Picking the Right 64-bit Intel Mac mini

Apple released the first Mac mini with a 64-bit CPU in August 2007, although the Mac OS that shipped with it was a 32-bit operating system, whether OS X 10.4 Tiger or 10.5 Leopard. It wasn’t until OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard arrived two years later – in August 2009 – that we had the first version of OS X for Intel Macs with 64-bit support.

hero_lionAnd then in roared OS X 10.7 Lion, the first 64-bit only version of the Mac OS, in July 2011. Where Snow Leopard supported Macs with 32-bit and 64-bit Intel processors, Lion required an Intel Core 2 Duo or newer, officially leaving behind the Early 2006 and Late 2006 Minis. The entry level model for running Lion was the Mid 2007 Mac mini, which shipped with either a 1.83 GHz or 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo Merom CPU.

That’s our starting point, since all versions of OS X for the past five years have been 64-bit. Not to knock OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. I use it daily. But to truly unleash these models, you want a full fledged 64-bit operating system with as many 64-bit apps as possible.

Better Performance

Mac mini, original designFor instance, the 2.0 GHz Mid 2007 model has a single-core 32-bit Geekbench score of 1069. The single-core 64-bit score is 1152, an improvement just over 7.7%. The 32-bit multi-core score for the same model is 1870, and the 64-bit score is 2032 – 8.6% higher. Across the board, 64-bit operation provides more processing power than 32-bit operation.

In this overview, we will be looking at 64-bit single core and multicore performance, ignoring 32-bit results. We have had 64-bit software since the release of OS X 10.6 seven years ago, and that has only increased since Apple began shipping 64-bit only versions of the Mac OS.

Geekbench Scores

We’re going to start with 64-bit Geekbench scores, beginning our list with the least powerful Minis and working our way toward the most powerful ones. The number before the slash is for a single core, and many apps only use one core, so that will give you a general feeling for relative power. The number after the slash is the multicore score, which shows how much total power the CPU has. CPUs are dual-core unless noted as 4-core.

Core 2 Duo Models

  • 1.83 GHz Mid 2007, 1058/1839
  • 2.0 GHz Mid 2007, 1152/2032
  • 2.0 GHz Early 2009, 1199/2087
  • 2.26 GHz Early 2009, 1342/2302
  • 2.26 GHz Late 2009, 1346/2371
  • 2.4 GHz Early 2010, 1422/2474
  • 2.53 GHz Late 2009, 1484/2643
  • 2.66 GHz Early 2010, 1555/2682

The most powerful Core 2 Duo model scores 46-47% higher than the least powerful, precisely what the difference in CPU speed would predict. Although there were some improvements from the Merom version used in 2007 and the Penryn used in 2009 and 2010, they are not very significant as far as raw processing power.

The big improvement came with the jump to Intel’s new “Core i” architecture – the least powerful of these scores 50% higher on the single-core test and a whopping 80% higher when using both cores!

Core i5 and i7 Models

  • 2.3 GHz Mid 2011, Core i5, 2344/4846
  • 2.0 GHz Mid 2011, 4-core i7, 2406/8578
  • 2.5 GHz Mid 2011, Core i5, 2562/5283
  • 1.4 GHz Late 2014, Core i5, 2742/5304
  • 2.7 GHz Mid 2011, Core i7, 2746/5713
  • 2.5 GHz Late 2012, Core 15, 2746/5745
  • 2.3 GHz Late 2012, 4-core i7, 3004/11691
  • 2.6 GHz Late 2014, Core i5, 3091/6568
  • 2.8 GHz Late 2014, Core i7, 3257/6924
  • 2.6 GHz Late 2012, 4-core i7, 3258/12689
  • 3.0 GHz Late 2014, Core i7, 3377/7103

Mac Pro Power

If you need a Mac mini that you can push to the limit, perhaps as a server or a video production machine, the 4-core i7 is the way to go. Even the 2.0 GHz Mid 2011 Mac mini has more raw power than the 3.0 GHz dual-core Late 2014 Mini – and it’s in the same Geekbench multicore range as the 2.93 GHz 4-core Early 2009 Mac Pro and the 2.8 GHz 4-core Mid 2010 Mac Pro.

The 2.3 GHz Late 2012 Mini edges past the powerful 8-core 3.0 GHz Early 2007 Mac Pro and the 2.8 GHz Early 2008 Mac Pro. And at the top of the Mac mini line, the 2.6 GHz Late 2012 falls between the performance of the 8-core 3.0 GHz and 3.2 GHz Early 2008 Mac Pros.

