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Apple Mac Mini (2018) review: Apple teaches an old design new tricks

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After years of silence on the Mac Mini front, fans of Apple's diminutive desktop computing slab had given up hope of ever getting a replacement. But Apple's delivered a great upgrade with its 2018 models. And there's only one possible drawback.

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Apple Mac Mini (2018)

The Good

Apple wrests excellent performance out of even the low-end Core i3 processor in the base configuration. The small system remains unobtrusive. The four USB-C/Thunderbolt ports and 10Gb Ethernet option provide for more storage with fast external data transfers.

The Bad

You're stuck with integrated graphics unless you fork over the bucks and desk space for an eGPU. Relatively high entry price once you spring for the accessories and a display. It no longer serves as a budget option despite being the most affordable Mac.

The Bottom Line

The Apple Mac Mini 2018 continues to serve as a satisfying, gets-the-job-done desktop system that delivers surprising value when you want something designed to be seen and not heard.

In addition to modernizing the connection options with USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, updating to HDMI 2.0 and offering a 10-gigabit Ethernet option, Apple fixed one of the big complaints about the 2014 model: soldered memory. Upgradable memory is back, and it takes two industry-standard DDR4 SO-DIMMs.

But like most Apple products, you can't upgrade it at home. Instead you'll have to take a trip to a service center. This undercuts one of upgradeable memory's perks: The option to buy less expensive memory elsewhere. But if it's going to be another four years until Apple updates the Mini again, then every little bit of upgradability helps.

We tested the "cheap" entry-level model, equipped with an Intel Core i3-8100B, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. There isn't much to say about how it feels to use. It's similar to the old model. It drove a Dell Ultrathin 27 S2719DC display via Thunderbolt without any unexpected issues (and at the monitor's maximum 75Hz refresh rate). The speakers are still kind of tinny, but the system still has the quaint 3.5mm headphone jack that Apple's dropped from its other products.

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The 2014 Mac Mini's connections (bottom) versus the 2018 model's (top). Gone are the SD card slot, two of the USB-A connections and audio input. In exchange we gain more Thunderbolt capacity and better venting.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The B series of the Core processors are recent low-profile, thermally capped versions of their desktop counterparts designed for embedded systems and mini PCs. This is how Apple was able to switch from the last generation's mobile processors while keeping essentially the same design and without increasing its fan noise or noticeable heat. The i3 wouldn't really stress the small box's cooling system so we can't speak to how it would handle a more demanding processor.

But the new generation of the Core i3 delivers performance almost on par with the previous generation's i5. This Mini's processor fares well against last year's midrange iMac, though that uses a mobile version of the processor with very low power. Apple will probably switch the to the new generation of CPUs for the iMac in 2019, so the Mini won't necessarily remain comparable. (We didn't retest the 2014 Mac Mini for comparison, but Apple would have had to actively try to slow it down in order to deliver worse performance than those four-year-old components.)

Mac Mini 2018 makes the most of its veteran design

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Though the price of entry has gone up from $499 to $799 (£399 to £799 or AU$619 to AU$1,249), much faster than the pace of inflation over the same period, it's still not out of line. The comparable Windows configurations in a compact design -- and there really aren't many -- are pretty expensive in comparison. Examples include the HP Z2 Mini G4 workstation (about $1,000 for an i3-8100, 8GB and 256GB SSD) or the HP EliteDesk 800 G4 (almost $1,300 for an i3-8100T, 8GB of RAM and 128GB SSD).

But it's not an inexpensive system, either. That $799 doesn't include a keyboard, mouse, trackpad or monitor, so you're looking at about $1,000 just for that base configuration if you only spend about $110 on a monitor. The least expensive iMac is $1,099 and includes those parts, but it's a far less capable system in some respects.

Apple Mac Mini 2018

Price as reviewed $799, £799, AU$1,249
PC CPU 3.6GHz Intel Core i3-8100B
PC Memory 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,667MHz
Graphics 1535MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics 630
Storage Apple 128GB SSD
Ports Four USB-C/Thunderbolt, two USB-A 3.1, one HDMI 2.0, audio out
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, AirPort Extreme
Operating system Apple MacOS Mojave 10.14

Is it for you?

If you've got the 2014 model, were happy with it before it got old and are ready for an upgrade, the 2018 is worth the money. It's faster and has the components to serve the same uses. Plus it adds some modern connections. It's still suited to running in arrays for commercial purposes. It can work as a basic home theatre system, driving an external 4K TV at 60Hz through HDMI. But the connection is HDMI 2.0, not 2.0a, so while it will output to an HDR display or TV, you won't get HDR rendering. 

The base model's performance is fine -- about what you'd expect given the components. But in general I recommend you skip the quad-core i3 and head for at least the hexacore i5, not just for the speed boost, but for the futureproofing. 

An increasing number of applications are taking advantage of more cores, and for premium systems quad core is over. While the Mac Mini is inexpensive for Apple, it's still essentially premium -- after all, you can configure it with up to $4,200 (£3,860, AU$6,660) worth of components. Plus, the i3 operates at a fixed processor speed of 3.6GHz. It doesn't incorporate Intel's Turbo Boost technology, which holds it back.

I'd also stay away from the base 8GB, 128GB storage option, unless you really only use a few applications and don't want to store any photos or videos locally. While you can always load up on external storage and get more memory added, 8GB and 128GB still feels kind of cramped.

Bigger on the outside

So what's the drawback? For many, it may be hamstrung by Intel's integrated graphics processor. I'm not saying it needs a powerful gaming or rendering GPU. A Kaby Lake G CPU, for example, would be a nice alternative to the i3 simply to make the system low-end VR ready, to take some of the video decoding or image-processing burden or to help reduce overhead in audio production. (With only four cores, that CPU may not match the performance of the i5 and i7 eighth-gen hexacore processors.) Some games won't even run if they don't detect a discrete GPU, no matter how lame it might be.

Not all software supports the latter, but some notable digital audio editing software, such as Avid Pro Tools, at least take advantage to accelerate plug-ins. (I've included benchmark results for a couple of Kaby Lake G laptops to give you a sense of performance and speed.) But that also would require some internal redesign and -- gasp! -- maybe a few millimeters' embiggening.

Apple seems to be betting on external GPUs as a solution for much of its graphics woes. But one of the benefits of the Mini is that it's mini. Having to make space for a big eGPU just for better-than-basic graphics acceleration kind of defeats the purpose of a tiny system, especially when you're likely going to be hanging a multitude of external drives and other accessories off it as well. And with that in mind, a couple of ports on the front would be nice.

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

HP Spectre x360 15 (2018) 15425Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1 14810Apple Mac Mini (2018) 14275Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 14128
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU multicore

HP Spectre x360 15 (2018) 783Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1 691Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 591Apple Mac Mini (2018) 586
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 OpenGL multicore

Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1 115.12Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 106.15HP Spectre x360 15 (2018) 51.17Apple Mac Mini (2018) 41.2
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-8705G; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB AMD Radeon RX Vega M GL Graphics; 512GB SSD
Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.5; 3.4GHz Intel Core i5-7500U; 8GB 2400MHz DDR4 SDRAM; 4GB Radeon Pro 570; 1TB Fusion Drive Journaled HFS+
Apple Mac Mini (2018) Apple MacOS Mojave10.14 3.6GHz Intel Core i3-8100B; 8GB 2666MHz DDR4 SDRAM; 1536MB Intel UHD 630 integrated graphics; 128GB SSD
HP Spectre x360 15 (2018) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-8705G; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB AMD Radeon RX Vega M GL Graphics; 512GB SSD
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8.1

Apple Mac Mini (2018)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8