Mac Mini (2014) review

An upgrade that poses more questions than answers

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After two long years in the wilderness, seemingly forgotten by Apple amid 5K technologies and the like, budget Mac fans have finally been treated to a new mini marvel. Or have they actually been treated? Well, that is most definitely up for debate. You see, Apple is selling the basic-specced Mac mini for just £399/$499, which by our inflation calculations and currency conversions, means this is officially the cheapest Mac ever. So, this is great news for those on a shoestring budget, or someone new to Macs. That’s pretty admirable stuff from Apple.

Except there’s a catch. The new line of Mac minis are not user-upgradable. Adding extra RAM in the past has been a simple case of twisting open the bottom of the Mac mini and clipping a new RAM card into place. Those days are over, however, with memory soldered firmly onto the board. So if you’re in need of extra memory, and that is going to be everyone bar the basic OS X user, you’ll need to pay for it up front. An extra 4GB of memory will cost you £80/$100, which is actually pretty respectable when comparing it to third-party suppliers. Want even more of a boost? Well, a 16GB total adds a hefty £240/$200 to the Mac mini purchase price, much higher than buying it elsewhere. And this is a bit of a problem for us. When you include the price of a half-decent display and a keyboard and mouse combination – all of which do not come included – you’re veering dangerously close to the amount of cash you’d spend on an entry- level MacBook Air or iMac. So there’s a lot to ponder; namely whom is this Mac targeted at?

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Our 1.4GHz test model performed admirably with everyday tasks. Web browsing, email use, general iLife and iWork tasks gave us no headaches. Don’t forget, those apps all come for free with any new Mac. OS X 10.10, as known to anyone who has upgraded from an older Mac, is a bit of a memory hogger, but the Mac mini shows no ill effects. Better specced versions will obviously have no trouble either. Wireless and graphics performance is much improved, but lower- grade processors can’t run modern games and desired frame rates. The entry-level model doesn’t have SSD storage either, running with an out-of-fashion hard disk. In our benchmark tests (see table on right), single-core results showed big gains from the equivalent 2012 model, but multi- core scores were surprisingly lower. This shouldn’t concern basic users, but anyone hell-bent on doing anything remotely power-thirsty is going to be disappointed. This lower-spec model mirrors what Apple did with the new base-level iMac earlier in 2014. £100/$150 was knocked off the price, but the specifications took a serious knock too, highlighted by its seriously disappointing Geekbench tests.

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Maybe we’re being a little harsh. Is being able to upgrade components all that important? After all, the Mac mini 2014 edition is still a pocket gem of a Mac. Its design remains an engineering piece of art, unparalleled by any Windows alternative in the same price range. Made from a single block of carved aluminium, it’s unmistakably Apple. And let’s not forget, this is a tiny, discreet Mac (just 19.7cm square, weighing under 1.5kg) that wouldn’t look out of place on any desktop. You won’t notice it’s there given how quiet it is. Companies looking to kit staff out will still order in their droves and anyone looking for a media centre will lap it up.

We’re certainly not going to dismiss the Mac mini or paint it a bleak future. It all boils down to what you need from a Mac. If you’re a basic user desperate for an affordable way to experience the joys of Macintosh, this remains your best bet. Want anything more and you’ll need to look elsewhere.