2018 Mac mini test

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After four years of waiting, the spirits had begun to warm up. And if the new Mac mini was a really mini Mac, a kind of MacBook tucked into the black box of Apple TV, a NUC under macOS? And if the new Mac mini was a Mac mini maxi, this famous xMac which some continue to dream, an XPC under macOS? After four years of waiting, Apple has been content with minimum. The new Mac mini is … a Mac mini.

It's in old pots …

The old Mac mini was a square prism 19.7 cm square and 3.6 cm thick, the new Mac mini is a square prism 19.7 cm square and 3.6 cm thick. Nothing changes, then? But if: the new Mac mini weighs 120 grams more than the old! A change as superficial as ripening in an ugly shade of sidereal gray, darker than the MacBook but lighter than the iPhone.

The four Thunderbolt 3 ports, and especially the gaping ventilation grille like the mouth of a manta ray, betray the secrets of this new machine. The changes are hidden behind the foot, which you can not unscrew a quarter turn, but you can still blow up a blow of spudger. You'll come face to face with a big fan, a sign that the 2018 Mac mini has it under the hood.

Inside the Mac mini, a large fan directly connected to the radiator, whose fins are seen through the exhaust mouth. The cold air is sucked all around the foot, the hot air passes through the fins to the large exchange surface. Bottom left, we distinguish the tubes of the heat pipe leading to the processor, hidden by the cage at the top left. This cage contains the RAM, which takes the form of removable bars (even if it is necessary disassemble the whole machine to get there). Finally right, the integrated power supply, which extends over the entire depth of the machine.

For the first time indeed, the Mac mini incorporates a six-core processor. But there is a but: Apple goes a little fast when it ensures that it is not "No mobile chips". The Intel processor Core i3-8100B belongs to the "desktop" segment of the Intel catalog, but is designed for embedded use. Intel processors Core i5-8500B and Core i7-8700Bthey are clearly part of the mobile "segment".

Do not sulk our pleasure, these chips have up to twelve logical cores and reach 4.6 GHz, specifications formerly reserved for the Mac Pro. These three processors are part of the eighth generation of Intel Core chips, also known as the "Coffee Lake" code. Engraved at 14 nm, they display a TDP of 65 W.

The four configurations we refer to in this test. Both machines with a Core i7 processor have an optional 10Gb / s Ethernet port.

One Mac mini, two Mac mini, three Mac mini

We tested the three configurations: the Core i3 at 3.6 GHz and the Core i5 at 3 GHz proposed in series, and the Core i7 at 3.2 GHz available as an option. The results of synthetic tests may surprise: the Core i5 outperforms the Core i3 while its frequency is lower, the Core i7 crushes the Core i5 while it is not much faster. It is necessary to look at the technical sheet more closely.

A Geekbench CPU test, which gives a good idea of ​​overall performance, both in single-core tasks and in all-core tasks.

Core i3 does not support theHyper-Threading, which makes a physical heart two logical hearts, nor the Turbo Boost, which allows to increase the frequency of a heart punctually, unprecedented since 2012. The Core i5, it supports Turbo Boost and can reach 4.1 GHz peak. CQFD number 1. Like the Core i7, the Core i5 has six physical cores, but only the Core i7 supports Hyper-Threading and can handle twelve operations at a time. CQFD number 2.

These distinctions are enough to radically change the profile of the Mac mini. A Mac mini with a Core i3 processor will evolve in the most complete silence, with a certain phlegm, without brilliance but without any scandal. A Mac mini with a Core i7 processor will instantly respond to all requests, but will blow and giggle, never bend under load, however. All Mac mini look alike, and look like previous models, but are very different machines.