Thanks to Intel’s quad-core i7, these Late 2012 Minis have the same level of power as the 8-core Xeon-based Early 2008 Mac Pro. In 4-1/2 years, that level of power went from top-end pro machines to a top-end – yet tiny – consumer model.

One has to wonder why Apple didn’t offer a quad-core Late 2014 model.

Dual Core Power

Just as the fastest Core 2 Duo model is about 46% more powerful than the slowest, the fastest Core i model (3.0 GHz i7 Late 2014) scores 44-46% higher than the least powerful (2.3 GHz i5 Mid 2011).

Note how I worded the comparison. The fastest Core i model runs at 3.0 GHz, while the most powerful runs at 2.6 GHz and has four cores. The least powerful Core i model scores 2344/4846, while the slowest Core i model – the 1.4 GHz i5 Late 2014 model that we’ve debated calling a Road Apple, a Compromised Mac, or a Second Class Mac (see Is the Mid 2014 21.5″ iMac a Road Apple?, 1.4 GHz iMac: What Is Apple Thinking?, and Is the Mid 2014 iMac Really a Road Apple? – this iMac uses the same CPU as the 1.4 GHz Mac mini), scores 2742/5304.

Remembering the MHz Wars

Bytemark, January 1998For longtime Mac users, this should remind us of the MHz Wars when BYTE magazine showed the 233 MHz Power Mac G3 easily outperformed the 333 MHz Pentium II using its cross-platform BYTEmark benchmark test. And later on, the PowerPC G4 did the same against Intel’s Pentium III. In fact, Steve Jobs demonstrated with Photoshop that a 500 MHz Power Mac G4 was over twice as fast as a 600 MHz Pentium III.

In September 2004, Bare Feats compared the 2.0 GHz and 2.5 GHz Power Mac G5 with a 2.0 GHz Opteron, 2.1 GHz Athlon, 3.0 GHz Pentium 4, and 2.4 GHz and 3.06 GHz Xeons. The Cinebench 2003 benchmark showed the “slower” 2.5 GHz G5 almost matching Intel’s server grade 3.06 GHz Xeon CPU. In the After Effect 6 test, the 2.0 GHz Power Mac G5 bested all the x86-class CPUs. In Photoshop 7 and Bryce 5, the 2.5 GHz G5 was the fastest – and the 2.0 GHz G5 took second place with Bryce 5.

Back to Today’s CPUs – What Makes ‘Core i’ Different?

Because of architectural differences and improvements in technology, you can’t simply write off the 1.4 GHz Core i5. Yes, it sounds under-powered. Yes, it would be difficult to sell to people who believe the GHz number is a measure of processing power. But with the Core i family, things have changed significantly.

Prior to that, a CPU ran at one speed – perhaps two if it had an energy saving mode. It’s published speed was its rated maximum, although overclockers always tried to push them further. But with the Core i family, the published speed is just a starting point. The Core i family represents a whole new CPU architecture that supports Turbo Boost, which allows the CPU core(s) to run significantly faster than their published speed, while at the same time making sure the CPU doesn’t overheat. Here’s a list of Core i Mac minis that includes both the nominal speed and Turbo Boost speed.

  • 2.0 GHz 4-core i7, Mid 2011, Turbo Boost to 2.9 GHz – 45%
  • 2.3 GHz i5, Mid 2011, Turbo Boost to 2.9 GHz – 26%
  • 2.5 GHz i5, Mid 2011, Turbo Boost to 3.2 GHz – 28%
  • 2.7 GHz i7, Mid 2011, Turbo Boost to 3.4 GHz – 26%
  • 2.5 GHz i5, Late 2012, Turbo Boost to 3.1 GHz – 24%
  • 2.3 GHz i7, Late 2012, Turbo Boost to 3.3 GHz – 43%
  • 2.6 GHz i7, Late 2012, Turbo Boost to 3.6 GHz – 38%
  • 1.4 GHz i5, Late 2014, Turbo Boost to 2.7 GHz – 93%
  • 2.6 GHz i5, Late 2014, Turbo Boost to 3.1 GHz – 19%
  • 2.8 GHz i5, Late 2014, Turbo Boost to 3.3 GHz – 18%
  • 3.0 GHz i7, Late 2014, Turbo Boost to 3.5 GHz – 17%

The nominal speed is what the CPU runs at when it’s just sitting there. Turbo Boost allows one or more cores to run faster than their nominal speed, but just how much faster makes a huge difference. The dual-core 2011 models could run 24-26% faster, the Late 2012 i7 models 38-43% faster, and the quad-core Mid 2011 Mac mini Server an impressive 45%.

