The Mac mini is back, regaining its rightful place as the most versatile Mac in Apple’s entire computer lineup. The long-rumored update, which was announced during the midway portion of last week’s iPad Pro event, is exciting for a number of reasons.

For starters, the Mac mini gets brand new, highly-capable 8th-generation Intel CPUs. The CPU lineup starts with a rather anemic, but still way faster than the last Mac mini, quad-core 3.6GHz Core i3. The mid-tier CPU option is a 3.0GHz 6-core Core i5 with 4.1GHz turbo boost, while the highest configuration adds a 3.2GHz 6-core Core i7 that turbos up to 4.6GHz.

While the CPU upgrades were much needed, the chip enhancements are arguably not even the most exciting thing about the Mac mini. That award goes to the four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the machine’s rear. This opens up Apple’s smallest Mac to an ever-growing world of expandability, making it seem as if anything’s possible for what was once Apple’s forgotten Mac.

Watch our hands-on video walkthrough as I explain why the 2018 Mac mini is the most versatile and adaptable Mac ever.

Synology RT2600ac: The AirPort Extreme replacement.

The Mac mini finally gets Thunderbolt 3

The presence of four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the Mac mini means that it can grow substantially over time. Add a Thunderbolt 3 dock, and you instantly have a ton of other ports and I/O right at your fingertips. Add a Thunderbolt 3 display, like LG’s 5K UltraWide, and you have a high resolution HDR capable display. Add an external SSD, and you can instantly have more storage that’s even faster than the  built-in SSD. Add an external GPU, and enjoy better graphics for gaming, video editing, and much more.

Needless to say, having Thunderbolt 3 on the Mac mini is a game-changer as far as expandability and versatility are concerned. Outside of the processor and memory, you can bolt on tons of different upgrades to your Mac mini, potentially saving money `as you build it out over time.

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Upgradable memory

The base model Mac mini ships with 8GB of faster 2666MHz DDR4. Users can configure up to 64GB of RAM if desired, but if you’re handy with an iFixIt toolkit, you may want to hold off on additional memory during the build-to-order process.

That’s because Apple’s made a user-friendly decision to use standard SO-DIMM modules instead of soldered on RAM, meaning that memory is now user-upgradable. That’s not to say that RAM upgrades will be as easy as they are on the 5K iMac, but at least they’re possible.

Apple officially recommends that you call on the help of an Apple Store or Apple Authorized Service Provider if you want to upgrade RAM.

Whenever possible, I prefer to upgrade memory myself, because Apple charges a ridiculous amount of money for its RAM upgrades. As I’ve previously shown, you can save money by upgrading RAM yourself. We’re working on a step-by-step Mac mini RAM upgrade video tutorial, so stay tuned for that.

All-flash PCIe-based storage

The 2018 Mac mini is the first of the line to adopt faster all-flash PCIe-based storage options for all configurations. If desires, you can build your Mac mini with up to 2TB of flash storage.

Unlike the SO-DIMM modules however, the flash storage on the Mac mini is soldered to the logic board. With this in mind, any upgrades you’ll want to do relating to storage will have to be done externally. The good news is that Thunderbolt 3 is the perfect way to add extra fast solid state storage to your Mac mini.

Apple T2 security chip

Slowly but surely, Apple is updating its entire Mac lineup with its custom T2 security chip. Found already on the iMac Pro, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air, the Apple T2 brings several security oriented capabilities to the Mac mini. The T2 features the Secure Enclave Coprocessor, which handles crucial tasks like FileVault key handling, secure boot, and APFS encrypted storage to name a few items.

Along with the security related aspects, the T2 consolidates several controllers into a single piece of silicon. Integrated in the T2 is the System Management Controller, image signal processor, audio controller, and SSD controller.

What else?

The Mac mini features the same chassis design as the previous generation, except it comes in a brand new anodized aluminum space gray color. This color change, like the iMac Pro before it, seems to represent the Mac mini’s move to more “pro-oriented” hardware.

