The Mac mini - the underdog

Monday, March 21, 2022 at 1:59 AM UTC

While everyone in the western hemisphere is testing the new Mac Studio, I started my Mac mini journey some weeks ago. I always thought that this form factor is the most appealing one in the Mac ecosystem. I had iMacs and MacBooks for quite a while now but I always found that using external displays on those machines are nice but quite off the grid - they both have great internal displays.

Using the Mac mini always forces to use an external monitor, keyboard, mouse and even speakers. The benefit of this model is that it's really small and it looks so sleek. The goal was to replace my iMac 21" from 2011 to finally have a current macOS.

My Mac mini story

I bought my machines on eBay.

The first was cheap, 200 bucks. It's the late 2014 model with an Intel 1,4 GHz processor, 8GB RAM and a 1TB SSD installed and it even can run Monterey. The SSD was upgraded by the seller (Samsung EVO 840). This machine is what I call a starter, usable for office apps and web browsing - but nothing more CPU-intense work. It instantly was very clear that this won't fit to my workflow. It also cannot drive a 4k display at its native resolution, only with 2k.

The second one (photo) got my attention as this came with a 2018 Intel 6-core i7 and 36GB RAM. Memory was upgraded by the seller, the SSD is a soldered one with 512GB. This was not a cheap deal. I bought it for 1200 bucks - the original price with those specs is over 2200 Euros. Yes, Apple still sells this machine on their website (as of March 2022).

Both have one problem in common: they don't have a dedicated GPU. The GPU is in the CPU (Intel Iris) though of course they are both from different generations.

This means that the power is shared on a single SoC and every time you have GPU-intense work to do the overall performance drops quite noticeable. On the plus side is the overall power consumption even with those Intel CPUs. While I am writing this, sitting in front of a 4k monitor the computer draws less than 20W.

With "GPU intense" I just mean using an external 4k display and swiping between desktops. This is not snappy at all and the power consumption rises up to 60W - crazy!

The seller of the i7 machine used it for music production with Pro Tools, so I was confident that it will do for me, too. I am using Logic Pro X with various plug-ins. I just installed everything I need and tested some projects. Playing one project brought me the "system overload" message though it's only using Logic Pro's native plug-ins such as "Alchemy". This really surprised me. It's not a question of memory (since I have enough with the 36GB) but of the processor. I don't know where the bottleneck might be with a processor that runs at 3,2 GHz by default and can spin up to 4,2GHz. I will give this a try with an external audio interface though.

I know that the seller used analog tracks the most and very rarely plug-ins but I really didn't expect to have these issues at this low level.

Dedicated GPU

My main Mac is for work and music production aside. It's a 2019 MacBook Pro with 32GB RAM and an Intel i7 CPU with a dedicated Radeon GPU. The latter makes the difference: it can drive two 4k monitors at 60Hz with ease and Logic Pro X runs like a charm - with all the plug-ins I need. Parallels can run up to 3 VMs with Windows etc. - a beast. The problem is that you can't buy an Intel-based Mac minis with a dedicated GPU, only the M1.

What now?

As this isn't my main machine for music production I probably can live with it for now but I am definitely planning to sell both and get a M1 based Mac mini as I really like the way this litte computer sits on my desk. The desired model will be one with 16GB RAM and a 1TB SSD. The next level would be a Mac Studio with a M1 Max but this is beyond my budget.

To be continued...

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