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Apple Mac mini (2018) review: A welcome upgrade at an unwelcome price

Jonathan Bray
21 Dec 2018
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
799
inc VAT

The updated Mac mini is faster, better connected and as stylish as ever – but the price is hard to justify

Pros 
Compact and quiet
Vastly more powerful than its predecessor
Impressive connectivity
Cons 
A little pricey
No keyboard or mouse in the box
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Update: The Mac Mini has received an upgrade to storage in 2020. While the compact computer's other specs remain the same to its 2018 iteration, storage has been bumped to 256GB for the £799 model and 512GB for the £1,099 model. 


The new Mac mini is part of a one-two revival punch from Apple in 2018. Like the new MacBook Air, it’s a major update to a platform that’s spent the past few years languishing in the wilderness. In fact, this is the first time Apple has touched its much-loved compact computer since way back in 2014.

That’s a long time in computing terms and a lot has happened in the intervening years: Intel has run through four new generations of CPUs; Apple itself has launched seven new iPhones; the iPad has gained a “Pro” suffix – and technology, in general, has increased dramatically in price. Who’d have thought, four years ago, that a top-of-the-range iPhone would cost you nearly £1,500?

READ NEXT: Our guide to the best mini PCs you can buy today

Mac mini (2018) review: What you need to know

The new 2018 Mac mini clearly reflects how the tech marketplace has changed. It comes with all-new internals and much better connectivity than in 2014 – and the price has risen significantly. Just like the 2018 MacBook Air, it’s also now built entirely from recycled aluminium.

The essential premise of the Mac mini, however, hasn’t changed at all. As always, it’s a compact desktop computer that runs macOS out of the box. It comes with a power cable and nothing else: as with a regular desktop PC you have to supply your own keyboard, mouse and monitor.

Mac mini (2018) review: Price and competition

In the years since the mini was last updated, the Windows-based competition has grown impressively. There’s now a huge range of models, of all shapes and sizes, to choose from.

One of our recent favourites is the Asus VivoMini. This comes in a number of different configurations, but the one closest to the baseline Mac mini costs £691 and comes with a dual-core Intel Core i5-7200U processor, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a 1TB HDD. For comparison, the Mac mini I have on test here costs £799 and comes with a quad-core Intel Core i3-8100B, 8GB of 2666MHz DDR4 RAM and a 128GB SSD. It’s a marked price difference for what looks an inferior spec.

Not that the Mac mini is limited to that configuration. You can choose much more powerful innards at the point of purchase: it’s entirely possible to specify a new mini with a six-core 3.2GHz Core i7, 64GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD (not to mention 10 Gigabit Ethernet). Clearly, Apple doesn’t see the mini as limited to a standard desktop role. However, that configuration costs a scarcely believable £3,859, putting it on a collision course with workstations and powerful gaming PCs.

Mac mini (2018) review: Design and connectivity

The new Mac mini might be a major advance on the 2014 model, but its looks haven’t changed at all. It’s still the same squashed square with rounded corners, measuring 197mm by 36mm. It weighs just 1.3kg and it’s still hewn from a solid block of aluminium. There’s a new, darker Space Grey colour option but, otherwise, nothing visibly marks this out as a new generation. And that’s not a criticism: the unfussy elegance of the Mac mini’s design has always been part of the appeal. I’d even say it’s a thing of beauty.

Only at the rear do the symptoms of modernisation appear. Where the old mini had a proliferation of Thunderbolt 2 and USB-A ports, the new one has four Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C ports and just two USB 3 Type-A ports. The SD card slot is gone, which is a shame, but the mini still has a 3.5mm headphone jack and Gigabit Ethernet. It’s an impressive array of connectivity options for a machine this small.

As I mentioned, it’s also possible to specify 10GbE networking – great news if you want to use a Mac mini as a network-based render node for Final Cut Compressor. And penny pinchers will be pleased to learn that the RAM is still user-upgradeable, with two SODIMM slots on the mini’s motherboard allowing you to install up to 64GB for a lot less than Apple will charge.

