Which Apple Mac mini Should I Buy?

Apple just gave a little upgrade love to the Mac mini, beefing up the graphics and storage, along with knocking $100 off the starting price. If you’ve been thinking about getting a Mac mini, now is the most cost-effective time in two years. They ship with the new Mac OS X Yosemite, of course. This Mac mini buyers guide and feature review will help you find the answers you need.

The Mac mini desktop Mac is popular with PC switchers and maintains almost a cult following among some Mac lovers, who love the versatility. You can plug it into the HDMI port on our HDTV and turn it into a living-room media center Mac. Or you can set it up as a server — and some companies use them in data centers for small businesses. While most Mac buyers turn to the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, the Mac mini goes to people who want the greatest overall value in a Mac that’s designed to stay in one place.

The new Mac mini comes in three versions:

The Apple retail price ranges from $499 for the 1.4GHz model to $699 for the 2.6GHz model and $999 for the 2.8GHz Mac mini.

Which Mac mini Is the Best Buy?

While the $499 entry point is hard to beat, the 2.6GHz model has twice the memory (8GB instead of 4GB) and twice the storage (1TB vs 500GB) along with better graphics — Intel Iris Graphics, which are 90 percent faster than the previous generation of Mac mini that had Intel HD 4000 graphics.

For the home, the Mac mini has plenty of oomph for basic web browsing, homework, office documents, email, and photo and video editing for most users. For games and lots of open apps with multitasking, the mid-level Mac mini is the smarter all-around buy.

The top-end Mac mini will obviously be a little better for pretty much everything, but is the bump worth another $300? Probably not. Most people won’t notice the performance difference, but the Fusion Drive will boot up noticeably faster (which isn’t much of a big deal on a desktop device anyway). I recommend that buyers save the $300 and spend it in smarter ways elsewhere, like on an iPad.

One thing you might want to consider is the fact that the memory (a.k.a. RAM) is no longer upgradable by the user — it’s soldered in. While you can upgrade the hard drive to a flash-based SSD drive in the future, doing so will void your warranty (and you’ll have to get past some tamper-resistant T6 Torx Security screws).

What does this mean? It means that for basic computing users, the 4GB of memory in the low-end will be fine. And for users who want to play some games and edit some movies for YouTube, the mid-level version with 8GB will work great, too. If you want to upgrade to 16GB of memory, Apple will charge you another $200 — not compelling in an entry-level Mac. If someone wants to get into more serious computing, the Mac mini might not be the best buy — loading it up with custom add-ons from Apple will just price it out in silly ways. You would be better off getting an iMac [read the iMac Buying Guide] or MacBook Pro [read the MacBook Pro Buying Guide].

Is an Older Mac mini Smarter?

While the older generation of Mac mini can still be found with a better processor — for example, a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz) with 6MB L3 cache and a 1TB drive — they are still packing the older Intel HD 4000 graphics. On the other hand, you can cheaply add extra memory and easily drop in a fast flash-based SSD drive. My recommendation? Don’t overthink it. The mid-level new Mac mini will fit most people’s needs really well. (Those who have a more serious need for a quad-core processor and 16GB of memory should also be able to figure out if the older graphics will hold them back or not.)

When Does a Mac mini Make Sense?

For most users, a Mac mini is a good choice if you’re moving from a PC world to a Mac world. Because the Mac mini does not ship with a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, the Mac mini makes the most sense when a buyer already has a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to use.

If you don’t have a monitor, keyboard, or mouse, your out of pocket cost will rise. For instance, say you choose:

In a best case scenario, the total cost to get into a Mac mini will rise by a minimum of $150 and ramps up to $280 fairly easily. While $650 or so is definitely the most affordable way to buy a Mac, the 11-inch MacBook Air suddenly becomes much more compelling. Apple’s list price is $899, but you can often get one for a bit less at online retailers. You can still hook a MacBook Air up to an external monitor, of course, if you want a bigger screen.

All-in-all, it’s important to remember one thing: Once you go Mac, you probably won’t go back to PCs.

Check Out the Mac mini:


About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.