What About That 1.4 GHz Model?

That all pales in the face of the 1.4 GHz i5 CPU. Turbo Boost allows it to run at close to double its nominal speed – 2.7 GHz is a 90% boost! Why is the nominal speed so low? Because this is a CPU designed for low power consumption, particularly in notebooks. At 1.4 GHz, it draws a lot less power than when running flat out at 2.7 GHz. That’s why this CPU has Geekbench scores comparable to 2.5-2.7 GHz i5 and i7 CPUs from 2011 and 2012.

Honestly, this is not a model you sell based on its rated CPS speed. As with most Apple products, you sell it based on what it does and how well it can do it – not to mention the longevity and long-term value inherent in most Apple products. And bear in mind, this was the first $499 Mac mini since the entry-level G4 models from 2005!

Put another way, the 2.6 GHz Late 2014 Mac mini sells for 40% more while offering just 12.7% more single-core processing power and 23.8% more multicore power, according to Geekbench 3.

I’d certainly be happy with one of these if Apple only offered it with an SSD (the only options are a 5400 rpm 500 GB hard drive or a 1 TB Fusion Drive for $250 more). I’d go for the base version with 8 GB of system memory at $100 more and then buy my own SSD (480-512 GB). It has roughly 2-1/2 times as much power as my 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini. It would make me happy.

Other Factors

It’s not just about processing power. Do you want a built-in optical drive – or isn’t that important to you? How many USB ports do you want or need? What about FireWire, Thunderbolt, or USB 3.0? Do you want a built-in SD card slot? Do you want a faster SATA hard drive bus? What about the graphics chip and video output?

SATA

The 2006 and 2007 Minis use 1.5 Gbps SATA Rev. A as their hard drive bus. 2009 and 2010 Minis, 3.0 Gbps SATA Rev. B. And 2012-2014 Minis, 6.0 Gbps SATA Rev. C.

Only the fastest hard drives will regularly outperform SATA Rev. A, but if you want to put in an SSD for maximum throughput, Rev. C is blazingly fast, while Rev. B is pretty darn fast in its own right.

Mac mini Servers all have room for two internal hard drives.

Optical Drive?

Except for the Mac mini servers, all Minis through the Mid 2010 model have built-in optical drives. None of the servers and no Minis introduced since 2010 have the option of a built-in optical drive.

The 2007 and earlier models have UltraATA optical drives. Post-2007 models have SATA optical drives, making it easier to swap in a second hard drive should you choose to do so.

USB Ports

Back of Mac mini

The Mac mini went back to 4 USB ports in 2010.

2007 and earlier Mac minis have four USB 2.0 ports, while the 2009 models have five. In 2010, Apple went back to four USB ports with its redesigned case. If you want USB 3.0, buy a Late 2012 or newer model – they still have four ports.

FireWire

Starting way back in 1999 with the Blue & White Power Mac G3, FireWire was Apple’s high speed data bus – much faster than USB 1.1 and also faster than USB 2.0. The original spec is now known as FireWire 400, and it is standard on all Mac minis through 2007. With the 2009 model, Apple moved to FireWire 800, which is backward compatible with FireWire 400 devices with the right cable. FireWire 800 was standard through 2012.

With the 2014 models, Apple dropped built-in FireWire completely, although you can use a Thunderbolt adapter if you need to connect FireWire devices.

Thunderbolt

Speaking of Thunderbolt, that first came to the Mac mini with the Mid 2011 revision with 10 Gbps of bandwidth. The Late 2014 model bumped that to 20 Gbps.

SD Card Slot

USB adapters for SD cards are cheap, but having a built-in SD card slot can be convenient. If that’s a convenience you want, pick a Mid 2010 or newer Mac mini. They all support SDXC cards, which supports cards of 4 GB and beyond. (The original SD specification only goes to 2 GB; SDXC can handle 2 TB, although 512 GB is the current maximum!)

Video Output

The 2006 and 2007 Minis have full-size DVI video ports, and Apple switched to mini-DVI with the Early and Late 2009 models, which also includes a Mini DisplayPort – yes, you can connect two displays!

With the Mid 2010 Mac mini, Apple dropped DVI in favor of HDMI, which outputs sound and video to modern TVs. The Mid 2011 and later models support output to one display using HDMI and another using Thunderbolt digital video output.

