The Mac mini has been one of the most affordable desktop Macs ever made since the original G4 model was introduced in January 2005 at US$499 and $599. The entry-level price has varied over the years, jumping $100 with the first Intel Mac minis in 2006. The 2014 model started at $499 with a 1.4 GHz dual-core 5 CPU. How does the Late 2018 Mac mini stack up?
First of all, it’s Space Gray. Until now, every Mac mini has had a brushed aluminum look. At a glance, people who know Macs will know it’s the new one. That’s just cosmetics, but the only other “dark” Macs are the Mac Pro and iMac Pro. A dark finish is Apple’s way of saying, “Take this seriously.”
Where the 2014 Mac mini had dual-core CPUs across the board, that’s not even an option with the 2018 release. The entry-level Mac mini has a quad-core 8th generation Intel i3 CPU clocked at 3.6 GHz. That’s a huge step forward in processing power from the previous 1.4 GHz entry-level Mini. It’s also a huge step up from the top-end 2014 Mac mini, which had a dual-core 3.0 GHz i7 CPU. The new Mini simply exudes power.
The base 2018 Mac mini has 8 GB of system memory, a 128 GB SSD, the 3.6 GHz quad-core i5 that we’ve already mentioned, and Intel UHD Graphics 630. It is the first Mac mini with Thunderbolt 3, and it has four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. In addition, there are two 10 Gbps USB 3.1 Gen. 2 ports with the traditional Type A USB connector, so you don’t need a dongle to attach a keyboard, mouse, thumb drive, etc. You also have HDMI making it easy to connect to your TV.
For networking, it has 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 5.0, and Gigabit ethernet. And that’s where you see one of the first signs that this Mac mini is more geared toward the pro market than any previous one: You can order it with 10 Gbps Nbase-T ethernet. This is a $100 option when ordering your Mini.
The base model has a 3.6 GHz quad-core i3, but for $300 more you can get a 3.2 GHz 6-core i7 with Turbo Boost to 4.6 GHz. Figure that as “up to” twice the overall processing power for just $300 more. And the “better” Mac mini ships with a 3.0 GHz 6-core i5 CPU with Turbo Boost to 4.1 GHz, and for $200 more you can add the same 3.2 GHz option as the entry-level Mini.
The base model defaults to 128 GB of high-speed SSD storage, and you can boost that to 256 GB for $200, 512 GB for $400, 1 TB for $800, and 2 TB for $1,600. The “better” Mac mini comes with 256 GB of storage, so the upgrade to 512 GB is $200, 1 TB is $600, and 2 TB is $1,400. At present it appears that the SSDs are soldered in place; perhaps a teardown after the November 6 ship date will discover otherwise.
Thanks for the Memories
The biggest surprise is that the 2018 Mac mini does not have its memory soldered to the system board. Instead, it has two slots for 2666 MHz DDR4 SO-DIMMs. It ships with 8 GB of RAM in one of those slots, leaving the second slot available for user upgrades.
And that’s something you will want to consider because Apple charges $200 to upgrade to 16 GB, $600 to reach 32 GB, and $1,400 to hit 64 GB – a crazy amount of system memory for a consumer computer, but definitely something pros would appreciate.
Other World Computing (OWC) is already offering memory upgrades: $90 for a second 8 GB stick, bringing you to 16 GB, which is a nice amount of “elbow room” for the typical user. Adding a 16 GB stick for 24 GB total costs $170 – $30 less than Apple’s upgrade to 16 GB. For $330 you can add one 32 GB module and have 40 GB total system memory for $270 less than Apple charges for the 32 GB option. And if you want the full 64 GB, OWC sells it for $1,080 – $320 less than Apple.
The best part of this is that you can buy the base Mac mini from Apple, and if you find that 8 GB is not enough for the kind of work you do, you can upgrade when you see the need to do so and at less than Apple charges for installing additional RAM at the factory.
The Value Equation
I am disappointed that Apple has added yet another $100 to the price of the entry-level Mac mini, so it now takes $799 to buy the base model. I would recommend against it for seasoned Mac users because while 128 GB of storage may be adequate for casual use, it’s not enough for heavy users. And with the power it offers, it is going to attract some power users.
The smallest practical SSD for most users is 256 GB, which brings the base model to $999. For just $100 more you can buy the 3.0 GHz 6-core Intel i5-powered model with 256 GB installed. Unless your needs are very basic or your budget is extremely tight, that’s the better value. Thanks to Turbo Boost, it may have over 50% more power than the entry-level 3.6 GHz quad-core Mini.
As a longtime Mac user, I have accumulated a lot of files over the past 27 years (some from my ancient Mac Plus), and I would want 512 GB. I could get by with 256 GB, but over time I will want room to play with the next macOS version without overwriting the OS that I have been using. But in a pinch, I could live with 256 GB – not that I can afford the new Mac mini!
I am disappointed that there is no true entry-level Mac mini any longer. Sure, the 1.4 GHz entry-level 2014 machine was on the underpowered side, but then it only cost $499. It would have been nice to see a $499 – or even $599 – model with a slower i3 CPU than the $799 Mac mini uses. “The most affordable Mac ever” is a lot less affordable at $799 than it was at $499, even if it does have the power and capabilities to justify the new price.
In terms of processing power, this is a huge leap forward. Of course, you would expect that with 4 years between models! I don’t believe any Mac has ever gone this long before a newer version was introduced.
For the home or office user on a budget, the $799 machine is sufficient. Enough power, RAM, and storage space for most users. For heavier users, it makes more sense to jump right to the 3.0 GHz 6-core i5 model at $1,099 including a higher capacity SSD. And for anyone but a power user, this might be all the computer you need for the next 5-10 years.
If the budget is tight, the $499 1.4 GHz Mac mini is still available, and maybe we will see “fire sale” prices when the new model ships next week. At present, I don’t see it being discounted anywhere, nor does Apple has refurbished ones available.
Overall, I am very excited about what the 2018 Mac mini offers – 4 high-speed ports on the back, 2 old-fashioned USB Type A connectors, HDMI for sound and video on your TV, 4- and 6-core CPUs, and user expandable system memory all contribute to making this an amazing value, and with up to 64 GB of system memory, some pros may find it is all they need (at least until the long-awaited expandable Mac Pro arrives sometime next year).
Unfortunately, Apple has completely ignored the budget crowd. $799 plus keyboard, mouse, and monitor is not entry-level by any stretch of the imagination. For years Apple kept the entry-level Mac mini in the $499 to $599 range, and they really need to figure out a way of doing that again.
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