Apple Mac mini (2023, M2 Pro) – Review 2023 – PCMag Middle East
I get a sense of deja vu every time I look at the Apple Mac mini (starts at $599; $1,799 as tested). Freshly updated for 2023 with M2 and M2 Pro processing and graphics, the most striking thing about the Mac mini may be how little the look has changed. The first one I reviewed was back in 2012, and even then, we were discussing the fact that it was identical to the previous model.
But Apple isn’t churning out a tired copy of a copy—far from it. Instead, the company poured its effort into what matters most: not what a machine looks like, but what it can do. And judged by that metric, the 2023 Mac mini models are a revelation, packing more power into that tiny chassis than ever before, and even doing it at a lower starting price. Don’t let the samey look fool you: This isn’t 2012’s—or even 2020’s—Mac mini. This is a fury in a minimalist chassis. It’s a little dynamo-in-waiting.
When Apple finds a design that works, especially one that fits the minimalist aesthetic that has long defined Mac products, it is slow to change. In one sense, it’s about sticking with what works while cementing a brand identity, but it’s also about refining product designs down to their Platonic ideal. And the Mac mini design might just be there already, a sleek-looking slab of metal with rounded corners and that polished Apple logo.
Measuring 1.4 by 7.7 by 7.7 inches (HWD), the milled-aluminum chassis doesn’t take up much room. As a mini PC, that’s table stakes, but the consistency of the design means that no matter where you’ve stashed your Mac mini before, the new one should fit right in the same spot, whether that’s on your desk, in a home theater setup, slotted into a server, or used for digital signage.
There’s a bit of weight difference between the newest models—the base model with the vanilla Apple M2 chip is just 2.6 pounds, but our M2 Pro version weighs 2.8 pounds—but it’s still small and light enough to slip in a bag or even into a big coat pocket.
From the black-plastic foot that acts as an internal access panel (but only for official Apple techs, apparently) to the satin finish and mirrored logo, it would be easy to mistake the newest Mac mini for the half-dozen that came before. Past models have tried to differentiate a little bit with anodized finishes, and varying degrees of access to the internals, but the only real difference from one generation to the next is inside, and on the port panel in back.
But some big changes are happening this time around. They may be hidden away inside the inscrutable aluminum slab, but they are significant indeed.
Apple actually lists three new-for-2023 models on its just-updated Mac mini product page, so let’s look at each.
To start with, consider the base model, the Mac mini with Apple M2. The second generation of Apple’s custom-designed processing hardware, the M2 first showed up in the 2022 versions of the Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch and Apple MacBook Air, making this its first appearance in an Apple desktop. The affordable $599 model uses the standard M2 chip, which itself is an upgrade from the previous M1 chip. Looked at side by side with the M1, the M2 adds more transistors, greater memory bandwidth, and better GPU capability. Apple pairs this with 8GB of memory and 256GB of SSD storage, which isn’t much, but it’s exactly what was offered on the M1 Mac mini, and Apple charged $100 more for that particular configuration.
The next step up, at $799, still uses the M2 chip and 8GB of memory, but it bumps up the storage to 512GB. Is the extra storage space worth $200? Well, that’s your call to make, but we will point out that you can get many of the best external SSDs for well under $200, and get 1TB of extra storage space for that money, to boot. However, internal storage isn’t user-accessible or replaceable, so if you want more storage inside the compact Mac mini, you can do so only at the time of purchase.
Stepping up a bit higher is the Mac mini with M2 Pro. It’s been a while since Apple offered a choice of processor options on the Mac mini, but for $1,299 you can get the more powerful M2 Pro—with its 10-core CPU and a 16-core GPU—along with 16GB of RAM and the same 512GB SSD offered on the middle model.
Now, it is worth noting that all of these options are further customizable, with the choice of additional memory and storage offered at the time you order. If you’re choosing the M2 Pro model, you even get a chance to bump up to a 12-core CPU/19-core GPU version of the chip. Alternately, the M2 model can support up to 24GB of unified memory and 2TB storage, provided you’re willing to pay a bit more.