Besides the Thunderbolt 3 ports, the Mac mini has additional I/O. On the rear, you’ll find two USB-A 3.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port that can be configured to a 10 Gigabit Ethernet port, and a 3.5mm headphone port. There’s also, for the very first time, an HDMI 2.0 port that affords DCI 4K output at 60Hz, and Bluetooth 5.0 wireless connectivity.

The presence of both Thunderbolt 3 and HDMI 2.0 means that it’s possible to connect up to three 4K displays at 60Hz to a single Mac mini — two 4K displays (4096 x 2304) connected via Thunderbolt 3, and another 4K display (4096 x 2160) connected via HDMI.

Connecting to a 5K (5120 x 2880) display at 60Hz, like LG’s UltraFine 5K Display, is possible as well, but you’ll only be able to connect one additional 4K (4096 x 2160) display at 60Hz using HDMI.

The sweet spot: $1099 Mac mini

Considering that RAM and nearly every other facet of the Mac mini can be “upgraded”, I highly recommend opting for the fastest processor if you can swing it. The base Mac mini starts at $799, which isn’t exactly cheap, but for an additional $300, you can update to the best CPU available to configure. That brings the cost of the Mac mini to $1099 before tax.

For everything else, I’d go with the base configuration. That means only 8GB of RAM, 128GB of SSD flash storage (even though I did somehow upgrade my unit to 256 GB, doh!), and Gigabit Ethernet instead of 10 Gigabit Ethernet. If desired, all of these things can be upgraded some time down the line.

It’s worth noting that Apple doesn’t offer any GPU upgrades for the Mac mini. All models come with integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630. If you want a more powerful GPU, you’ll have to rely on a Thunderbolt 3-enabled (eGPU) external graphics chassis.

Benchmarks

Now that Apple has finally updated the Mac mini, how does it compare with the company’s other modern desktop, the iMac Pro? As configured, my Mac mini sells for about $1300, while the base model iMac Pro sells for $5000.

There’s a large price gulf between the Mac mini and iMac Pro, and a lot of that has to do with the latter’s built-in 5K display and 1TB SSD.

Considering that these are the two newest desktops that Apple sells, and the Mac mini has obvious Pro overtures, I thought it would make for an interesting comparison.

CPU performance

The 8-core Xeon in the iMac Pro unsurprisingly has better multi core performance than the 6-core i7 found in the Mac mini. The Geekbench 4 scores denote an 8,000 point difference between the two machines in multi core, which is substantial, and will only rise as you configure the iMac Pro with higher core counts. Remember, this is the top of the line Mac mini CPU going against the entry-level iMac Pro CPU.

And as expected, single core performs slightly better on the Core i7 inside the Mac mini, besting the Xeon by about 600 points.

GPU performance

Considering that the iMac Pro comes with built in discrete graphics in the form of AMD’s Vega 56 GPU, comparing the stock graphics performance of these two machines seems absurd…and it is…

The Intel UHD Graphics 630 GPU inside the Mac mini is just about as anemic as its name implies. Thankfully, the Mac mini is equipped with Thunderbolt 3, which allows you to bolt on a much more capable eGPU.

SSD performance

There is an obvious difference between the two machines when looking at SSD performance. It’s not that the Mac mini’s SSD performance is bad, but the iMac Pro SSD is in a different class of speed. Granted, higher density SSDs — 1TB vs 256MB — usually yield better performance, but it’s obvious that the iMac Pro SSD is outright faster.

That said, the Mac mini SSD is generally more than fast enough for most workflows, and will handle 4K video editing without breaking much of a sweat.

Quiet operation

One of the things that I most appreciate about my iMac Pro is its virtual silence under load. At time, the fans are audible, but most of the time the iMac Pro is as quiet as a mouse.

The Mac mini is similar, in that while it’s actively cooled, the fan is virtually inaudible most of the time. The 2018 hardware features a rethought cooling system with a bigger fan and expanded vents.

Apple notes that overall airflow in the new Mac mini has increased by 2x, yet it’s still extremely quiet. If you’re a creative professional that relishes quiet environments, then you’ll appreciate this quality of the Mac mini.