Graphics

Once again, the oldest Intel Mac minis are behind the curve, relying on Intel GMA 950 graphics rather than a dedicated GPU. The Early and Late 2009 Minis use Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, and the Mid 2010 model adopted Nvidia GeForce 320M as its GPU.

In 2011, some models (the 2.3 GHz one and the Mac mini Server) use Intel HD Graphics 3000, while the 2.5 and 2.7 GHz ones incorporate AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics.

In 2012, the Mac mini used Intel HD Graphics 4000 exclusively. The entry-level 1.4 GHz Late 2014 Mac mini uses Intel HD Graphics 5000, while the other Late 2014 models include Intel Iris 5100 graphics.

Mac OS Versions

We don’t see any reason to use a version of Mac OS X older than 10.6 Snow Leopard, which is supported on all Mac minis from 2006 through 2010. OS X 10.7 Lion supports models from 2007 through 2011. OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and 10.9 Mavericks are supported on 2009 and newer models. OS X 10.10 Yosemite and 10.11 El Capitan are supported on the 2014 models.

Maximum Memory

The Mid 2007 Mac mini can access up to 3 GB of RAM, which is very nice with OS X 10.6 and good with OS X 10.7. Apple raised the bar with the Early 2009 Mac mini, supporting up to 8 GB of system memory, which is adequate for most users running most versions of the Mac OS.

The Mid 2010 and newer models can access 16 GB of RAM. However, the Late 2014 Mac mini has its system memory soldered in place, so be sure you buy it with enough memory going forward. I would recommend against the 4 GB configuration and push you toward 8 GB or even 16 GB.

AirPort Extreme

The Mid 2007 Mini has built-in 802.11g WiFi, and the Early 2009 Mac mini moved to 802.11n, which was the norm until the Late 2014 version arrived with 802.11ac WiFi.

AirDrop

You need a Mid 2010 or later Mac mini if you want to use AirDrop, which requires OS X 10.10 Yosemite or later and iOS 7 or later. AirDrop allows wireless file transfer between Mac and iOS devices via Bluetooth or WiFi. An earlier version of AirDrop was included with OS X 10.7 through 10.9, but it only works between Macs; it is not interoperable with iOS devices.

Bluetooth

Apple built Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR into the 2007 Mini, bumping that to Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with the Early 2009 model and stayed with it through the Mid 2010 Mini. The Mid 2011 model moved to Bluetooth 4.0.

Ethernet

Every Intel-based Mac mini includes 10/100/Gigabit ethernet.

Internal or External Power?

Every Mac mini through the Late 2009 models uses an external power supply. Every Mac mini starting with the Mid 2010 model has a built-in power supply.

Conclusion

I think we’ve covered all our bases here: Performance, expansion options, and connectivity. If you want to run anything newer than OS X 10.7 Lion, get a Mini with at least 4 GB of memory. If you have a lot of open apps or open browser windows, seriously consider going to 8 GB. At this point, only the most serious power users need more than that.

To squeeze out the most performance, replace or supplement a standard hard drive with a Solid State Drive (SSD). You can get 512 GB for under $100 these days, and it really is a night and day difference compared to the 5400 rpm laptop hard drives Apple normally installs in these machines.

If you opt for the 2014 Mac mini, be sure you buy it with enough system memory. It’s soldered in place, so you can’t upgrade down the road – something all previous models allow.

That’s it for now – at least until the next Mac mini revision shows up!

Keywords: #macmini

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2 thoughts on “Picking the Right 64-bit Intel Mac mini

  1. This is a REALLY interesting article.

    I have 2009 mac mini (core duo 2.24ghz with 3gb ram el capitan)

    I use it under my TV exclusively for iTunes and I use it to manage a large podcast library

    My library file is about 17mb and xml file is about 34mb and the media folder about 500gb (inc some movies) on an external drive

    It takes about 50 secs to delete one podcast (there are probably about 16000)

    I keep looking at upgrading but just based on your raw single thread horsepower numbers above the very latest mac mini is about 2.5 times quicker than mine

    Which would mean my 50 secs would come down to about 20 secs

    Do you have any experience of this sort of thing ? if it was going to be three or four seconds I would think about it but 20 is still a long time

    I hope I am missing some other factor that might make a signiifcant difference ?

    Thanks in advance

    • No experience in this area. My initial thought is that more RAM would help, as 3 GB is not a lot for El Capitan.

      That’s also a huge number of podcasts. I would use Disk Utility to verify the drive and its file structure.

      Do you have file sharing or iTunes sharing on? That could also contribute to sluggish behavior.

      Two good groups on Facebook that might help are Low End Mac and Mac Geek Gab.