Our own review unit, for example, is based on the $1,299 M2 Pro as a starting point. It adds the 12-core variant of the M2 Pro ($300 more), sticks with the 16GB of memory, and scales up the storage from 512GB to 1TB (an extra $200), bringing the total purchase price to $1,799.
The top possible configuration you could designate would have the 12-core M2 Pro, 32GB of memory, 8TB of storage, and an optional 10Gbps Ethernet connection, pricing out at a heady $4,499. And that’s still just for the Mac mini and its power cable. Throw in Apple’s recommended accessories, such the Apple Studio Display ($1,999), Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Numeric Keypad ($199), and the Magic Trackpad ($149) or Magic Mouse ($99), and you can tack on a couple extra grand to whatever you’re paying for your particular flavor profile of Mac mini.
Granted, you don’t need to do that. The Mac mini will work just fine with an older monitor or TV for a display, and a generic (or at least, cheaper) USB keyboard and mouse will do. But the whole package can be considerably more expensive than the enticing $599 price. Shop accordingly.
On the back of the Mac mini, you’ll find a black rear panel covered in ports, vents, and a power button. On the base model, the connectivity loadout is identical to what’s on the previous M1-powered model. But we’re testing the higher-powered M2 Pro version, and here we have one of the few easy-to-spot differences between this and past Mac minis.
Our review unit comes outfitted with four Thunderbolt 4 ports (an increase from the two offered on the 2021 model, as well as on the 2023 base M2 model), along with a Gigabit Ethernet jack, a full-size HDMI output, and dual USB Type-A ports.
Making use of the Thunderbolt 4 ports and the HDMI output, you can run multiple monitors off of the Mac mini, but the limitations and ceilings are different between the M2 and M2 Pro models. In simple terms, the plain-M2-based Mac minis support dual displays, while the M2 Pro models support three. But the new M2 Pro model is also the first to offer support for native resolutions up to 8K, as well as for ultra-high frame rates, letting you get 8K resolution at 60Hz, or drop the resolution to 4K to crank up the refresh rate to 240Hz. (Either option, obviously, requires a compatible display and an HDMI 2.1 cable.)
You can’t see it, but the Mac mini’s wireless connectivity also gets a boost. The Wi-Fi support gets upgraded to Wi-Fi 6E, and the Bluetooth to Bluetooth 5.3, providing top-of-the-line performance for everything from networking to wireless peripherals.
Apple hardware comes with Apple software, and the Mac mini is no exception. The compact desktop comes with macOS “Ventura,” the latest version of Apple’s operating system. As ever, it gives you access to Apple’s rich ecosystem, nowadays with more than 15,000 apps and plug-ins, all built to work seamlessly with Apple’s hardware. If you’re already an Apple user, you’re surely familiar with the benefits (and occasional quirks) of using Apple over Windows.
The macOS-versus-Windows debate rolls on as ever. But for those thinking about jumping ship from Windows to Apple, there’s not much to fear nowadays. At this point, software makers often cater to both Windows and Mac users. Big names like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud have all their apps on both platforms, and the macOS apps that come with the system, such as GarageBand and Safari, are great tools in their own right. And there’s always the option in the OS to use Rosetta emulation for older programs not yet optimized for Apple’s chips.
If you have very specific software needs, however, you may want to research further before jumping in. Some specialized tools don’t get supported on both platforms (that’s also the case for some of our usual test programs), and there is a bit of learning curve as you switch from one computing environment to the other. But don’t worry. The differences are smaller than ever. (Check out our macOS Ventura review for a more in-depth look at the latest Apple software and features.)
