PC to Mac: Mac mini buyer’s guide

Mac mini: old and new I am getting more and more people around me curious about Macs and I have noticed how the first thoughts of trying a Mac creep into their minds. I see them asking questions that ultimately will sooner or later lead to the inevitable: asking me which Mac they should buy?

Most will seek a cheap way to get their feet wet in the world of Macs, either via a second hand Mac or a cheap one. That would be either Mac mini for the desktop or MacBook Air for a notebook. Not much to think about, really. Thinking about the Mac mini led me another interesting question though: how much computer does one really need these days?

Obviously the requirements towards a computer depend heavily on the user and many users have certain expectations or areas they want to use their computer for. Meanwhile, the majority of users do little more than browse the web, use social portals, email, type the occasional letter or do their finances. Converting music/video, simple photo retouching and the occasional casual game is pretty much the heaviest load their computer has to handle. You don’t really need much computer for that. And that would actually make a good entry Mac.

Mac mini

I like those little fellows, I really do. I was skeptical at first when I needed a Mac for home and looked at the Mac mini. I had some experience with nettops over the prior years and they were always a disappointment. Shortly before switching to Macs I was actually looking for a mini PC and discovered that the ones I liked were actually pretty expensive, often surprisingly quite a bit more expensive than the Mac mini. This for sure added to my skepticism, because I was suddenly looking at a Mac that was cheaper, yet supposed to be better?

The Mac mini is basically a notebook packed into a small desktop enclosure: 7.7” by 7.7” and 1.4” tall (ca. 20cm x 20cm x 3.5cm). To simplify things, you could say the Mac mini is a 13” MacBook Pro for you desk as their specs are very similar within various model years.

And they really are nice computers. My Mac mini has very quickly become my main home desktop. Gaming aside (more on that later) I haven’t found any discipline where it doesn’t do a really good job. So good in fact, I have only one PC left and I only turn it on for proper gaming. This actually is surprising, because the mini’s specs aren’t really something you would look at twice and the moment you notice there is 5400rpm HDD inside, serious doubts creep in.

I figured I will replace is pretty quick, but 9 or so months have passed and I still haven’t done so. The Mac mini would greatly benefit from a SSD, but the 5400rpm HDD does better than I have expected. If you do a lot of things that require frequent and significant access to files, you should consider it, but for normal use it is surprisingly fine.

Mac mini & games

The only thing the Mac mini can’t satisfy my needs on is gaming. All sorts of casual games, be it ones that you download or play on websites run just fine. You know, the Farmville type stuff. Proper games on the other hand is where the Mac mini begins to struggle. I like MMORPGs (i.e. WoW or LOTRO), action games such as Borderlands 2 and strategy games such as Civilization V. An occasional hour or two in Diablo 3 doesn’t hurt either.

I play them all on my Mac mini and it does pretty well, but not every Mac mini is the same. Over the past years Apple has used different GPUs in their Mac minis and while some do well, some just won’t run such games on a level that could be described as playable. If you go for the Crysis or Metro 2033 area of gaming, you will have to “enjoy” them on low settings at best. Macs and gaming are not really best friends, regardless what Mac you own and the Mac mini being the entry Mac should give you a clue.

That being said, a top of the line 27” iMac with Fusion Drive, i7 processor and GTX 680MX graphics will do just fine in all games. It won’t break any FPS records, but you will be able to play all games on good quality settings and will have a very satisfying gaming experience. However, you will have to put $2.599 onto the table for that and for that kind of money you can get a well built gaming PC with a nice 27” Dell display that will run circles around your iMac.

Not to mention you will have to boot your Mac with Windows a lot as most games just aren’t available for Mac OS X. Like I mentioned before, gaming isn’t the Mac’s strong suit, but games on the Mac aren’t a no-go territory either. You just have to be aware of the limitation. Think of gaming on Mac as gaming on a PC notebook, similar limitations apply.