A 10,000-dot Core i7 processor temperature and frequency reading for 30 minutes, in which the processor and graphics chip are full. After a few minutes beyond 4 GHz, the frequency stabilizes around 3.8 GHz. The temperature reaches 100 degrees, a high level in absolute terms, but still in the operating standards defined by Intel. The fan is properly dimensioned: the system rarely needs to lower the frequency to keep the temperature at acceptable level, and falls only twice to the base frequency of the processor, even allowing peaks at 4 GHz. The fan is audible, certainly, but the processor is fully exploited. The effort is cut off a first time to measure the fan's ability to lower the temperature, then resumed to check the ability of the machine to resume work immediately. In both cases, the Mac mini has no problem to follow. The most powerful machine in the range is also the loudest, but it's a deep, muffled sound, not a high whistle. Be careful to place the Mac mini on a smooth surface, to avoid clogging the fresh air intake around the foot, and not to stick it to the wall, to avoid hindering the dissipation of hot air.

Say that the Mac mini is "Up to five times faster", as Apple does, does not mean much. Five times faster than the 2014 Mac mini, which had an entry-level model processor clocked at 1.4 GHz? Still happy ! If it is necessary to compare the Mac mini 2018, it is rather to the more or less current models of iMac (the other consumer desktop machine) and MacBook Pro (the portable machine with similar processors).

Four lessons can be drawn from this comparison:

  • the Core i3 model is the slowest Mac mini, but is not particularly slow, except consider that the MacBook Pro 13 "and iMac 21.5" are.
  • the range of iMac suffers from not having been reviewed this year. Four-core processors can not keep pace with the six-core chips of the MacBook Pro and Mac mini 2018.
  • the Core i5 model appears as a happy medium, combining top speed on one heart and endurance on several hearts.
  • the Core i7 model is a small bomb that should satisfy the needs of the most demanding users.

But comparison is not right: we are talking here about the processor and only the processor. Unlike the Mac mini, the MacBook Pro 15 "and iMac incorporate a dedicated graphics card.

A bi-processor machine (or almost)

The Mac mini 2018 incorporates a second processor, the famous T2, cousin chips on the iPhone and iPad. We have already detailed the operation of this "super-controller" during our test of the iMac Pro (read: All you ever wanted to know about the T2 chip and Secure Boot). Since Apple praises the performance of its dedicated HEVC encoding circuit, let us add however that at the time of writing this test, it is cruelly under-exploited. Compressor uses it for 8-bit but not 10-bit compression, and it must use the option -c: v hevc_videotoolbox to use it with ffmpeg. In both cases, however, hardware encoding takes about three times less time than software encoding.

The T2 chip is at the center of the Secure Boot, this secure boot under strict conditions. This mechanism does not prevent the installation of Windows, or even a GNU / Linux distribution, as some piss-copies have claimed. As we explained for a very long time, Secure Boot can be disabled, and machines with a T2 chip can be booted to an external drive or USB key.

This controversy is all the more sterile as Secure Boot is not specific to Mac – you have to follow more or less the same procedure of "unblocking" on a recent PC! That said, the complete and stable installation of a GNU / Linux distribution on machines with a T2 chip is complicated by a driver problem. The one that concerns the NVMe controller of the SSD can be solved with some incantations to the gods of computing, but the one about the keyboard controller on the 2018 MacBook Pro still seems to be a problem.

Without RAM, it reams

Before tackling this point oh so important, make a detour by the box RAM. You do not see the report ? However, it is straightforward: the Intel UHD Graphics 630 graphics chip draws up to 1536 MB on the main memory. For the first time certainly, the Mac mini can ship more than 16 GB of RAM, but the basic configuration is only 8 GB of RAM. To check the importance of this parameter, we tested a fourth machine with 32 GB of RAM.

"But we know that endowment is important! ", you will say to me. Of course : it conditions directly the performance of applications handling large volumes of data. But it is comparatively more important on this machine, whose integrated graphics chip weighs on the central memory, than on the iMac, whose dedicated graphics card has its own memory. The difference is not immeasurable, but it is measurable.

A GFXBench Metal test with the Aztec High scene in 1440p and the Aztec Normal and Car chase scenes in 1080p, which give a good idea of ​​graphics performance, especially in games. The Mac mini Core i3 and the Mac mini Core i5 have 8GB of RAM each. The small difference between the two machines, zero on the most demanding scene, can be put on the processor's account. The difference between the two Mac mini Core i7 is more significant, especially on the most demanding scene. Model "A" has 16 GB of RAM, model "B" has 32 GB of RAM.

