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Desktops

Mac Mini 2018 teaches an old design new tricks

After some time with the long-awaited update to Apple's mini PC, we're impressed overall -- but still have one big reservation.

140-mac-mini-2018

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

After several 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 in the 2018 models, Apple's delivered a great upgrade, with only one possible drawback.

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, it's not really end-user upgradable, requiring a trip to a service center. This undercuts one of the perks, namely being able 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.

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I had some time with 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: It's similar to the old model. It drove the Dell Ultrathin 27 S2719DC display via Thunderbolt without any unexpected issues, and produced HDR on the monitor through the HDMI. 

The B series of the Core processors are new low-profile, thermally capped versions of their desktop counterparts designed for embedded systems and mini PCs, which is how Apple managed to switch from the last generation's mobile processors while keeping essentially the same design, and with no increase in fan noise. 

Though the price of entry has gone up from $500 to $800 (£400 to £800 or AU$620 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 actually 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 really an inexpensive system, either. That $800 doesn't include a keyboard, mouse, trackpad or monitor, so really 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 (£1,880 at Amazon.co.uk) is $1,100, though it's a far less capable system.

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

Performance of the base model is fine, about what you'd expect given the components, but in general I really 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.

We didn't rebenchmark 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.

Bigger on the outside

So what's the drawback? For many pros, 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 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-generation hexacore processors.)

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 really 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.)

We'll be back with a final review once we've finished all our testing, so stay tuned.

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

HP Spectre x360 15 (2018)
15425
Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1
14810
Apple Mac Mini (2018)
14275
Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017)
14128

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU multicore

HP Spectre x360 15 (2018)
783
Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1
691
Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017)
591
Apple Mac Mini (2018)
586

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 OpenGL multicore

Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1
115.12
Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017)
106.15
HP Spectre x360 15 (2018)
51.17
Apple Mac Mini (2018)
41.2

Note:

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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