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Apple Mac mini review (late 2012)

Apple
9/10
by Brian Westover, 22 Nov 2012
Apple Mac mini review (late 2012)
Best Buy

The Apple Mac mini (late 2012) may look identical to its predecessor Mac mini, but the machine has been updated with Intel's latest Ivy Bridge processor, faster USB 3.0 ports, and given a performance boost with Apple's new Fusion Drive (though that is an optional extra). It's everything we loved about the last Mac mini, just faster, making it an easy choice for a Best Buy award.

Design and features

The Mac mini is just what you expect from an Apple product. The design is the very picture of minimalist refinement, a CNC-milled aluminium block housing a full desktop-worth of hardware. And, true to form for Apple, it looks exactly like the previous iteration, and very similar to the model before that – the last easily spotted change on the Mac mini was when Apple dropped the optical drive and added a Thunderbolt port.

Measuring 197 x 197 x 36mm (WxDxH), the compact Mac mini is small enough to sit unobtrusively on your desk, next to your display and keyboard. The rounded corners and subtle curves will be familiar looking to anyone who has seen an Apple product in the last few years.

Unlike other tiny desktops that set up vertically, the Mac mini sticks with the low horizontal design it has used for years. On the top is a glossy black Apple logo; on the bottom is a round black plastic hatch. It can be opened without any tools, giving you a limited view of the internals, and only providing real access to a few specific components (see below). RAM modules can be added and swapped, and the fan removed for cleaning – although the rest of the components can be accessed, you need to have the necessary tools and a lot of patience. In such a small, tightly packed machine, there isn’t really room for upgrades.

Apple has beefed up several features in the new Mac mini. The USB ports have all been upgraded to USB 3.0, though the ports aren't labelled as such, nor do they have the usual blue port connectors. Joining the faster USB ports are the same ports used before, with a Thunderbolt port (which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort), FireWire 800 connection, HDMI output, an SDXC card slot, and audio line in and line out connections.

Gigabit Ethernet is here along with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. It's a robust selection of features for such a small system; other compact desktops often drop features in the interest of saving space.

The processor has been upgraded to the latest Ivy Bridge technology, and our review unit was outfitted with a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core processor and 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory. It also had the optional Fusion Drive on board, bringing the total cost of our review model to £879. 8GB and 16GB configurations of the machine are available for an additional £80, and a rather eye-watering extra £240 respectively.

Graphics processing got a bump with the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, but this time around there is no configuration available with a discrete GPU.

Fusion Drive

As we’ve just mentioned, our review model was equipped with a 1.12TB Fusion Drive (an optional extra costing £200), but that's not even half of the story. Apple's Fusion Drive combines hard disk and flash storage – Apple's nomenclature for both solid-state drives and custom flash modules – but it's neither a hybrid drive, nor is it a traditional dual drive. Instead of there being two drive volumes to manage (which can be a nuisance for the tech savvy, and downright mystifying for others), the Mac mini presents the two drives as one volume. As far as managing your files and programs goes, that's all you need to know, because the Fusion Drive software does the rest.

Pull back the curtain a bit, and there's more going on. Every piece of data – be it program, media file, document, and even the operating system – is initially written to the 128GB of Flash storage to provide the faster performance offered by Flash media. As your data is used from day to day, however, the drive shifts the less frequently used data to the slower 1TB hard drive. The result is speedy SSD performance for the data you use most frequently, without the cramped storage levels you'd have to put up with on a pure SSD.

What makes this setup different from hybrid drives, however, is that the Flash storage is not acting as a cache, mirroring data from the drive. Also, the evaluation process is on-going, continuously evaluating each piece of data as it is accessed by the user, shifting it back and forth to maximise performance. Once your Mac mini gets into a routine and is optimised, this setup can save wear and tear on the spinning hard drive, since oft-used programs and files will eventually reside on Flash storage.

All of this work happens in the background, with data evaluated in real time, and shifted to and from the Flash storage during idle times so as not to slow down performance during data intensive actions. From the algorithmic evaluation of data use to the shifting of data, it all happens seamlessly in the background, and the Fusion Drive offers optimal performance without the need for constant tweaking.

Mac OS X and software

Like the other members of the current Mac family, the Mac mini comes preinstalled with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8.2 on our review unit), along with programs from iLife 2011, like iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. The programs themselves are top notch, and Mountain Lion itself is an excellent OS. It also features all of the same gesture support seen in the MacBook Pro line-up, so you might consider getting an Apple Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad to take advantage of the intuitive controls.

In addition to the operating system and programs, Apple covers the Mac mini with a one year warranty, and offers free tech support for the first 90 days after purchase. For extra protection and longer coverage, you can also purchase AppleCare for £129 per year.

Performance

With the new processing hardware, and the bump from dual-core Core i5 to quad-core Core i7, the new Mac mini more than doubled the processing performance of the previous iteration, scoring 5.93 points in Cinebench R11.5, where the old Mac mini scored 2.69 points. The Mac mini also made short work of our current multimedia tests, finishing Handbrake (version 0.9.8) in 37 seconds, and Photoshop CS6 in 3 minutes and 58 seconds.

Though the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 is more than sufficient for most day-to-day tasks, it isn't enough to support high-end 3D gaming. When tested with Heaven at both medium and high settings, it failed to produce playable results, rendering 19 frames per second (fps) and 12 fps, respectively. The Intel HD Graphics 4000 is certainly enough to play games with lighter requirements, such as Torchlight or one of the World of Warcraft titles.

Verdict

Note that our review machine’s configuration, with the added Fusion Drive, isn’t the cheapest Mac mini available by far at £879. Without the Fusion tech on board, and just a vanilla 1TB hard drive, the Core i7 Mac mini is £679 – and the base model, with a Core i5 dual-core CPU and a plain 500GB hard disk, is cheaper still at £499.

Still, our review model’s seamless Fusion Drive is a sterling addition to the mix, and the Mac mini offers an array of display outputs and connectivity options which is far larger than most compact desktops can muster. Add in its peppy performance, beautiful design and industry-leading operating system, and the Mac mini is deserving of our Best Buy award.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Device

Apple Mac mini

Processor Family

Intel Core i7

Graphics Card

Intel HD Graphics 4000

Operating System

Mac OS X 10.8

Monitor Type

None

RAM

4GB

Storage Capacity (as Tested)

1128 GB

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