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The New Mac mini is Quickly Turning into a Disaster

Mac mini fans waited a heck of a long time [1] for an update and, upon witnessing Apple’s unveiling [2] of the 2014 Mac mini during October’s iPad event, issued a collective sigh of relief. Finally. Sure, the new model sported the same form factor as its predecessor, and there was seemingly nothing radical to justify Apple’s delay in updating the product, but at least the Mac mini could finally get the “new” features that have been available on other Macs for over a year, such as PCIe-based flash storage, Haswell processors, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Apple also cut the entry level price by $100 to boot, bringing the system back to its original [3], psychologically significant $499 price point.

But it didn’t take long for even this arguably consolation prize-style update to begin to unravel. It was soon revealed that Apple was using soldered RAM [4] in the new Mac minis, an unfortunate development that meant that customers would no longer be able to upgrade their memory after purchase. Want the maximum 16GB of RAM for your new Mac? That’ll be $300 extra [5] at checkout, with no option to find a cheaper third party alternative, or upgrade down the road if memory prices decrease.

2012-mac-mini-ram [6]

The 2012 Mac mini offered easy RAM upgrades. Lee Hutchinson / Ars Technica

Compounding the memory upgrade situation is the company’s choice of CPUs. Yes, they’re Haswell, but they’re not as fast as their 2-plus-year-old Ivy Bridge predecessors. The old 2012 Mac mini lineup included options for both dual- and quad-core CPUs, but the new 2014 models are dual-core only, and the efficiency improvements in Haswell can’t compensate for the loss of those two cores.

Moving in Reverse

So, what does this mean? At best, it means only very modest improvements for some models, certainly less than most would expect from a system as old as the 2012 Mac mini. At worst, it means a dramatic decrease in performance, with some 2012 configurations absolutely destroying their 2014 counterparts in multi-core workflows.

Apple elected to use an underpowered class of Haswell chips in the new 2014 models, and there seems to be absolutely no reason for it

According to Primate Labs [7], makers of the popular cross-platform Geekbench tool, single-core performance for the 2014 Mac mini is up to about 11 percent better than the 2012 model in some configurations, but a staggering 40 percent worse in comparisons of the top-end models for each year. No wonder Apple hides the Mac mini on the second page of its online store listing.

Here’s a quick overview of the performance difference between the 2012 and 2014 models, based upon the best verifiable 64-bit Geekbench score. We’ll start with single-core improvements using the following specifications:

[table id=15 /]

Single-core performance is indeed better, but not by much, with only the high end configuration enjoying a modest 11 percent improvement. Here’s multi-core performance, where things get ugly:

[table id=16 /]

Ouch. If you were waiting on a new Mac mini to replace a mid-range editing or production workstation, or if you just wanted a new mini that would make encoding home movies in iMovie faster, you’re completely out of luck. Apple elected to use an underpowered class of Haswell chips in the new 2014 models, and there seems to be absolutely no reason for it.

Apple executives, including the late Steve Jobs, used to frequently tell their audiences that the new Mac-whatever was “the fastest Mac-whatever yet,” and every time I heard that I would think to myself, “No kidding. I mean, if you come out with a new iMac or Mac Pro and it’s slower than the one that came before, you’ve made some kind of serious mistake!”

Of course, there are occasions when a reduction in performance from one model to the next is not necessarily a bad thing, and the trade-off between performance and battery life is a perfect example. In fact, Apple has made great strides in terms of battery life on the company’s MacBook line, with new models occasionally slower than their predecessors over the years.

But the Mac mini is a desktop, and power consumption is nowhere near the same level of importance compared to a portable device. Even with a reduction in idle power usage (which I’ll touch on in a moment), the 2012 Mac mini was already one of the most efficient desktop computers on the market. Is such a drastic loss of performance worth saving just a few watts at idle?

Who Would Buy This Thing?

Okay, so I’ve been pretty hard on the 2014 Mac mini so far, and while I think it’s a terrible deal for most users, there are still a few reasons that a new 2014 model makes sense over a used 2012-era mini.

