Look at the Apple Mac Mini 2020 and you might see something that, because of its size and quietness, must only be good for web browsing and office work. This could not be further from the truth. It’s possible to spec a Mac Mini with a six-core eighth-generation Intel i7 processor, 64GB of RAM, and 2TB of flash storage, and a machine like this is a force to be reckoned with in any computing environment - and a strong contender in our guide to the best home computers.
While the Mac Mini may be a spicy little processing powerhouse, its small size and lack of in-built screen mean it’s the perfect desktop machine for a lot of situations, from students living in cramped accommodation to anyone who doesn’t want their computer being too noticeable. It’ll even play nicely with a TV. Notice those four Thunderbolt 3 ports around the back though? If you want to fill your desk with screens and racks of external storage - even an eGPU - you can do that too. What the Mac Mini offers is flexibility.
Then there’s the operating system. macOS Catalina may be a bit different to Windows 10, but it doesn’t take too much time for a Windows user to become acclimatized to the new environment.
Apple Mac Mini review: Design
- Sleek, minimal design that fits anywhere
- Huge number of ports for its size
On the outside, the Mac Mini is minimal to say the least. An eight-inch square of aluminum alloy that boasts nothing on its front-facing surface except a single LED to tell you if it’s on. The top is similarly featureless, apart from an Apple logo. The real action is round the back, where you’ll find four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports (up to 40Gbps) and a pair of USB 3 type-As (5Gbps). There’s also an Ethernet port (configurable to 10GB Ethernet), an HDMI (2.0), and a headphone jack, plus the on/off switch and a power connector.
That’s a lot of ports, and reverses the iMac’s four USB-A/two USB-C arrangement. There’s a reason for this - the Mini isn’t designed to be an all-in-one device. While an iMac might have one extra screen and a few USB flash drives plugged in, Mini users don’t have a built-in screen, and if they want storage beyond the (doubled in the 2020 refresh but still expensive to spec-up) internal flash drive they’ll need to have it externally.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine the circumstances in which you’d fill every single one of those ports, and this gives the Mini a degree of future-proofing, at least.
Underneath the Mini, you’ll find a removable plastic disk that gives access to the innards of the machine, as well as containing the antennas for Wi-Fi 5 and Bluetooth 5 connections. You can upgrade the Mini’s RAM this way, but it’s a fiddly process involving Torx screws. Other chips and the SSD are soldered to the motherboard, so aren’t user-replaceable.
Apple Mac Mini review: Performance
- Highly customizable
- Can handle anything that isn't gaming
At its most basic, the Mac Mini is powered by an Intel 8th-generation Core i3 processor with four cores, four threads, and running at 3.6GHz. Backed by 8GB of RAM, Intel UHD Graphics 630, and 256GB of fast flash storage, this is a ridiculously capable machine right out of the gate.
The weak point is the graphics processor, and it’s not something you’re going to be able to upgrade unless you’re prepared to spend serious money on an eGPU that connects over one of those Thunderbolt 3 ports. Intel’s integrated graphics chips from this generation do just fine driving up to three monitors and playing back video at 1080p or even 4K, but they’re the wrong tool for any sort of 3D rendering or gaming. As a content-creation machine, the Mac Mini is firmly in the second dimension.
Give it a task more in-line with its capabilities, however, and it flies. The build-to-order options allow you to upgrade to i5 and i7 processors, the best of which features six cores with Intel’s Hyperthreading technology to process 12 threads at up to 4.6GHz. You can back this with up to 64GB of RAM, although for most Mac mini tasks 16GB is likely to be enough - 8GB is just starting to be a little on the low side unless you’re just web browsing or word processing.
Storage-wise, the lowest you can get is 256GB. This is perfectly adequate as long as you’re happy using an external drive to hold your large documents and work files. It’s perfectly possible to keep mac OS and a handful of essential apps on a 128 GB drive with a little room to spare, so 256GB is a perfectly workable amount. All those ports round the back of the Mini, however, are just begging to be plugged into external storage, and with a fast external SSD you can easily use a Mini to throw video files about.
And the Mini has one further trick. Spec one with the 10GB Ethernet port, then buy five more Mac Minis and network them together, and you can use your master Mac Mini to offload intensive tasks such as Final Cut Pro rendering to the others. It’s an elegant solution to a problem also solved by purchasing a Mac Pro, but it does go to show the thought that’s gone into making the Mini a relevant content creation machine.
Apple Mac Mini review: Value
Apple products do tend to fall down in terms of value for money when compared to Windows- or Linux-based PCs. The small form factor of the Mini is one of its selling points, but other small computers are available. The Mini being stuck with Intel’s eighth-generation CPUs while others, such as the Intel NUC, streak ahead with tenth-generation chips and discrete graphics chips means the mini is a little behind the leading edge of technology.
RAM from the Apple Store can be a little expensive, so getting the minimum 8GB and upgrading it yourself can be better value. You also have to factor in the cost of a screen or two (although you can use any you already own with the right adapter) plus a keyboard and mouse (again, many may already be compatible). Blackmagic’s external graphics processors are available straight from the Apple Store starting at $700, but the top model, at $1,200, contains a GPU you can get elsewhere for less than $500 (just not in a Thunderbolt 3 external enclosure).
Should you buy an Apple Mac Mini?
If you want a beautifully put-together, small form-factor system that will tear through any applications you give it that don’t need graphics processing, then the Mac Mini is an easy recommendation. The 2020 refresh was a bit of a disappointment, leaving the Mini two generations behind in terms of CPU technology, but this remains an excellent machine pitched toward professional use, or anything that isn’t games.