- Review Date: 11/22/2012
- Bottom line: The Apple Mac mini (Late 2012) is Apple's best yet, packing as much punch into its compact chassis as a full-size desktop, and offering the sizable, speedy Fusion drive.
- Pros: Intel Ivy Bridge processor. Fusion Drive with 1.12TB capacity. Unchanged aluminum unibody design. Offers USB 3.0, HDMI, and Thunderbolt ports.
- Cons: Limited upgrade opportunities.
The Apple Mac mini (Late 2012) may look the same—it is, after all identical to the Mac mini (Thunderbolt)—but it 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. It's everything we loved about the Apple Mac mini (Thunderbolt), just faster, making it an easy pick for Editors' Choice.
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 aluminum 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 1.4 by 7.7 by 7.7 inches (HWD), 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 that's seen an Apple product in the last few years. Unlike other tiny desktops that set up vertically, like the Polywell Poly i1000A-3770T, 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, only providing real access to a few specific components. RAM modules can be added and swapped, the fan removed for cleaning, though the rest of the components can be accessed, assuming you have the necessary tools and a lot of patience. In such a small, tightly packed package, there's not 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 labeled as such, nor do they have the blue port connectors to indicate as such. Joining the faster USB ports are the same port 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 joined by 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, such as the Shuttle X6100, which omits Wi-Fi connectivity.
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. Last year's $799 mid-tier model had a Core i5 processor in it. There are also 8GB and 16GB configurations available (for an extra $100 and $300, 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. The Mac mini also equipped with Apple's new Fusion drive technology and the latest version of Mac OS X Mountain Lion.
The Mac mini's specifications tell us that our model is equipped with a 1.12TB Fusion Drive, 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, 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 1TB hard drive, which offers slower speed, but more storage capacity. The result is speedy SSD performance for the data you use most frequently, without the cramped storage you'd contend with on a pure SSD.
What makes this set up 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 ongoing, continuously evaluating each piece of data as it is accessed by the user, shifting it back and forth to maximize performance. Once your Mac mini gets into a routine and is optimized, 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 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-rated, and Mountain Lion itself was picked as one of the best tech products of 2012. 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 ($149 per year).
With the new processing hardware, and the bump from dual-core Core i5 to quad-core Core i7, the Mac mini (Late 2012) more than doubled the processing performance over the previous iteration, scoring 5.95 points where the Mac mini (Thunderbolt) scored 2.69 points. It's necessarily a fair comparison, however, because the hardware is so different. Alternatively, the Polywell Poly i1000A-3770T, which has a 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-3770T processor, scored 6.30 points.
The Mac mini also made quick work of our current multimedia tests, finishing Handbrake (version 0.9.8) in 37 seconds, and Photoshop CS6 in 3 minutes 58 seconds. While the Polywell Poly i1000A-3770T has slightly faster raw performance, the Mac mini's Core i7 still offers enough processing power to continue to feel speedy even after a few years of use.
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 are certainly enough to play games with lighter requirements, such as Torchlight or one of the World of Warcraft titles.
While this configuration may not be the most inexpensive member of the Mac family—the starting configuration sells for a more affordable $599—the Apple Mac mini (Late 2012) compact desktop offers top features and performance to spare. While the previous Editors' Choice Polywell Poly i1000A-3770T does boast a slightly beefier processor, it doesn't offer the highly polished refinement offered by Mac mini. The seamless 1.12TB Fusion Drive is superb, and the array of display outputs and connectivity options is far larger than most compact desktops can muster. Add in the beautiful design and industry-leading operating system, and the Mac mini is an easy pick for our Editors' Choice.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.