Apple Mac Mini (2023) review: Mac Studio junior

Written by Chris Welch From The Verge
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With two processor choices — one for everyday computing, the other for conquering creative work — Apple’s littlest Mac has never been more appealing.

Before the Mac’s resurgence a few years ago, the idea that Apple might produce a machine like the new Mac Mini was a distant dream. The company’s compact desktop was rarely updated and mostly ignored — we often waited many years between major refreshes. But things eventually started clicking for the entire Mac portfolio. The disastrous butterfly keyboard was retired. Real buttons replaced the MacBook Pro’s underused touch bar. And it all hit a fever pitch when Apple introduced its own processors — first in speedy laptops that also established new highs for battery life and then in desktops like the redesigned iMac and wicked-fast Mac Studio.

The Mac Mini was part of the first wave of Apple silicon products in 2020, and it was a strong performer in a tiny package. But it was also a minimal effort release that came with some tradeoffs: namely, the M1 Mac Mini topped out at 16GB of RAM and had fewer ports than the Intel-powered model, which Apple continued to sell until the introduction of this Mac Mini last week. Now powered by either the M2 or M2 Pro chip, the 2023 version of the Mac Mini retains the same overall design but upgrades numerous specs, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and (optionally) HDMI and ethernet, depending on how much you spend.

Of course, the biggest upgrade of all is performance.

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The new Mac Mini is available with a choice of two processors: one is a great choice for a household Mac, while the other is clearly aimed at prosumers that will push the envelope a bit. The cheaper model starts at $599 ($100 less than the M1 model started at) and is powered by Apple’s M2 chip. Just like the 13-inch MacBook Pro, this version includes eight CPU cores and 10 GPU cores.

As my colleague Monica Chin wrote in their review of the MacBook Pro, single-core performance is extremely impressive and makes everyday tasks and apps feel ever so slightly faster than the already brisk M1. Apple says the M2 chip also puts up better multicore and graphics numbers. Assuming the regular Mini performs similarly to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, it should be able to handle all of the browser tabs you can muster and multitask with aplomb. As for other software, a majority of the apps I use now run natively on Apple silicon except for one or two outliers like Amazon Music. Those programs still work fine thanks to Apple’s Rosetta software, but you won’t find a need for it nearly as often as when the first M1 machines debuted in 2020.

Lined up against the M2 MacBook Air, the Mini should be able to sustain top performance for longer stretches of time without throttling. This is for a couple of reasons. First, it’s got a fan inside (unlike the Air), and there’s also a ton of open space in its enclosure, so the Mini just runs cool by design since its silicon isn’t tightly packed into a laptop frame.

The Mac Mini unsurprisingly had no trouble editing large RAW files.

I’d recommend the standard M2 Mac Mini for anyone looking for a general purpose desktop Mac — assuming you’ve already got a monitor, keyboard, and mouse at the ready. It’ll offer robust performance and is perfectly capable of photo editing and light video work. Apple has given the new machine faster Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi 6E) and the latest Bluetooth 5.3 connectivity. By default, the ethernet jack is capable of gigabit speeds, but you can opt for blistering 10-gigabit ethernet for an extra $100. Similar to the M1 Mac Mini, M2 models get two USB-C ports (now Thunderbolt 4) and two USB-A ports — plus a headphone jack and HDMI 2.0 output.

However, as tempting as the $599 price tag on the entry-level Mini is, we generally recommend getting more than the base 8GB of RAM. Even without intensely pushing the machine, you’re likely to force the system to swap memory to the SSD. And while Apple’s unified memory architecture can make this mostly imperceptible while working, I’d still point most people toward the $799 configuration (with 256GB of storage and 16GB RAM) as the true “starter” option. It’s a better buy if you plan to keep your Mini for several years and through several new releases of macOS. And you’re still getting a price cut: an M1 Mac Mini with 16GB of RAM started at $899.

