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Apple Mac Mini (2014) review: Apple's most affordable Mac

The small form factor Mac Mini costs less than ever, but isn't as flexible as other Macs.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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There are only two ways to get a computer running OS X, but without a permanently attached display. One is Apple's most-expensive computer, the $2,999-and-up Mac Pro , the other is its least-expensive, the $499 Mac Mini. Other than those two bookends, Macs are all either MacBook laptops with clamshell designs, or all-in-one iMacs, with large screens on pivoting arms.

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Apple Mac Mini (2014)

The Good

The Mac Mini is the least expensive OS X computer, and its performance is on par with Macs that cost twice as much.

The Bad

Upgrades are expensive, and aftermarket upgrades are nearly impossible. Configuration options are not as extensive as previous versions of the Mac Mini, and a keyboard and mouse are not included.

The Bottom Line

While its sealed-case limitations will turn off power users, Apple's least expensive Mac delivers a solid OS X experience in a compact box with similar performance to the entry-level MacBook Air and iMac models.

To get access to the features of OS X for same price as a standard iPad, you'll need to bring your own display, keyboard and mouse or trackpad. If you already have some or all of those, great; if not, the total cost can add up quickly, especially if you stick to Apple-branded accessories.

There are many Windows PCs that cost around the same, but nearly all are budget-minded, low-power plastic boxes that lack anything close to a premium feel. The entry level Mac Mini, while not especially powerful, has a unibody aluminum design and works about as well as a MacBook Air laptop (the components are very similar), which is one of our favorite computers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But, underneath the matte aluminum chassis, there are a few areas where the current iteration of the Mac Mini may not work for you. The processor in the $499 model (£399 in the UK and AU$619 in Australia) is a dual-core, low-voltage fourth-generation Intel Core i5. Two more-expensive base configurations include faster Core i5 CPUs, with a dual-core Core i7 as a extra-cost add-on on top of that. But if you go back to the last major Mac Mini update from 2012, you'll find quad-core Core i7 chips, a more powerful option now missing.

The late 2014 update adds dual Thunderbolt ports and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi (as found on the rest of the current Mac line), but the RAM, which was previously user-accessible, is now permanently soldered to the motherboard. In other words: no more post-purchase upgrades. Instead, you need to plan your upgrades at the time of purchase. And they're not cheap: a simple jump from the base 4GB to 8GB is an extra $100, and adding a 1TB Fusion drive (with both SSD and HDD hardware) costs $250 over the slower 5400rpm 500GB hard drive in the least-expensive configuration.

Sarah Tew/CNET

After a few fallow years, interest in small desktop PCs is ramping up, and the Mac Mini faces some interesting competition from Windows devices such as the Alienware Alpha and the HP Pavilion Mini , which can both be figured to cost around the same, although each has its own trade-offs. And that doesn't even include more affordable budget options like Chromebooks, "Chromebox" mini desktops and even full-fledged Windows laptops like the HP Stream 11 , all of which can be had for about $200.

Apple enthusiasts hoping for a radically updated, future-proofed Mac Mini will be disappointed that the small steps forward in some areas are offset by what may be seen as backwards moves in others (especially for DIY upgraders). But for casual consumers looking for a basic desktop or a TV-connected multimedia PC, it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive, self-contained computer, especially one running OS X, for the price.

Apple Mac Mini

Price as reviewed $499, £399, AU$619
PC CPU 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 4260U
PC Memory 4GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000
Storage 500GB 5,400rpm HDD
Optical drive None
Networking 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite

Design and features

The Mac Mini, even with no physical redesign in this latest version, still feels very small for a desktop computer. But it's hefty block of aluminum, 7.7 inches square and 2.6 pounds, and dwarfs the media streaming devices, from Roku to Amazon Fire TV (or the Apple TV for that matter), that have taken over much of the media streaming people used to need a home theater PC for.

Compared to other small desktops, the Mini sits in-between the slightly larger Alienware Alpha desktop, which includes its own discrete graphics chip, and the new HP Pavilion Mini, first seen at CES 2015. But, the Mac Mini, at 1.4 inches tall, is slimmer than both of those.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While those other two small form factor PCs have a couple of easy to access USB ports on the front panel, Apple's design is, true-to-form, very minimalist, with only a power light and IR sensor on the front panel. You'll have to go around to the rear to hook anything up.

Shipping without a keyboard and mouse means that you'll have to supply your own. Apple's versions are $69 each for the keyboard and your choice of mouse or trackpad (I prefer the latter), but any old USB or Bluetooth ones you have sitting around will work fine. I ended up using the Mac Mini primarily with a wireless Apple keyboard and a wireless Microsoft branded mouse. Keep that extra cost in mind when comparing this to the new HP Pavilion Mini, which includes a wireless keyboard/mouse combo in the box, even in the lowest-end $319 version.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite the lack of packed-in accessories, you do get a lot of software extras. The least-expensive Mac computer still includes all the bundled software found on its pricier siblings, including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, which comprise Apple's version of the Microsoft Office suite, as well as multimedia apps including GarageBand, iMovie and iPhoto (the latter to be replaced at some point by the new Photos app ).