The RAM endowment is not the only determining factor – the CPU frequency, the definition of the workspace, or even the ambient temperature contribute to the deviations. Still, we must not strive to feel the difference. Connect a 4K screen to the back of the Mac mini, run Lightroom or Final Cut, work a half hour, and you can tell which machine has 8 GB of RAM and which machine has 32 GB of RAM.

In this respect, the Mac mini is closer to the MacBook Pro 13 "than the iMac, but like the iMac, the Mac mini has DDR4 DIMMs in SO-DIMM format, not LPDDR3 memory chips soldered If you plan to use the Mac mini intensively, plan a RAM budget, but do not feel obliged to spend it at Apple.With a little attention and elbow grease, you can increase the memory of your Mac mini later.

DDR4 memory cards at 2667 MHz in SO-DIMM format. You see the soldered SSD at the top left.

Let's be clear: Octupling the amount of memory will not improve the graphics performance of the Mac mini. Once it has carved out 1536 MB of memory, the Intel UHD Graphics 630 chip runs at its cruising speed, far from equaling that of a dedicated card. Even with its year of technological backwardness, and even if integrated graphics have never been so powerful, the iMac keeps its interest in the Mac mini.

A test Geekbench Metal, which gives a good idea of ​​graphics performance, especially in general GPGPU uses.

In good port

Of course, since the Mac mini 2018 has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, you can still connect an external graphics card. The Blackmagic eGPU, for example, will give you graphics performance similar to that of the 27 "iMac. This solution will not save you money in the short term (you will pay more than 2200 € from a well-configured Mac mini Core i5), but can make you do long term (you can replace the components independently of each other). It's a real alternative to iMac.

The Thunderbolt 3 ports take the place of the DisplayPort port (now obsolete), the SD card reader (replaced by a USB 3.0 drive), and the audio input jack (it's not a surprise, but it's pity). In its great leniency, Apple has kept two USB-A ports and especially the HDMI port. Better: a $ 120 option turns the Gigabit Ethernet port into a 10Gbps Ethernet port (Read: Test Netgear Nighthawk Pro Gaming SX10, a 10 Gb / s switch for players … but not only).

It takes barely more than a minute to transfer 50 GB between two Mac mini connected on a 10 Gb / s Ethernet network (820 MB / s). Consider this option if you plan to form a cluster from Mac mini, a configuration we'll be back to soon.

To be completely complete on this machine, we must finally talk about storage. Finished the hard drive, finished the Fusion Drive, instead to SSD NVMe. It's quiet, it's fast, but it's expensive, 1920 € to upgrade to 2 TB from the 128 GB model. And for once, you'll have to choose the capacity to buy, Apple prefers soldered chips to the removable bars, and then too bad if this machine is supposed to meet the changing needs of prosumers and professionals. It had to end this test on a bitter note.

Accuracy of importance: the writing speed is directly indexed to the capacity, an oddity related to the operation of the SSD. If you are working on large files internally, you have every interest to focus on large capacity … or pass on a RAID Thunderbolt system externally. The playback speed exceeds 2 GB / s in all cases.

After four years of waiting, this Mac mini is nothing but a Mac mini, and it may not be worse. With its state-of-the-art components and efficient cooling system, it fully fulfills its role of iMac without a screen. With its ports Thunderbolt 3, it probably fills it better than ever, since it can receive an external graphics card as (or more) powerful than that of the iMac.

Thus equipped, it could be called "professional and modular machine", that will give grist to grind to the alleged customers of the future Mac Pro. But this is not to do it justice: the Mac mini 2018 is not a machine with a well-defined profile, but a range of machines with varied uses. From 899 to 4969 €, there is a world.

The Core i3 model to 899 € will appeal to as many people as possible, even if one will feel quickly cramped on its small SSD of 128 GB. At the other end of the range, a model Core i7 inflated which will exceed the bar of 3000 € is a small bomb that will be found in music production studios as in the architectural cabinets. The Core i5 model, a bit cheaper than the 21.5 "iMac, is a good all-rounder.

It remains to be hoped that it will not be necessary to wait four years before seeing the next model.