Teardown: Apple Mac mini 2018 desktop PC
Image credit: Apple
The former entry-level PC gets rethought as an AV powerhouse.
It has been a little more than four years since Apple last visited its Mac mini desktop computer. The new version is more ‘professional grade’ than its predecessors. That is reflected in a sizeable price hike from £499 to £799. You can go a lot higher too, if you add many of its options.
Much of the mini’s historical appeal to general users lay in its small form-factor. The computer fits into a square 19.7cm, 3.6cm-deep aluminium frame and weighs just 1.3kg. You did – and still do – have to buy your own display, keyboard and mouse, but the smart design and comparatively low price drew in those who wanted a ‘casual’ PC or a living-room computer that did not intrude too much on its surroundings.
There will still be some of those customers, but Apple is today capturing that market with laptops, phones and tablets, even though home automation remains a promoted model for the mini. Instead, it has put even greater emphasis on the mini’s other previously established client base, the creative industries.
The specifications help tell the new story. The entry-level mini has a quad-core 3.6GHz Intel Core i3 processor but you can trade up to six-core 3.2GHz Core i7 with turbo boost up to 4.6GHz. It is five times as powerful as the previous model.
Meanwhile, DRAM starts at 8GB but can be raised to 64GB, and PCIe-standard flash storage goes from 128GB to 2TB. There is also a 10 Gigabit Ethernet option.
Alongside all that comes a useful array of ports: four for Thunderbolt/USB-C, two USB 3, one HDMI and even a 3.5mm headphone jack. These will allow, for example, a video professional to connect up to three high-resolution displays concurrently in standalone operation.
At the same time, multiple minis can be combined in render farms, with Apple now touting the computer’s use to realise content in the increasingly popular HEVC/H.265 codec.
This little box has pretty big muscles and there is even a nod towards the user-configurability that professionals demand. An iFixit teardown found that the SDRAM modules can be easily popped out of their solid metal shield – necessary to prevent interference with other components because they operate at 2,666MHz. However, the processor and storage remain soldered in place. So just a nod.
You can nevertheless see how the mini will appeal to farm and desktop customers in audio and video. Its form factor also makes it ideal for public performance, from DJs through concerts to just about anyone running events at multiple venues. Turn up, plug into a club’s AV system and get slick results.
These are industries Apple knows well and that have remained loyal. In the days before it became the world’s pre-eminent consumer technology brand, creatives in everything from publishing to design to music helped keep the company in business.
While Apple has not shrunk the mini, its engineers have managed to get a lot into a still very small computer. The gradual assimilation of once discrete silicon into monolithic processors – a big part of the company’s in-house semiconductor design work – has helped. The mini boasts the T2 security chip with its Secure Enclave coprocessor for encrypted storage and secure boot.
As well as more easily upgradeable DRAM, the physical design also appears to assume that minis may get bashed around a bit and therefore require easier servicing. The iFixit teardown found it easy to prize open the base and pop out the fan using “fairly common” tools. The enclosed power supply is also easy to remove. The speaker is attached to just one connector and a couple of screws.
However, iFixit was less enthusiastic when it came to the mini’s other connections to the outside world: “If any of the many ports is damaged or worn, the entire logic board will need replacing.”
Overall, iFixit scores the mini at a not-bad six out of 10 for repairability, and by comparison with most other Apple products (usually ‘threes’ and below) that is a significant improvement.
But this is no longer an entry-level computer. When the mini arrived in 2005, there was no iPad nor iPhone and Apple laptops were very much premium products. It was a vehicle through which the company sought to challenge the far greater dominance of Windows. You could say, while Windows remains the leading desktop OS, that job has been done.
And just to underline the shift in the mini’s market positioning, remember that mention of how the price could now rise sharply as you traded up towards its highest specifications. A top-of-the-range mini now costs a chunky £3,859 - excluding creative software like the latest versions of Final Cut or Logic Pro.
Nice piece of kit, but it’s probably better to run your thermostat off your phone, don’t you think?
Key components: Apple Mac mini
1. Antenna plate
2. Antenna cabling
5. DRAM shield
6. DRAM modules
7. Main assembly
9. Ports assembly
11. Power supply
12. Thunderbolt 3 controller, Intel
13. Gigabit Ethernet controller, Broadcom
14. Platform controller hub, Intel
15. Processor, Intel
16. Security processor, Apple
17. Flash storage, Toshiba
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