Thunderbolt 3 I/O expansion

Although adoption started off slow, I’ve gradually been able to review tons of Thunderbolt 3 products over the years. As you can see, there are I/O options for your Mac mini’s display, GPU, audio interface, storage, dock, 10GbE, and more.

Display

Since the Mac mini comes as a headless unit, I connected it to the Thunderbolt 3-enabled LG 34WK95U 5K UltraWide Display. This is a 5120×2160 Nano-IPS display with a 21:9 aspect ratio. Picture quality isn’t as nice as the 5K iMac, but the aspect ratio, mated with its high resolution, provides a wonderful workspace for timeline-based apps like Final Cut Pro X. We’ll have a full review of the LG display soon.

GPU

There are no build-to-order options for upgrading the Mac mini GPU, so you’ll need to rely on an eGPU if you plan on gaming, or doing any other sort of GPU-intensive task.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650 eGPU chassis

I opted for with the most powerful GPU that Apple recommends: the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650 (review) with a Radeon Pro WX9100 GPU inside.

The performance of the Radeon Pro WX9100, as you can see from the graph above, runs circles around the integrated graphics, and turns the Mac mini into a legitimate gaming and graphics-intensive workflow option. Such a configuration is far from cheap, but the idea is that it’s at least possible if needed.

Like the 2018 MacBook Pro, and the iMac Pro before it, you can configure up to two eGPUs per Thunderbolt 3 bus for a total of four eGPUs connected simultaneously. Obviously that’s overkill, and a small subset of apps actually support such a setup, but it’s possible.

Storage

Faster than the built-in Mac mini SSD

For extra storage, I connected a Samsung X5 Thunderbolt 3 SSD (review) to my Mac mini. The result was additional storage that was actually faster than the computer’s built in SSD.

Samsung’s X5 Thunderbolt 3 SSD is blazing fast

Dock

My favorite Thunderbolt 3 Dock is CalDigit’s TS3 Plus (review), as it makes a large swath of I/O available via a single Thunderbolt 3 connection. Multiple USB ports, DisplayPort, and even a UHS-II enabled SD Card reader are featured on this dock.

CalDigit’s excellent TS3 Plus adds loads of extra I/O

But one thing the CalDigit Dock doesn’t include is 10GbE connectivity. If you immediately need 10GbE, you’d be wise to configure the $100 build-to-order option as you purchase the Mac mini. Yet, it’s good to know you can always bolt on 10GbE if need be, and Akitio’s Thunder3 Dock Pro (review), allows you to do just that. Not only does Akitio’s Thunderbolt 3-enabled dock include 10GbE, but it also includes both CFast 2.0, UHS-II SD, and a bunch of other handy I/O.

10GbE

If you didn’t configure 10GbE, it’s nice to know that you can add a stand alone bus-powered 10GbE option later. Akitio’s T3-10G (review) is a simple device that adds 10GbE to any Thunderbolt 3-enabled Mac or PC.

Akitio’s bus-powered 10GbE option

The Mac mini can truly be whatever you want it to be, and thanks to Thunderbolt 3, it’s immensely configurable using external components. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to take it, and how much you’ll want to spend adding external Thunderbolt 3 devices.

Some people may prefer to keep their Mac mini neat and clean, with as few cables attached to it as possible. Others will no doubt inundate the Mac mini’s chassis with tons of connected cables, routing them to all sorts of external devices. Don’t forget, you’ll also need a mouse and keyboard. I borrowed the space gray Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad 2 from my iMac Pro, which matches the color of the Mac mini perfectly.

Being the cheapest Mac available on the market, I’m immensely happy that Apple decided to not only keep the Mac mini around, but give it a substantial upgrade. As my very first modern Mac, the Mac mini line holds a special place in my memory. I suspect that at its current entry-level price, there will be plenty of others that share a similar experience.

What are your thoughts on Apple’s Mac mini refresh? Sound off in the comments down below with your thoughts and opinion.



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