Mac mini choices

Mac_mini_2011Let’s get back to suggesting the first Mac. The basic Mac mini (late 2012) costs $599 and is a great choice right away. When it comes to Mac mini, there are always 2 models and a server to choose from. Forget the server as your entry Mac. It is the same as the more expensive model, just with 2 hard drives and we are talking entry Mac on the cheap here. Quite frankly, forget the more expensive model, too. It comes with a quad-core i7 @ 2.3 GHz instead of the dual-core i5 @ 2.5 GHz of the base model, twice the storage (1TB vs 500GB) and costs $799. Unless you know you will indeed need the added power and need more storage than 500GB, it doesn’t make much sense. But then again if you would know your way around, you wouldn’t read this post, either.

Apple has been offering two models of the Mac mini for a while. The more expensive one comes with better specs and allows more configuration options when ordering it. For example, the more expensive model allows you to get a fusion drive or faster CPU, options that are not available on the basic model.

So for the Mac mini currently on sale the choice is quite simple. Basic model, $599.

Too much to spend on something you might, for whatever reason, not like after all? Well, here is where things get more interesting, but also more complicated: a second hand Mac mini.

Mac mini (mid 2011)

Mac_mini_2011That is the previous Mac mini model sold until late 2012. It looks the same. And again you had the basic model (i5 @ 2.3 GHz) and the more expensive one (i5 @ 2.5 GHz). 2011 models were using Sandy Bridge CPUs while the current Mac mini models use Ivy Bridge CPU. A negligible difference for our purposes, except for two things: USB 2.0 vs 3.0 and graphics.

The 2011 models come with USB 2.0 ports while the 2012 models have USB 3.0 ports. That is something you have to decide for yourself – if you need USB 3.0 or not.

While the 2012 models have Intel HD 4000 graphics, the basic 2011 Mac mini comes with Intel HD 3000 graphics. The difference in the real world is simple: the HD 4000 will allow you to play games on low settings, the HD 3000 more often than not won’t. Intel’s HD 3000 integrated graphics will cope well with casual games, but any real game will be just unplayable and even going all the way down on settings what change that. For normal apps it is just fine, so if you don’t care for games much and don’t use any graphics intensive software either, buy the 2011 i5 2.3 GHz basic model to get your first Mac even cheaper. The HD 3000 is not bad for powering your desktop and all the nice visual bells and whistles of Mac OS X. It is actually the first decent integrated GPU Intel made and compared to those GMA 950 and X3100 that came before it, it is a giant leap forward.

If you care for games or graphically more intensive apps, the more expensive 2011 model is what you want. You want it over the 2012 model, too!

The more expensive 2011 Mac mini not only comes with a i5 CPU running at 2.5 GHz as opposed to 2.3 GHz of the base model, but also with a discrete GPU: AMD’s Radeon HD 6630M. Now granted, it’s not a screamer compared to proper graphics cards, but the 6630M is still around 40% faster in games than the HD 4000 in the current 2012 model!

The more expensive 2011 model also had an i7 as option, but don’t make it your determining factor when looking for the used Mac mini. Unlike 2012 models, the i7 option in the 2011 model was a dual-core i7 rather than a quad-core i7. Let’s put this into perspective using Geekbench results: i5 @ 2.5 GHz scores 6342 while the i7 @ 2.7 GHz scores 6765. The basic i5 @ 2.3 GHz scores 5823. Not much gain in performance there and a 2011 Mac mini with i7 is hard to find.

Beware though, there was a quad-core i7 @ 2GHz Mac mini in 2011, the Mac mini Server, but it came with Intel’s HD 3000 rather than the Radeon 6630M.

Mac mini (mid 2010)

Mac_mini_2010Let’s go back one more year to the 2010 Mac mini. Being even older, they are a bit cheaper, but not by much since Macs do hold their value very well. The choice of the 2010 model isn’t a straightforward one either. The main factor here is the CPU, but at least the graphics is simple. Unlike the 2011 models, both 2010 models have the same GPU. Back then Apple went for Nvidia’s GeForce 320m. When introducing the 2011 model, Apple claimed the HD 3000 in the basic model was slightly faster than the GeForce 320m. There are benchmarks to back it up. In reality though, it just isn’t, not even close! Games that played well on a 2010 Mac mini did not on the basic 2011 Mac mini with its HD 3000. And you have to take into account that the CPU on the 2011 Mac mini is significantly faster, too. In real life, especially when it comes to games, the 320m in the 2010 Mac minis is closer to the HD4000 than anything else, leaving the HD 3000 far behind.

