By Tom Nelson
The 2012 Mac mini continues the course charted by the 2011 Mac minis, which provided good performance, reasonable expandability, and a nice value for those looking for an inexpensive Mac, a physically small Mac, or a Mac that could be dedicated to specific functions.
Overall, I really like the Mac mini. It's a good choice if you're looking for a small, inexpensive Mac. Apple did have to make some compromises to squeeze all of the Mac features into a small package, though.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the advantages and drawbacks of the 2012 Mac mini.
Earlier versions of the Mac mini made RAM upgrades a difficult process for the DIYer. Apple frowned on cracking open the early Mac minis, and I do mean cracking open. Special tools were required to pry the two halves of the mini apart to gain access to its innards.
Luckily, that whole sealed system has been replaced. The 2012 version of the Mac mini provides the easy access to the RAM modules that was introduced with the 2010 version.
The Mac mini has two RAM modules that are user replaceable. You can configure the Mac mini from 4 GB (the stock configuration) to 16 GB maximum. Because there are only two memory slots, and Apple uses two 2 GB RAM modules in the basic configuration, you will have to remove those RAM modules in order to upgrade.
You can order your Mac mini from Apple with 4 GB, 8 GB, or 16 GB of RAM. But because Apple's price for RAM upgrades is somewhat steep, I highly recommend the DIY approach. Order your Mac mini with the minimum RAM configuration (4 GB), and perform your own upgrade. The process is simple; Apple includes instructions for performing the upgrade in the Mac mini user guide.
The 2012 Mac mini uses 1600 MHz DDR3 memory in a 204-pin SO-DIMM module. This is sometimes referred to as either DDR3 1600 or PC3 12800.
The Mac mini has different storage drive configurations, depending on the model you choose:
The drives, unlike the memory, are not considered user replaceable. However, there are many sites that sell drive upgrades for the Mac mini and the experienced DIYer won't have too much difficulty taking the Mac mini apart to upgrade or replace the stock storage configuration. However, be aware that doing so may affect warranty coverage. You may want to wait until the warranty expires before you hack your Mac.
The external ports offered on the 2012 Mac mini really only received a minor upgrade. Apple replaced the USB 2.0 ports with four USB 3.0 ports. Otherwise, the Mac mini has the same port configuration as previous models.
And that's a good thing. That means you will still find a FireWire 800 port, an HDMI port so you can easily hook the Mac mini up to your TV, and a single Thunderbolt port, as well as an SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, and audio in and out ports.
The 2012 Mac mini also has 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and an IR receiver, which can be used with various remotes.
The 2012 Mac mini uses Intel's Ivy Bridge series of processors, which provide a nice performance boost, especially in the quad-core versions.
The base Mac mini is outfitted with a 2.5 GHz Dual-Core i5. This is the only processor option available for the base configuration.
The mid-range model of the Mac mini comes equipped with a 2.3 GHz Quad-Core i7 processor and can be upgraded to a 2.6 GHz Quad-Core i7. That extra .3 GHZ comes at a $100 premium, so I think the standard 2.3 GHz Quad-Core model is going to be the most popular, especially with initial benchmarks showing a nice performance increase with the i7 processors.
The Mac mini is also available in a special server version. It uses the same processor configurations as the mid-range model, but comes with the OS X Server app, as well as the current version of OS X. The server version can also be configured with dual drives for additional storage space.
The only graphics option offered with the Mac mini is the stock Intel HD Graphics 4000. This is the same graphics option offered in the 13-inch MacBook Pros (including the Retina model) and all 2012 MacBook Airs.
Apple specs suggest the Intel HD Graphics 4000 can outperform the previous generation, the Intel HD Graphics 3000. But although the HD Graphics 4000 performs very well, it’s a shame there's no option for a dedicated graphics chip, such as the NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M offered in some MacBook Pros.
So, who is Apple targeting with the Mac mini? Originally, the Mac mini was designed for PC users who wanted an inexpensive way to acquire a Mac. You can still see those roots in the stock configurations, which lack a keyboard and mouse, to help keep the price point lower.
While I don't have access to any marketing data, I don't think individuals making the jump from Windows to a Mac are the number one buyers of the Mac mini. Instead, I think many people buy the Mac mini as a second Mac for the home, perhaps for a dedicated function. For example, the Mac mini makes a great component in a home theater system. Many students go off to school with a Mac mini, especially if they prefer a desktop Mac to a notebook. And of course the server version of the Mac mini lets you host services in your home or home business that might otherwise only be available from external or expensive alternatives.