REVIEW: Apple Mac Mini (2012)

This update to the humble Mac Mini has gone almost unnoticed amidst the headline-grabbing launch of the iPad Mini and the elegant new iMac. That’s a shame, as for many people―both home and business users―the Mac Mini is the ideal entry point into the kingdom of the mighty Apple.

The most obvious feature of the Mac Mini is its extremely compact and minimalist design. It makes most “small form factor” PCs look like a pile of scrap metal, and is a good choice for anyone that simply wants a compact office computer that will actually look good on their desk. And while we wouldn’t exactly describe it as “cheap”, this year’s update marks a welcome return to the idea of the Mac Mini as an affordable Mac aimed at new users who might be thinking of buying a Mac for the very first time.

Size Matters

Unlike the iMac, which has undergone a major redesign, the Mac Mini sticks with the same “basic” design that it has had since 2010. Having said that, there’s not much room for improvement here anyway, as the Mac Mini measures just 19.7cm wide and deep and a mere 3.6cm high, so there’s not a lot of excess fat waiting to be trimmed.

It is, quite simply, the most compact desktop computer we’ve ever seen. It’s also virtually silent when running and, according to Apple, is the most power-efficient desktop system currently available, with a power draw of just 11W when idle. If you’re looking for a compact, quiet machine to run presentations in the boardroom then the Mac Mini will work a treat.

With that in mind, there’s an HDMI port tucked around the back for connecting it to an HD TV. There were initially problems with the Mac Mini’s HDMI output― apparently caused by Intel’s integrated HD 4000 graphics processor―but Apple has now released a software update to correct this, and we had no problems when using our review unit with a Samsung HD TV. You can also use Apple’s Thunderbolt interface to connect a monitor or a high-speed Thunderbolt drive, and there’s an HDMI-to-DVI adapter included as well.

Our only complaint with that slimline design is that it doesn’t leave any room for a DVD drive, let alone additional expansion options. In fact, the memory is the only component that’s user-upgradable. It is pretty well connected, though, with four USB ports tucked around the back of the unit―finally updated to USB 3.0 on this model― as well as a FireWire 800 interface, Thunderbolt interface, Gigabit Ethernet, memory card slot and audio input and output. Just remember that, as always, the Mac Mini is sold without a keyboard, mouse or monitor.

Mini Money

When it was first launched, the Mac Mini was specifically intended as a low-cost machine that would tempt wavering PC users over to the Mac―the first model cost less than £400. In recent years, though, the premium pricing of items such as the iPhone and iPad have caused Apple to get greedy. The price of the Mac Mini seemed to rise with each annual update, and at one point Apple was charging a hefty £650 for the most basic entry-level model.

Thankfully, this year’s model sees the Mac Mini dip below the £500 mark once more. Last year’s version cost £529 with a 2.3GHz dual-core Intel i5 processor, along with a modest 2GB of RAM and 500GB hard disk. This year’s model sticks with the Intel i5 processor, but updates it to Intel’s third-generation Ivy Bridge edition and provides a modest speed bump to 2.5GHz. The memory also gets doubled to 4GB, although the 500GB hard disk remains the same. That’s fine for most office users, and certainly powerful enough to run the Mac version of Microsoft Office or to prepare some video presentations using PowerPoint or Apple’s own Keynote.

If you need something a little more powerful then there’s a second model priced at £679 that includes a quad-core i7 processor running at 2.3GHz and doubles the hard drive to 1TB. There are a number of additional build-to-order options too, including Apple’s hybrid ‘Fusion’ drive―a 1TB hard drive combined with a 128GB solid-state module―which is designed to improve boot time and application launch times.

More pertinent for business users, perhaps, is the Server edition of the Mac Mini, which costs £849 with the i7 processor and a second 1TB hard drive, and which runs Apple’s OS X Server software. That might sound odd for a machine that is primarily intended as an entry-level desktop computer, but the Mac Mini Server has proved popular with a number of Mac-based small businesses in the past.

Quality Counts

In technical terms, this update to the Mac Mini provides little more than an Ivy Bridge speedbump. However, we are pleased to see that Apple has finally cut the entry-level price to just below £500 for the first time in years. There are cheaper PCs available, of course―Dell’s Vostro mini-tower PC costs about £50 less with a similar specification. However, the Mac Mini’s ultra-compact design and build quality are in a different league and justify the modest premium. So if you’re looking for a compact yet stylish computer to sit on your desk―or perhaps in a reception or showroom area―then the Mac Mini is well worth considering. Just remember to order a matching keyboard, mouse and monitor!

  • Mick Pedant

    I believe the first Mini was priced at £499 in the UK, not “less than £400”

    • Cliff Joseph

      I can’t swear to this as gospel, but I was present at the launch of the Mac Mini in those halcyon days of yore (circa 2005).

      My recollection is that the US price back then was $499 (£350-ish) and the whole point was that it was meant to be a low-cost option to try and get a few PC users to switch over to the Mac for the first time. I daresay VAT would have pushed the price up a bit, but I honestly don’t think the original UK price was as high as £499.

      I could be wrong, though…. :)

  • a.cotton5

    I used to have an iMac it`s a long story in short it was faulty,and after 3yrs i got a full refund. I have just worked out the Mac Mini full specs including Apple Care Plan total £1,298,but this seems to have a problem with the HDMI port. Still looking for this problem.