If you were reading carefully, at about this moment you should have a marvelous thought: “Wait a second! You did recommend the current Mac mini with an Intel HD 4000 and the 2010 Mac mini is on par, I just get a used 2010 Mac mini and save some cash!” That would indeed be the case except one factor: the CPU.

Mac mini 2011 vs 2010 geekbench scores 1Mac mini 2010 models use Intel’s Core2Duo CPUs rather than i5 CPUs. They only have 2 cores as opposed to 2 cores + 2 virtual cores (HT) of the i5 and are significantly slower. 2010 Mac mini came in two CPU speeds: 2.4 GHz and 2.66 GHz. To illustrate the difference in performance, let’s again look at some Geekbench CPU performance scores:

On the CPU side, we could just simplify things and say you get half the CPU speed compared to 2011 models.

I have a 2010 2.4GHz Mac mini I bought second hand a few months ago and you can tell right away that the 2010 model is slower than the 2011 one. Doing normal things like browsing the web, mails, watching movies etc. is fine, you don’t notice much difference there and when you do it doesn’t feel anything like half the speed. You notice a speed difference in games, although oddly enough not as much as Geekbench scores would suggest. You have to take a setting here or there down a notch in some games. When you however start with CPU intensive things like converting movies, batch jobs with graphics software or filters on photos, the full scope of the speed difference becomes very clear.

Still, the Mac mini 2010 models are quite capable computers and in my opinion can be very well recommended for your first Mac on a budget.

You even get a SuperDrive that reads and writes CDs and DVDs as the 2010 models were the last Mac minis that came with an optical drive. It was also the first time Mac minis came with HDMI allowing you to easily connect your flatscreen TV directly. Earlier models often had to use an HDMI adapter for video and connect audio separately.

On a side note, I bought my Mac mini 2010 to use it a HTPC and it made an outstanding choice for that purpose. However, my girlfriend wanted a Mac too so for the past 2 months my 2010 mini serves a her main computer, powering two 23” displays and being used for Photoshop, modeling in Blender and playing Second Life. Real life proof that it indeed still is a good entry Mac. It replaced a 2nd generation i5 PC with 8GB of RAM and there is just no way to get her off the Mac mini so I will have to look for another one, soon.

Mac mini (early and late 2009)

Mac_mini_2009Going back another year or so and we arrive at even older and cheaper Mac minis. Unlike our journey from 2012 over 2011 to 2010 with 2009 we look at a different breed of Mac minis. You’ll notice it right away. They don’t come in flat all-aluminum cases anymore, but a combination of aluminum and polycarbonate with a smaller footprint of 6.5” by 6.5” (16.5cm x 16.5cm), but are taller at 2” (5cm).

They still have IR, built-in speakers, analog/optical audio input and output, 10/100/1000 LAN, dual band WiFi, FireWire 800 etc. like all the models we looked at so far, but they differ in the following areas:

  • 5 USB 2.0 ports instead of 4 on newer models
  • no card reader
  • external power supply
  • Mini-DVI instead of HDMI

Other than that, this case is really unpleasant to get into in order to upgrade RAM. With RAM prices being so low, the previous Mac mini models could be cheaply and easily maxed out on RAM or at least brought to 4GB memory. On this type of case though, there is no easy access to the RAM banks. There is no removable panel on the bottom – you have to pry open the case as shown in this video.

To make matters worse, most of these 2009 models came with 1GB or 2GB of RAM and while me might argue about 2GB being sufficient or not, 1GB is definitely not. You want your Mac mini at 4GB RAM as you want the latest version of OS X rather some old one.