One of the benefits of having a flexible system like the Mac Mini is that you can hook it up to any display you have sitting around, and you're not locked into the included screens built into the iMac desktops. We tried an Apple Cinema Display via mini-DisplayPort, as well as a 4K 28-inch monitor from Monoprice , via HDMI.

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The Mac Mini desktop, scaled to 4K resolution. Dan Ackerman/CNET

Through the Display section of the Settings menu, you can allow OS X to scale the desktop view to look its best on your monitor, no matter its resolution (or how it looks best according to Apple), or you can select your resolution, and we set the Mac Mini to run at full 3,840x2,160 on our 4K display. We were able to watch a streaming 4K video at full resolution like this, although overall performance felt choppy. At 4K, the desktop can also look very zoomed out. If you're looking for a true 4K experience, you'll need to spend more.

Ports & connections

Video HDMI, DisplayPort (x2)
Audio headphone/microphone jacks
Data 4 USB 3.0, Thunderbolt (x2), SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, configuration and performance

In return for buying a desktop over a laptop computer, you have a right to expect generous selection of ports and connections, even on small box like this. The Mac Mini's rear panel is loaded with connections, including four USB ports, and three video outputs (one is HDMI, the other two are shared Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort jacks), plus Ethernet, which is great if you're going to set this up as a streaming home theater computer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The base model Mac Mini reviewed here includes a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU from Intel's fourth generation of those chips, sometimes referred to by the the codename Haswell. New CPUs, fifth-gen models with the codename Broadwell, are starting to pop up, but it's unknown if or when they'll come to the Mac Mini or other Macs.

The least-expensive Mac Mini also includes 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive, both specs that would be considered on the low end in general, but are passable for a $500 computer. As a reminder -- and unlike previous Mac Mini models -- aftermarket upgrading is essentially impossible on the 2014 Mini, as the RAM is actually soldered into the motherboard and the hard drive is deeply buried inside.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Mac Mini performed competitively with the two other small desktops in the same price range we tested recently, the Alienware Alpha and the HP Pavilion Mini, trading first place between them in multitasking and single-app tests, but not blowing each other out of the water. Both the Alienware and HP models have Core i3 processors, but offer other extras, such as the custom graphics card in the Alpha (which led to a much better gaming frame rate score) and the larger 1TB hard drive in the Pavilion Mini. Note that our Pavilion Mini was a $479 configuration with an upgraded CPU and hard drive, rather than the $319 base model, making for a closer price-to-spec comparison.

The Mac Mini also performed roughly on par with both the current 13-inch MacBook Air and the 21.5-inch entry level iMac all-in-one desktop. That's because all three of those Macs are built around similar components, although the iMac has twice the RAM and the MacBook has a faster solid-state hard drive. That means the Mac Mini is nearly as powerful as Apple computers that cost twice as much.

In practical terms, basic Photoshop and webpage building worked smoothly, as did office and productivity applications. We loaded up Logic Pro , Apple's high-end professional music creation suite, and were able run through some demos, but keep in mind that the software plugins that are at the heart of that program are very CPU dependent, and you'll eventually hit a brick wall if you stack too many together.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Gaming is about as good as it is on a current MacBook Air, which is to say, not very. Tomb Raider, a recent game with a well-done Mac version, ran at only 13.2 frames per second at 1,920x1,080 resolution and medium detail settings. Upgraded Mac Mini configurations use Intel Iris graphics, which are only marginally better in our experience, but that could help a bit. Making for an interesting comparison is the Alienware Alpha, a similarly priced small desktop from Dell that combines a Core i3 CPU and custom Nvidia graphics card for great gaming performance (if not much else of note) for $499.

Conclusion

The 2014 update to the Mac Mini may not be the high-end makeover hobbyists and power users were hoping for, but it's still the least expensive way to get an OS X computer, even if there are some strings attached.

Among recent small form factor desktops, if you're interested in gaming, check out the Alienware Alpha; if you want enough storage for a solid home theater PC, but don't want to add $250 for a hard drive upgrade, check out the $479 build of the HP Pavilion Mini. For everyone else, especially those already used to OS X, the Mac Mini is powerful enough for everyday use, works as a hidden away desktop or home theater PC, or can even get tossed in a shoulder bag for easy travel.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test (in seconds)

Alienware Alpha 396Apple Mac Mini (late 2014) 409Apple iMac 21-inch (2014) 466HP Pavilion Mini 580HP Stream 11 2112
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

Apple iMac 21-inch (2014) 270Alienware Alpha 321Apple Mac Mini (late 2014) 328HP Pavilion Mini 374HP Stream 11 690
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

Apple Mac Mini (late 2014) 77Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) 78Alienware Alpha 111HP Pavilion Mini 162HP Stream 11 342
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Tomb Raider gaming test (frames per second)

Alienware Alpha 95.2Apple Mac Mini (late 2014) 13.2Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) 12.2HP Pavilion Mini 10.4
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

apple-mac-mini-2014-product-photos-01.jpg
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Apple Mac Mini (2014)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8