But I haven’t been testing the regular M2 Mini. Instead, over the last several days, I’ve been using the M2 Pro model with 12 CPU cores and 19 GPU cores. So far, it’s been an absolute screamer worthy of the “Mac Studio junior” moniker — and then some. In benchmarks, its Cinebench single-core and multicore CPU scores bested last year’s M1 Max MacBook Pro. And the added GPU cores over the standard M2 made a noticeable difference when exporting 4K footage or gaming. As our Shadow of the Tomb Raider benchmark shows, that graphics horsepower isn’t quite on the level of Apple’s Max chips since they have even more GPU cores to spare. But it’s a big step up from what the standard M2 Mini, MacBook Air, and 13-inch MacBook Pro are capable of. The M2 Pro Mac Mini flew through editing 40-megapixel RAW files from the Fujifilm X-T5, and while I’m no videographer myself, it didn’t show any strain when working with high-bitrate 4K test footage in our tests. I have yet to hear the fans whir up at any time — even during extended benchmark tests.

A photo of the back of Apple’s 2023 Mac Mini.
You get two additional Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports with the M2 Pro Mac Mini.

The pricier M2 Pro Mini has other benefits beyond sheer speed. You get a total of four USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports — back on par with the old Intel model in quantity — plus a more modern HDMI 2.1 port. Its more powerful GPU can also support up to three external displays, one more than the M2 Mac Mini. Increased I/O and greater display flexibility will make the M2 Pro Mac Mini much more appealing to certain people. But great things never come cheap: you’ll pay a minimum of $1,299 for a Mini with the M2 Pro chip, and that one’s got 10 CPU and 16 GPU cores. The configuration I tested, with two more CPU and three more GPU cores, 1TB of storage, and 16GB of RAM, costs $1,799.

At that point, you’re bumping up against the price of a base Mac Studio, which comes with that more graphics-capable M1 Max chip. The Mini I’d personally want, with a 2TB SSD, 32GB of RAM, and 10-gigabit ethernet, would run $2,699. Ouch.

But remember that there’s no such thing (yet) as an iMac with an M2 Pro inside. So for anyone who wants a Mac desktop but finds the Mac Studio to be overkill — and it’s exactly that for many use cases — this M2 Pro Mini could make a ton of sense. And it doesn’t cost anywhere near as much. The only port I’ve missed from the Studio and my MacBook Pro is the built-in SD card slot. But even without that, you’re left with a ton of possibilities from this generous helping of ports. I do wish one or two of those Thunderbolt 4 ports were on the front of the Mini; alas, you’ve still got to reach around back to get at everything.

Apple doesn’t offer any discounts on the Studio Display or the company’s keyboard and mouse accessories when bundled together with the Mini, which is a shame. Even so, part of the Mini’s charm dates back to that “BYODKM” phrase that Steve Jobs used when introducing it in 2005: you’re free to bring whatever display, keyboard, and mouse you like best and pair them with this powerful Mac mini-tower. This can open up potential desk setups that aren’t possible with Apple’s own gear. You’re not constrained to a 60Hz monitor, for instance. I did feel the sting of losing Touch ID when I switched away from Apple’s Magic Keyboard in favor of my own, but I can live without it. The idea of phasing out my large, heavy MacBook Pro for a powerful Mac Mini rig at home — and a lighter M2 MacBook Air or 12.9-inch iPad Pro when on the move — is really growing on me.

An overhead photo of Apple’s 2023 Mac Mini.
I just wish Apple would move a port or two to the front.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the 2023 Mac Mini is the best version of the product that Apple has pulled off yet. It looks the same but benefits greatly from the M2 platform, and that’s true whether you choose the standard chip or invest in the powerful M2 Pro. Either way, you also gain better Wi-Fi and can expect very few bumps this far into the Apple silicon transition. Spend more on the M2 Pro, and on top of the mighty speed, you’ll get to take advantage of even more Thunderbolt 4 ports and more external displays.

If you’ve been waiting for the in-betweener Mac that’s more capable than the iMac and less exorbitant than the Mac Studio, look no further. The new Mac Mini is still small and not the type of computer that calls attention to itself on your desk, but it’s never been more mighty.

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