Another reason you don’t want to run your Mac mini with 1GB RAM is the graphics. Like the 2010 models, all 2009 models come with the same GPU – this time Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M. It shares its video memory with the main memory and in case of 1GB that means only 128MB video memory. With 2GB RAM you get 256MB video memory. And the 9400M is actually the weak point of this Mac mini. When it comes to graphics performance, the 9400M is a bit shy of Intel HD 3000’s performance so that should give you a picture. And that’s in real life with games. Synthetic benchmarks put the HD 3000 clearly ahead of the 9400M in terms of performance. Don’t expect to play any proper, modern games on this Mac. Old games will still do, casual games in most cases, too.

Mac mini 2009 Geekbench scoresLast but not least the CPU. In 2009 models we find a wide range of Intel Core2Duo (Penryn) similar to the 2010 models. They range from 2.0 GHz to 2.66 GHz.

2009 Mac minis are still a valid choice to get to know Mac OS X and the world of Apple, especially since you can get a good one for around $300 on eBay and if you look hard enough, even as little as $200.

Another thing to consider is the size of the hard drive. 2009 models came with anything from 120 GB to 500GB with 120 and 160 GB being the most popular ones. 120 GB or 160 GB can be a little troublesome if you want to store lots of pictures and/or music. However, even 120GB are sufficient for Mac OS X and lots of apps as they do not require as much space as you might be used from Windows.

Mac mini (mid 2007)

This is where I would draw the line of going back in time to look for a cheap Mac to get into Macs. It just gets too old and even though you can easily score one for $200 or less on eBay, there are 3 good reasons not to do it:

1) Intel’s GMA 950 for graphics, which is – let’s be perfectly honest here – a disgrace to the word ‘graphics’. It really is that bad. This thing along with its successor X3100 is what gave Intel’s integrated GPUs the bad reputation it is suffering from until today and likely for a couple more years to come. On top of that, it is only capable of driving one display while all the Mac minis we looked at so far can drive two displays. You can forget even light gaming of any kind. GMA 950 also lacks h.264 acceleration and there is also no DisplayPort, you only get a DVI port instead.

2) No Mountain Lion. 2007 Mac minis are not supported by Mac OS X 10.8 aka Mountain Lion being the current version of Mac OS X. The highest you can go is 10.7 Lion, its predecessor. Lion isn’t bad at all, but if you want to get to know a new platform, starting with the most recent version usually is a good idea.

3) A couple of “minor” ones here, but it adds up. WiFi with no 802.11n, only b/g, FireWire 400 instead of 800, 667 MHz system bus as opposed to 1066 MHz on later models and SATA I instead of SATA II.

It is not a useless piece of hardware, there is still good uses for 2007 or older Mac mini, but for the purpose of a first Mac I just can’t recommend it. Except if you get one dirt cheap, like for 50 bucks or so. Then go for it.

Mac mini (2006 and older)

Don’t even think about it, not even at $50 bucks. The End.

Mac mini 2009 and older vs 2012 base modelWell, not really the end, let’s do a quick run-down why not, at any price.

Early and late 2006 Mac minis come with the same useless GMA 950 the 2007 models do, but that is not the worst part. They don’t come with Intel Core2Duo CPUs, but with Intel’s Core Duo. While similar in name, the performance is quite different. On top of that, the early 2006 Mac minis also come with Intel’s Core Solo CPUs that are, as the name suggest, single core CPUs. We haven’t seen those for quite some time and with good reason. Just look at the chart with Geekbench scores for 2007 and 2006 models with 2009 models and the current 2012 base model put in there for reference.

If you go even further back, you’ll arrive at the 2005 Mac minis, be it the original Mac mini or its late 2005 speed bumped versions. This is a whole different thing altogether as the 2005 Mac mini is based on PowerPC G4 rather than Intel processors and is something I might write about for the vintage section of my blog should I find an excuse to buy one 😛

The End…

One comment

  1. loner_t

    I have two RFB i5/6630m and an i7/hd4000 and still prefer the i5 to the i7 for graphics. The colours are so much better with the 6630.

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