Core i7, fall 2012)
195

Cinebench 11.5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs
Rendering single CPU

* indicates a factory overclocked CPU

We've introduced a new test in this review, a version of our multimedia multitasking test (MMT) borrowed from our colleagues at CNET Australia that incorporates both iTunes and Handbrake. This is in addition to our previous version of MMT that used both iTunes and QuickTime. Eventually we will phase out the QuickTime version, and we've only been using the Handbrake version long enough to gather results for two of the systems in this review. Our reason for making the switch is fairness and relevance, and you can expect to see more Handbrake/iTunes results in reviews going forward.

As you can see, though, the new Mac Mini does well in all of our benchmarks. It wins on the Apple app tests as I expected it would, but it also competes well enough with the Asus and the Velocity Micro systems, which is impressive given that the Mac Mini uses a laptop Core i7, and the other two are full-blown desktop CPUs, the Velocity Micro's overclocked. I don't want to speculate too much on the performance without the Fusion Drive. I expect it would be slower, but still respectable, especially up against a system closer to the $799 non-Fusion price point.

It looks the same as the old model, but the new Mac Mini has USB 3.0 ports.
It looks the same as the old model, but the new Mac Mini has USB 3.0 ports. Sarah Tew/CNET

Beyond its core components, the appeal of the Mac Mini also comes from its tidy array of ports on the rear panel. Here especially, the Mac Mini is highly competitive compared with similarly priced Windows PCs.

As mentioned, the new Mac Mini has moved to USB 3.0 across all four USB inputs. This is not unexpected given the third-gen Core chips' native support for USB 3.0, but it happily gives the Mac Mini a third option for fast external data transfers, along with its Thunderbolt port and, less so, its FireWire 800 input. You also won't find many sub-$1,000 Windows PCs with a Thunderbolt input.

The Mac Mini's HDMI-out is no longer all that exotic, but that along with the discrete digital audio output continues to make this an enticing living-room PC. Photo and video enthusiasts will appreciate the Mac Mini's SDXC card slot as usual.

Final notes: The new Mac Mini has the same underside-accessible memory access as the previous models. Simply spin off the large plastic disc and you get access. As usual, Apple also offers two other core Mac Mini configurations, a $599 entry-level model with a Core i5 CPU, and a $999 server version with OS X Server and OS X Mountain Lion installed on two 1TB platter hard drives.

Conclusion
Is Fusion worth $250? Because it hosts the operating system, Fusion's impact extends across the Mac Mini's day-to-day functions. It also dramatically speeds up on-system file transfers, and should improve file load times, depending on the application.

I wish Apple also gave you manual control of the file locations. That $250 is also a lot for a standalone 128GB solid-state drive. NewEgg sells them for under $100. Apple critics will chime in now with the usual overcharging accusations. They have a point. On balance, Fusion doesn't dramatically improve the Mac Mini experience so much that that it breaks out of luxury feature territory for casual Mac users. It would, however, make a useful upgrade for professionals or enthusiasts with serious data access demands.

While Fusion does have its appeal, I'm more bullish about the new baseline $799 Mac Mini and its update value proposition. Yes, it would lose some of its pep without the Fusion drive, but this is still the most competitively configured Mac Mini that Apple has ever sold. Apple says it won't provide us with a non-Fusion $799 review unit. I will continue to press the company for one, because I'm eager to see its performance. Even without that data, I would recommend it on the strength of its strong core components and versatile connectivity options.

Benchmark testing conducted by Joseph Kaminski. Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations

Apple Mac Mini (2.3GHz Core i7, fall 2012)
Mac OS X 10.8; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; Intel HD 4000 embedded graphics; 1TB 5,400rpm hard drive, 128GB solid-state hard drive

Apple Mac Mini (2.5GHz Core i5, summer 2011)
Mac OS X 10.7; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6630M; 500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive

Asus Essentio CM6870
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-3770; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 545M graphics card; 2TB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive

Velocity Micro Vector Campus Edition
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 4.3GHz Intel Core i5-3570K; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 SE graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive

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About The Author

Rich Brown is an executive editor for CNET Reviews. He has worked as a technology journalist since 1994.