Review: The M2 Mac mini is the perfect desktop for most users

Nothing is the same with Apple Silicon. While the leap from M1 to M2 chips doesn’t deliver quite as big a  performance improvement as the jump from previous Mac chips to Apple Silicon did, it still adds enough juice to ensure that even the entry-level M2 Mac mini does what most people need.

The Geekbench tests

Here are some Geekbench performance figures for entry-level Mac mini configurations dating back to 2011. The M2 system data was generated by a test machine made available by Apple:

  • Mid 2011: 506 single-core, 1,262 multi-core.
  • Late 2012: 570 single-core, 1,278 multi-core.
  • Late 2014: 771 single-core, 1,503 multi-core.
  • Late 2018: 895 single-core, 3,183 multi-core.
  • Mini M1 late 2020: 1,715 single-core, 7,442 multi-core.
  • Mini M2 early 2023: 1,943 single-core, 8,916 multi-core*.

Data only tells part of the story, of course. But what’s clear is that generation by generation, Apple on Intel achieved relatively modest performance gains. Then Apple Silicon arrived, and now you can expect far more significant generational improvements across the line.

Word is that high-end Mac mini M2 Pro systems compete with Apple’s current King of Desktops, the Mac Studio, at least in benchmark terms. And these entry-level Macs deliver the same kind of computational ability as the Intel-based iMac Pro. That’s significant.

Apple continues to exploit its control over the hardware, software, and (now) processor to tweak systems to do the things you need better. In this release, you get faster processors and graphics processors, as well as much higher memory bandwidth and far better media handling.

What Mac mini do I have?

I’ve been using Apple’s $799 Mac mini. That’s the same basic model as the $599 version, but with double the SSD storage (512GB instead of 256GB) and the same 8GB memory. Otherwise, it offers the same specifications, which include an 8-core CPU with a 10-core GPU and support for up to 24GB of unified memory running at 100GBps.

When I looked at the first Mac mini with an M1 chip I ran a range of tests. I repeated them this time and the new mini handled anything I threw at it; never once did it seem to struggle.

It’s cool, quiet, capable, and barely got warm to the touch even when working with multiple music tracks. Imaging improvements were evident: Pixelmator handled image transitions significantly faster, Photoshop was happier and GarageBand trundled out its tunes while I manically added additional instrument tracks.

A couple of additional benchmarks:

  • Cinebench gave scores of 8606 (multi-core) and 1,623 (single-core).
  • Unigine Heaven 4.0 returned a score of 2,146 at 1920×1080-pixel resolution, though this test relies on Rosetta emulation and has not been optimized to run natively on Apple Silicon.

Both tests confirm big improvements in graphics performance compared to the M1, just as Apple promised. (Apple boasted of 35% faster GPU performance, and I’m  seeing that.) That means you can expect a 50% improvement when handling files in Photoshop, for example. You’ll also fly through apps, thanks to the 50% faster memory bandwidth.

All this performance starts at $599 — though you do need a keyboard, mouse, and display. The M2 Mac mini will support up to two displays, one at up to 6K.

Which brings something else to mind….

Is the age of all-in-one over?

There was a time when I preferred all-in-one systems, but I’ve moved on. Repair is expensive, recycling a pain and because you lose your display as well as your computer when you do upgrade it feels like separates may be a better environmental choice.

It just makes sense to upgrade the computer but keep the keyboard, mouse, and display. It also makes upgrades more affordable, as you can buy the PC but keep the rest. At $599 per seat, the Mac mini hits this need head on. As the benchmark data and my anecdotal experience show, you get a powerful Mac capable of most daily tasks while also fit for processor-intensive work.

If you are migrating to Macs in your business or putting employee choice schemes in place, it is worth noting that these use far less energy than other competing desktops and may also be compatible with the keyboards, mice, and monitors your teams already use, reducing switching costs.

Businesses should also think about the computer power-per-watt with these systems, as at scale the Mac mini is a cheaper PC to run. I’d also argue that in combination with an iPad Air for light mobile tasks, this may be all the computer some knowledge workers need. 

The upgrade quandary

Is it a big enough upgrade compared to the M1 Mac mini?

Honestly, I was so impressed with that model that I purchased one of my own. This time around? I’m considering it because the price is right and the performance a definite improvement on M1.

However, if you or your teams are using Intel-based Macs, the M2 absolutely justifies the upgrade. Apple’s Mac development road map currently suggests we’ll see yet more improvement (especially around energy use) with the 3-nanometer M3 chips; those may reach Mac mini in late 2024 and offer another leap in performance.

What’s not to like?

The most trivial criticism might be that the Mac mini shape hasn’t changed much — it’s the same small discreet box it’s always been (and will probably remain). A second criticism: the M2 model features just two Thunderbolt and two USB-A ports, though if you need additional Thunderbolt ports the (more expensive, but also more powerful) M2 Pro system offers four.

A third criticism would be the cost of additional BTO storage, which is always high, and the difficulty of replacing the SSD storage modules. It may be best to use innovative peripherals such as those from Satechi to help meet any additional storage/I/O needs, as once again this modular approach makes it easier and more affordable to upgrade the core system.

One criticism that doesn’t really exist since the introduction of the last M1 Mac mini is that most key third-party applications should now run natively on the processor. The ones that don’t should be replaced.

Must or miss?

Apple’s Mac mini has at last shown itself to be the swan in waiting it always was.  More flexible than all-in-one systems and delivering power far beyond its price-driven punch, the mini’s latest improvements make it tempting, but probably not mandatory, to existing M1 Mac users.

The mini is a definite contender for anyone still on an Intel Mac or a Windows PC who wants to make the transition to a desktop Apple Silicon Mac. It’s a fabulous low(er) cost system for switchers or employers provisioning desk-based employees who want their work machines to be as good as the ones they use at home.

And this is the paradigm shift in action. Nothing is the same with Apple Silicon. Apple’s new processor architecture means each Mac Apple ships is improving at a pace we’ve never seen the company deliver before. As it does, it’s changing the language (and the market share) of the PC industry, and this new beginning has only just begun for Cupertino.

Other than the needs of high-end creatives and the trend toward mobile Macs, I really see no compromise in this machine. The Mac mini M2 is a fantastic desktop Mac for most of us. 

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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