Review: Apple Mac Mini 2012
Nice media centre, shame about the HDMI glitches
Update On 10 December 2012, Apple posted the called for Mac Mini HDMI-centric firmware update, after this review was written and published. We will be testing the machine with the new code, and will report back here shortly.
I should say right up front that, much as I quite like the Mac Mini’s form-factor, looks and, more particularly, its operating system, I can’t really recommend the latest version, at least not to anyone hoping to hook it up to an HD TV by HDMI, perhaps for media centre duties.
The thing is, you see, the new Apple’s HDMI performance is crap. Hook the Mini up to an ordinary 1080p TV – as I did – through an HDMI cable and you’ll think you’ve gone back in time to the 8-bit VGA era: dithered colours, jagged curves and diagonal lines, the lot. Some folk have said their HDMI output flickers too - something that past models have, some say, been afflicted by - but I didn’t see that, just the poor colour quality.
Apple's Mac Mini: compact and stylish
The irony is that the Mac Mini was Apple’s first computer to support HDMI, though it built one of the ports into the first-generation Apple TV set-top box too. I have one of these old ATVs, hacked to run the open source XBMC media centre software, which it runs a treat. It also generates an HDMI image that’s just fine. So I know the new Mini’s woeful HDMI output is nothing to do with either HDMI or my television.
And it may not even be Apple’s fault, at least not directly. Owners of 2012 Mac Minis currently blame the matter on Intel, the chip maker whose Core i5 powers the Mac and delivers the computer’s graphics through the Intel HD 4000 core integrated into the CPU. Intel has confirmed there are issues with the chip which it can address through its driver software.
While updated code has been pushed out to PCs based upon the HD 4000, and Intel has passed details of the changes on to Apple, the Mac maker has yet to update the Mini’s firmware to implement the changes. Until it does, it would be unwise to upgrade from an older Mini or any other machine to this new one if you want to use HDMI.
Avoid HDMI for now, but Thunderbolt should be fine
Fortunately, you have a choice. The Mini also sports a Thunderbolt port, so it can be hooked up to Thunderbolt and DisplayPort monitors. And, in a very rare moment of generosity on Apple’s part, there’s an HDMI-DVI adaptor BUNDLED IN THE BOX. I had to shout that, I was so surprised – Apple doesn’t give away accessories with its other products. Even iPads no longer come with a screen cloth. The adaptor's not available on its own, only bundled with the Mini.
Alas, El Reg lacks a Thunderbolt monitor – even a DisplayPort job – but I understand from folk with one that the new machine's Thunderbolt output is exactly as it should be. I hooked up the Mini to a monitor with the in-the-box DVI adaptor to a DVI-equipped monitor and found the results to be perfectly acceptable. Likewise, when I connected the computer using a DVI-DisplayPort adaptor. Readers have, however, reported issues with the HDMI-DVI option, though they say the results aren't as poor as they are with a pure HDMI link.
It's good to know the Mini works with certain connections, but that's not very helpful if you were planning to connect it to a TV by HDMI.
Apple is generous with ports too. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, there are four USB 3.0 ports and even Firewire 800. There’s an SDXC slot, though it's positioned round the back so you’re probably not going to enjoy swapping cards from cameras in and out of it. Gigabit Ethernet is included too, but that’s only to be expected, as is 802.11n Wi-Fi, though it supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, which isn’t something you’d expect for a nominally low-cost, small form-factor desktop. It's capable of speeds of up to 130Mb/s.
Apple is generous with ports
The Mini has Bluetooth 4.0 too, but who cares much about that these days?
In use, the new Mini runs wonderfully quiet. With a 2.5GHz Core i5-3210M processor capable of peaking at 3.1GHz, it’s reasonably nippy for a general purpose desktop or media player too. Gaming? Not so hot. I ran Doom 3 – by no means a new game – and got 44fps in its timedemo test at the TV’s native 1920 x 1080 resolution. Playing it, I saw a great deal of view tearing - much, much more of it than I see in my three-year-old 2560 x 1920 iMac at work, though that has a discrete GPU on board, of course. Maybe Intel’s driver update will improve matters. For now, though, this is not a games machine, not if your ambitions extend further than Angry Birds.
Geekbench 2.0 Results
Longer bars are better
Another (small) flaw for me is the 500GB 5400rpm hard drive that Apple bundles. It’s not a bad drive, but I’ve grown accustomed to the speed of an SSD.
I do think, for a machine costing more than £500, Apple could have included 8GB of 1600MHz (PC3-12800) DDR 3, not half that. But credit where it’s due, Apple makes it very easy for anyone to open the Mini: just rotate the plastic base 20° or so and off it slips, exposing the two notebook Ram slots. A couple of 8GB Dimms will set you back around £62 from a third-party memory seller like Crucial.
Removing a quartet of torx screws flips off the Wi-Fi antenna unit to reveal the hard drive, and it’s relatively easy to slide out the motherboard and replace the drive. If only; in fact you have to remove the fan and some plastic cowling and only then can you lift and slide the Airport antenna free and slide out the hard drive.
Opening the Mac Mini is easy...
Getting all back is even trickier, but not beyond the bounds of most hardware tinkerers.
With either the original drive or a new one, you'll be running Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, and you'll get Apple's iLife bundle too. Whether that's a valuable edition is entirely subjective, likewise the many apps and utilities that come with OS X itself. Other apps will have to be installed from downloads or Apple's own App Store, since the Mini lacks an optical drive. Apple will sell you it own external Superdrive, or you can choose from an array of third-party drives.
But OS X remains one of this box's selling points. If you're going to run Linux on your media machine, you may as well buy a cheaper alternative from one of the many less well known Asian vendors who offer this kind of product. If you don't like paying for a smart looking box, or for a unit without an optical drive, ditto.
...getting to the useful parts is a little more tricky
The Reg Verdict
The woeful HDMI performance means I really can't give the 2012 Mac Mini the thumbs up. If Apple fixes this serious issue soon, I’ll change my mind. I do like it. It’s stylish, and while you might not want to pay extra for a good-looking box, you’d surely not say no to one all things being equal. It is rather swish sitting next to a telly. The Mini offers a decent spec with excellent connectivity, and I'd much rather run Mac OS X Mountain Lion than Windows 8, though it's compatible with the Microsoft OS through its Boot Camp feature. ®
Thanks to Square Group for the loan of the Mac Mini.