If you don’t need to go that far, you can take the mini up to 32GB for less than half the price of specifying it at purchase, or even make a fair saving on a 16GB upgrade: a DIY kit costs around £150, while going the Apple route will cost you £180.

Mac mini (2018) review: Specification and performance

For this review, I tested the entry-level Mac mini, with an Intel Core i3 inside backed by 8GB of RAM and a 128GB PCIe SSD. Even though this is the most modest specification offered, it showed a surprising turn of speed.

In our 4K media benchmarks, the Core i3 Mac mini achieved an overall score of 129, which compares very favourably to other mini-PCs we’ve tested. It’s much faster than the Core i7-7200U-powered Asus VivoMini we tested and the HP Elite Slice with its Core i5-6500T. It even holds its own against the pricier Intel NUC Kit 8i7HVK, which has a quad-core Core i7-8809G CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.

Frankly, this is a level of performance you wouldn’t normally expect to see from a Core i3 system. The explanation is that, although it lacks Hyper-Threading, the Core i3-8100B inside the Mac mini has four physical cores, helping it to keep pace with the NUC’s Core i7 in both our 4K media benchmarks and the Geekbench 4 test.

View the latest Apple discount codes

The SSD is a rare performer, too. Across multiple runs of the Blackmagic Disk test utility, I saw average sustained read and write speeds of 2,530MB/sec and 751MB/sec respectively from the 128GB PCIe SSD. That ensures that macOS feels perfectly snappy, with apps opening up quickly and smoothly.

The only area where the Mac mini falls behind is 3D graphics, as it doesn’t have a discrete GPU like the NUC 8’s Radeon RX Vega M GH. The Intel UHD Graphics 630 GPU is absolutely fine for desktop applications, but considerably less capable when it comes to gaming.

Still, you’re not necessarily stuck with integrated graphics. Thanks to macOS Mojave’s newfound support for eGPU boxes, you can attach an external graphics processor via Thunderbolt 3. One option is Blackmagic’s Radeon Pro 580-based box, costing £599, and a more powerful version has also just been released.

Even as it stands, the Core i3-based Mac mini is perfectly capable of performing most things a reasonably demanding desktop PC user is likely to ask of it. It’ll take heavy Photoshop editing in its stride and even a modicum of video editing – with the right software, the Mac mini’s T2 co-processor is capable of dramatically accelerating HEVC video encoding. That said, this lowest-spec model will still likely start to struggle if you throw complex 4K video-editing projects at it.

Apple Mac mini (2018) review: Verdict

The original Mac mini was something of a gateway drug – a simple, cheap way of enticing customers into the Mac ecosystem. Accordingly, when the last iteration of the mini was released in 2014, prices started at a tempting £399. Now, in 2018, the base model costs £799, making the new Mac mini 100% more expensive than its predecessor.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you get a lot for your money. The new Mac mini comes with solid-state storage as standard and a minimum of 8GB of RAM. It’s a far more capable machine than the old model, and you can beef up the configuration to achieve a truly impressive amount of power.

Even so, doubling the price in four years? No matter how good the new Mac mini is, that’s a bitter pill to swallow and I’d advise would-be purchasers to take a close look at the numerous mini PC alternatives before digging out their credit cards.

Alternatives to consider:

1 Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK
Our Rating 

Intel's NUC has matured significantly since it first appeared way back in 2012 from a hobbyists mini-PC to something you can run as a full-on gaming machine today. The latest Intel NUC, though, is a little bit different because it includes a GPU from arch-rival AMD alongside its Quad-core 3.1GHz Core i7-8809G CPU.

That gives this tiny PC a surprising amount of oomph and although it's a tiny bit slower overall than the Mac Mini we've reviewed here for general tasks, it's a far more competent machine for gaming. 

If that's what you want, the Intel NUC is a decent alternative choice. Just bear in mind you'll have to add your own RAM, storage and operating system software so the overall cost will increase from the base price shown here.

Price when reviewed 
853
Click here to read the full Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK review