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, 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.
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.
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.
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 theand the , 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 , 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|
|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.
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.
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).
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, via HDMI.