Graphics: If you plan to use your Mac mini for any kind of gaming or computational work that leverages the GPU, the 2014 mini will offer a bit more performance. The exact numbers vary wildly depending on the task, but you can expect the Intel HD 5000 or Iris 5100 GPUs in the 2014 Mac mini to beat the Intel HD 4000 GPU in the 2012 model by between 15 and 80 percent [8].

mac-mini-gaming-civ5 [9]

Connectivity: The importance of this category will depend entirely on your planned workflow, but the 2014 Mac mini offers connectivity options that aren’t available in the 2012 model, including 802.11ac Wi-Fi and two Thunderbolt 2 ports. However, that extra Thunderbolt 2 port comes at the expense of FireWire 800, which is now completely absent from Apple’s product line (RIP, FireWire). Of course, you can always work around this limitation by using one of those Thunderbolt ports with a FireWire adapter [10] or FireWire-enabled dock [11].

2014-mac-mini-ports [12]

Storage Speed: A 2012 Mac mini with a solid state drive was no slouch, but if you elect to upgrade to the PCIe-based flash storage on the 2014 mini, you’ll see some significant performance gains [13]. The 2014 Mac mini’s solid state storage, unencumbered by the SATA interface bandwidth limitations experienced by its predecessor, is about 60 percent faster for reads, and 50 percent faster when it comes to writes.

Energy Efficiency: As mentioned earlier, this isn’t a huge deal for most users, but the 2014 Mac mini uses half the power at idle [14] compared to the 2012 model. Of course, the 2012 model was already idling at an impressive 10 watts [15], so the roughly 5 watt idle usage from the 2014 model suddenly appears less significant.

To put energy efficiency in perspective with a best-case scenario, let’s say that your future Mac mini will idle for 16 hours per day, which is not an unrealistic figure considering that the system will have periods in an idle state even while you’re using it. With an average energy cost [16] in the United States of about 12 cents per kilowatt hour, the 2014 Mac mini’s 5 watts of savings at idle equates to about $3.49 per year. Assuming the absolute highest cost of 36 cents per kilowatt hour, you’re still only looking at $10.48 worth of energy for the entire year. So, yeah, militant environmentalists will appreciate the efficiency improvements, but for everyone else, such improvements are only a small bonus that’s likely to go unnoticed.

A Holding Pattern?

Some users may indeed value the 2014 Mac mini’s advantages over the 2012 model, even if those advantages are relatively minor. But questions over the new model’s underpowered components and the timing of its release remain. Apple waited almost two years — 723 days [1] — to update the Mac mini, and there are no fundamental changes to to the product that justify the delay. So, why did it take so long to produce an arguably mediocre product?

The first, and likely correct, theory is that the Mac mini is simply not a priority for Apple. The mini’s fans, myself included, are a vocal minority and fond of its versatility, but Apple is becoming increasingly consumed with gadgets, consumer electronics, wearables, and even fashion. It’s unlikely that the company will abandon the Mac any time soon, but it’s also unlikely that it will choose to expend resources on a tiny part of a relatively small segment of its business. More exciting, higher profile, and higher margin products, like the new iMac with Retina 5K Display [17], are more worthy of the company’s finite attention.

mac-mini-hdtv-plex [18]

But there’s another possible theory: Apple is working on something big for the Mac mini, and it just couldn’t pull it together in time for a release this year. Sensing customer frustration, and the embarrassment to the company of keeping a two-year-old computer on the market, Apple hastily threw together a component upgrade at as little cost as possible.

Several rumors that circulated in the months before the mini’s 2014 update offer some ideas of what exactly “something big” means. The next Mac mini could be a test platform for Apple’s potential transition [19] to ARM-based processors. It could also serve as the next step in Apple’s home automation plans, merging with the equally neglected Apple TV and AirPort Express to form a hub that combines OS X computing with entertainment and home control features.

Just a Disappointing Landing

If I had to put money on it, I’d stick with the first theory, and wouldn’t be surprised if Apple phased the Mac mini out in the next few years. The company’s mobile lineup is becoming increasingly, almost alarmingly complex, and Apple executives would likely be glad to simplify [20] the less profitable and popular aspects of the company’s business.

That’s a reasonable and understandable business strategy, but it leaves long-suffering Mac mini fans out in the cold. The 2014 Mac mini is still the cheapest way to buy a Mac and, even with its significantly reduced multi-core performance, it’s still more than capable of handling basic day-to-day tasks.

But the Mac mini during the last few generations had the potential to be powerful. Maybe not at the entry level configuration and price point, but the upgrade options were there for those looking for a powerful Mac at a relatively affordable price. Now, with the underpowered processors found in the 2014 Mac mini, users looking to upgrade will either have to take their chances finding a used 2012 model or spend significantly more on an iMac or, if they prefer their own display, a Mac Pro. It’s a depressing realization for a group of dedicated fans who have grown to love the Mac mini, but it may be time to walk away from this mess.