Apple’s small form factor Mac takes a step forward, but not a giant leap
Apple Mac mini has long been the cheapest way to own a Mac. Since its introduction in January 2005, the small form factor desktop Mac has offered a low-cost alternative to the all-in-one iMac or the high-end Mac Pro. Although it’s sold without a keyboard, mouse or screen, everything else you need is in the box. It’s internet-ready, through Ethernet or wireless N, and comes with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and all its bundled apps pre-installed.
The 2012 generation Mac mini is based on an aluminium unibody design. It’s available in two models. The cheaper one has a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and a 500GB hard drive. The more expensive late 2012 Mac mini reviewed here has a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, a 1TB hard drive. Both models offer 4GB of onboard RAM. There’s also a server version of the high-end model, which includes the server edition of Mountain Lion and twin 1TB hard drives.
At just 19.7cm (7.7 inches) long and wide, 3.6cm (1.4 inches) tall and weighing only 1.22kg (2.7lbs), it’s comfortably transportable.
If you want to use the same computer at home and at work, for example, you can set up a keyboard, mouse and monitor at each, and then when you’re ready to leave, unplug the Mac mini and slip it in your bag. Since the mid-2010 refresh, the Mac mini’s transformer has been built into the body, so the power supply is a cheap figure-of-eight lead.
The Mac mini lost its optical drive with the previous generation, in the summer of 2011, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t make a return here. If you want to use CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray discs, you have to buy an external device such as Apple’s own USB SuperDrive, or if you also have computer with an optical drive fitted, a Remote Disc.
The 2012 refresh isn’t a radical overhaul. It retains the same basic form factor as the last generation of Mac mini, and makes no major changes to its functionality. But it’s more than a mere incremental upgrade. The step up in processors, from the second generation Sandy Bridge chips to the new third-gen Ivy Bridge CPUs, bring a welcome increase in power. Their integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset is around 60% more powerful than the Intel HD Graphics 3000 used in second-generation Core-i processors.
Unfortunately, the discrete graphics chip that made its Mac mini debut in last year’s high-end model has now gone, so both 2012 Mac minis rely solely on integrated graphics. This is annoying, considering making room for the discrete chip was given as a reason for dropping the optical drive.
The two 2012 Mac minis have Ivy Bridge processors, with a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor in the entry-level model, and a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 for the more expensive one. This is up from the previous generation, which used 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 chips respectively. The new processors feature Hyper-Threading, enabling two threads to run on each core, for four virtual cores on the entry-level dual core chip and eight on the more expensive quad core model.
At times of high needs, Turbo Boost enables the processors to temporarily operate above their maximum clock speed. The 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 can reach up to 3.1GHz under Turbo Boost, and the 2.3GHz Core i7 can manage 3.6GHz.
Overall, the new processors represent a welcome step up for the entry-level model, and a very significant increase in power for the more expensive Apple Mac mini.
Once again, the Mac mini has a single Thunderbolt port, a versatile I/O protocol that can handle video as well as data. With two 10Gbps channels, it’s up to 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0
You can daisy chain up to six devices to a single Thunderbolt port, and it can even handle two Apple displays. If you’ve got an older Apple screen that uses a Mini DisplayPort connection, you can plug it straight into the Thunderbolt port with no adaptors required. Alternatively, there’s an HDMI port, which is ideal to connect your Mac mini to an HD TV or a monitor.
While most releases of Apple’s small form factor Mac have relied on integrated chipsets, the previous generation gave us an AMD Radeon HD 6630M in the high-end model. Indeed, it was said that the optical drive was in part dropped to make room for the extra graphics chip.
The lack of a discrete graphics chip doesn’t mean the new Intel Core i7 Mac mini is underpowered. The Intel HD graphics integrated chipset has improved with every new generation of Core i processor. The Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset used in these Ivy Bridge processors is up to 65% faster than the Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset it replaces.
What we like:
The 2012 Mac mini retains the qualities that endeared us to previous generations of Apple’s small form factor Mac. It’s very convenient; if you want to use the same computer at home and in the office, you can set up a monitor, keyboard and controller on each desk and carry the small, lightweight mini between the two. Since the transformer is built into the unit, the power supply is a cheap figure-of-eight cable. You don’t even need to carry around a power brick.
The new processors are awesome, giving a significant increase in power, and the USB ports have been upgraded to high-speed USB 3.0. And for those on a budget, the Mac mini is still the cheapest way to buy a Mac,
What we dislike:
Apple appears to be phasing out the optical drive. It was dropped from the Mac mini in the previous generation, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t make a return here. We miss the discrete graphics processor we got with the more expensive of the two mid-2011 Mac minis, though improvements to the Intel Core i-series chips’ integrated graphics chipset means this isn’t as big a loss as you might expect.
We wish Apple had put the SD card reader at the front of the machine. It would be far more accessible there, especially if the Mac mini is used as an under-the-TV media machine.
The hackneyed old phrase, ‘an evolution not a revolution’ could (to use another hackneyed phrase) be written for the late 2012 Mac mini. With the Ivy Bridge processors and faster memory already having debuted on other Macs, it was inevitable they’d come to the small form factor Mac with this year’s refresh.
Dropping the discrete graphics processor was an unwelcome surprise, though the unexpected but much appreciated Fusion Drive, a hybrid solution combining a hard drive and solid state storage, is a great configuration option.
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