To put the new M2 Pro Mac mini through its paces, we compared it to both Apple and Windows competitors. For Apple, that means desktops as diverse as the M1-powered Apple iMac 24-inch to the uber-powerful Mac Studio with M1 Ultra. We also compared it with the previous Mac mini with M1, to help you make a decision if you’re considering an upgrade.
For Windows competitors, plenty of powerful mini PC systems are on the market, but we focused on just two: the Z2 Mini G9 (from HP’s compact workstation line, a close analogue of the Mac mini in terms of form factor), and the NUC 12 Pro (aka, “Wall Street Canyon,” the latest like-sized Intel mini PC we’ve tested). These are two of the best tiny desktops you can buy.
We’ve already mentioned that Windows and Apple ecosystems do have some compatibility issues when it comes to specialized programs, and that extends to our stock testing software. Where possible, we’ve found tests that work on both Apple and Windows platforms, but not all of our tests span the divide, and we also have a few Mac-only tests that we use when evaluating Apple systems. If you don’t see all of the systems in a given one of the test graphs below, that’s why.
For gauging raw CPU muscle and productivity performance, we focus on four tests: HandBrake (video transcoding), Cinebench (multi-threaded rendering), Geekbench (an overall productivity-task simulation), and Adobe Photoshop (the classic, for image editing).
Our HandBrake 1.4 test times how long it takes to convert a 4K video clip into a smaller 1080p copy. It’s a straightforward test that leverages all of the cores and threads available on the CPU level. That makes it easy to see which systems have the better CPU performance; shorter times are better.
Then we look at Cinebench R23, using Maxon’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, testing multi-core and multi-threaded processing. We follow that up with Geekbench Pro, which simulates popular tasks ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Both tests produce a point score where higher scores mean better performance.
Last, we use Adobe Photoshop running in Rosetta 2. Although Adobe offers a native version of Photoshop as part of its Creative Cloud programs, our test extension, created by Puget Systems, is accessible only through Rosetta 2. So, in this case, the test is less about how fast photo editing is in the absolute, and more about how well the system can handle demanding apps that need to work through emulation. Even with that limitation, the Mac’s performance compares favorably to the best Windows computers.
Scanning through the results above, it’s clear from the outset that the Mac mini gets an upgrade in raw power, especially with the M2 Pro chip used in our test model, but it’s still middle-of-the-road compared to some of the more powerful systems we’re comparing it to. You’ll see faster performance than the previous Mac mini or the iMac offered, but premium workstation-grade systems, like the M1 Ultra version of the Apple Mac Studio, or the HP Z2 Mini G9 in our tested configuration, are faster and more powerful.
That’s not a surprise, given the Mac mini’s midrange hardware and affordable price relative to those high-enders. What is a surprise, though, is how well the M2 Pro does at elevating the Mac mini to compete with those systems. (Thermals are thermals after all; we never expected the Mac mini to come close to topping them.) In HandBrake, the Mac mini edged ahead of the Mac Studio (the M1 Max version) and is closing in on the HP Z2 Mini G9—both truly astonishing results from a system that costs less than $2,000. (The M1 Ultra version of the Mac Studio does prevail by a wide margin, mind you.)
The same thing was repeated in Cinebench and Geekbench, where the Mac mini managed to get within spitting distance of genuine workstation-grade compact desktops. And in Photoshop, the overall scores were surprisingly close across the board. (And the two highest scorers, in the M1 Ultra-based Mac Studio and the HP Z2 Mini G9, had a lot more RAM.)
Now, I’m not saying that the M2 Pro lets you use the Mac mini as a full-fledged workstation. But I am saying that it does well enough at some demanding tasks that you may no longer need a workstation, unless you spend all day in these kinds of tasks (and thus, every moment saved is money), and your specific profession requires things like software ISV certifications and error-correcting memory (say, architecture or engineering). If it’s about having the power to edit photos and videos, do a little music production at home, or do some serious number crunching or even software development, don’t discount the Mac mini. It just might be able to handle everything you need it to do.
For graphics testing across existing Apple platforms, we start with the 3DMark testing suite from UL, specifically its Wild Life Extreme subtest. Wild Life Extreme runs natively on Apple Silicon to benchmark graphics performance across models and generations of Mac. Running in Unlimited mode, the test is resolution-agnostic, so we can compare systems using the 5K Studio Display as well as we can to iMacs or a MacBook’s 13-inch screen, making it a great leveling measure of performance. The test produces a total score, with higher scores denoting better performance.
For cross-platform graphics evaluation, we use GFXBench. The Apple version of this test uses Apple’s Metal graphics API, and it stress-tests both low-level routines such as texturing, and high-level, game-like image rendering. Just as important, it lets us compare numbers directly to the OpenGL-based version of GFXBench that we use for Windows testing. On this test’s results, the more frames per second (fps), the better.
Finally, actual gaming. The number of Mac-compatible games that have built-in benchmarking tools is small, so we currently use just the one test to get a sense of the system’s actual gaming capabilities. (We’ll follow up with more in-depth graphics testing later.) We record the average frames per second (fps) at different detail settings. Here, higher frame-rate numbers are better.
The charts lay out the situation pretty well: When it comes to gaming on Mac desktops, we’re looking at the Mac mini and the Mac Studio. Everything else can offer some gaming support, but not at the detail levels and high frame rates that real gamers will appreciate. Obviously, the Mac mini isn’t as potent as either version of the Mac Studio, but for a compact desktop that sells for a fraction of the price of the Mac Studio in a much trimmer body, the Mac mini is a little beast.
It offered better GFXBench scores than either the HP Z2 Mini G9 or the Intel NUC 12 Pro, and it nearly tripled the score of the previous Mac mini with M1. And it did the same in Rise of the Tomb Raider, delivering superb gaming performance unlike anything you’ll find in comparable Windows systems of this size.
The other test we’ve run on Apple’s more premium Macs is Blender, an open-source 3D suite for modeling, animation, simulation, and compositing. In this test, we simulate a common workstation task, recording the time it takes for its built-in Cycles path tracer to render two photo-realistic scenes of BMW cars, one render using the system’s CPU and one relying on the GPU. (In both cases, lower times are better.)
This test is considerably more demanding than your average gaming benchmark, and a test we normally reserve for workstation systems. But since we wanted to see how the M2 Pro compares to the M1 Max and M1 Ultra, it seemed worthwhile to run it.
Here’s where we really saw something surprising. The M2 Pro-powered Mac mini managed to just about keep up with a legitimate compact workstation, the HP Z2 Mini G9. It even held its own against the M1 Max-powered Mac Studio. (Not so much against the M1 Ultra one, though.)
As I noted earlier, the Mac mini is, of course, not technically a “workstation” in the classic sense. But at these levels of raw performance, it may fill the needs of many amateur and professional creators who need more power than the usual system can provide, but may not have the budget to plonk down $3,000 to $4,000 for a proper workstation tower.
It’s easy to look at the unchanging design of the 2023 Mac mini and write it off as staid and unchanged from years past, without appreciating the enormous strides in capability that Apple has provided with Apple Silicon. The outward design may be the same, but the new Mac mini may be the best little Apple desktop we’ve seen, offering an astounding amount of power in a classic chassis.
Obviously, that sort of performance costs money, and the rip-roaring configuration of the Mac mini we tested is considerably dearer—indeed, exactly three times so—than the $599 price of the base model. But bear in mind that some of that $1,799 is down to the uptick in SSD storage (which you may or may not need), and the other to the kicked-up CPU/GPU combo; in the $1,299 M2 Pro, we’d still expect very good performance in tests that lean hard on the CPU with the 10-core M2 Pro. But whether you’re looking at the cheapest option, or one of the surprisingly powerful M2 Pro flavors, it’s clear that Apple’s latest M2 chips are bringing shoppers more power than ever before.
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