Why you can trust ZDNET : ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.


Introducing the Mac Mini Pro... again

The Apple product line has additional compute capacity that's not available in a Mac Mini. Based on that, we once again look at where Apple stands with this flexible little workhorse and predict machines we expect to be introduced in the next few months.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Early 2018 was a different time. And no, for once, I'm not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic or the pre-pandemic years. Instead, I'm talking about the Mac wilderness years, the years when Apple did few if any model upgrades to the Mac when it had been four years since the last Mac Mini upgrade.

April 2018 was a dark time. From a Mac power user perspective, it was pretty desolate. As I said, the Mac Mini had gone four years without an upgrade. The Mac Pro had gone five years without an upgrade, and that five-year-old upgrade was the "trash can" Mac Pro. The MacBook Pro, Apple's most popular Mac, had been upgraded the previous year, but the much-maligned butterfly keyboard was still gnarling everyone's fingers while the lack of ports was causing teeth to gnash.

This was a time when Mac pro users were facing big decisions. Was it time to jump to Windows? Would Apple ever again acknowledge the need for the horsepower and flexibility that the Mac Pro and Mac Mini used to provide? All of us pro users were looking at our workloads and wondering if we would still be able to get the job done on Macs going forward.

It was in that environment that I wrote an article and posted a video entitled, "Introducing the Mac Mini Pro." In it, I described how relatively easy it would be to elevate the anaemic 2014 Mac Mini to something a pro user could really get excited about.

Also: The 6 best Macs of 2023

It was pretty simple, really. I specified a modern, high-speed processor, some onboard flash storage to exceed SSD performance, and some Thunderbolt 3 ports to allow the Mac Mini to use an external GPU. I even recommended a 10GB Ethernet port. And I specified expandable RAM that could go up to at least 64GB.

That was April. By October, against all expectations (and certainly against the dismaying trend of the previous four years), Apple introduced an Intel-based Mac Mini that checked off all the boxes of the Mac Mini Pro we'd discussed earlier in the year. The only thing missing was the name "Pro" on the box.

It was exactly what I -- and the legion of other Mac pro users -- had been waiting for. Then, of course, began the resurgence of the Mac.

Also: Buying a used Mac laptop: How to avoid scams and find the best deals

A redesigned, extremely powerful, and shockingly expensive Intel-based Mac Pro followed. A short two years later, the game-changing M1 Apple Silicon architecture was introduced on MacBook Air MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and a smaller iMac. This was all followed again, just a few months ago, by the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips in blazingly fast MacBook Pros.

The wonder of wonders, those new, super-fast MacBook Pros supported a ton of memory, the keyboard was fixed, and they even heralded the return of useful ports.

Yep, the Mac's back in town. And yet...

The M1 Mac Mini has limitations

The M1 Mac Mini maxes out at 16GB RAM. It's surprisingly performant with that amount of RAM. I can do almost everything with my 16GB M1 Mac Mini that I can with my 32GB Intel i7 Mac Mini with a GPU.

There are fewer ports than my 2018 Intel Mac Mini. To be fair, the M1 Mac Mini with two USB-A and two Thunderbolt 3 ports do have more connections than the M1 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. And while it has two fewer Thunderbolt ports than the M1 24" iMac, the M1 Mac Mini has HDMI output as well as a headphone and mic jack.

But you just can't hang as much gear off of the M1 Mac Mini as you can off the 2018 Intel Mac Mini. You can't hang as many displays, and you can't plug in as many devices.

Without a doubt, the M1 Mac Mini is a fine machine that's also quite cost effective. I bought three of them when I updated my ageing 2011 and 2012 Mac Mini fleet last year. But there are limitations.

The Mac Mini Pro: What we can confidently predict

That brings us to what I'm once again calling the Mac Mini Pro. This version would be available with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips currently in Apple's new crop of MacBook Pros.

Side note: don't expect an M2 processor to be introduced in early spring. Apple just shipped the Pro and Max M1s and will likely hold an announcement of a major silicon upgrade to WWDC this summer. And even then, that might be too early.

But that's okay because the M1 Pro and M1 Max are beasts. The base M1 chip has an 8-core CPU with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores, an 8-core GPU and a 16-core Neural Engine (mostly used in AI and machine learning). Both the M1 Pro and M1 Max boost that up to a 10-core CPU with 8 performance cores and 2 efficiency cores, effectively doubling CPU thread capability.

When it comes to graphics processing, the M1 Pro doubles the M1 (jumping from 8 to 16 cores) and the M1 Max doubles it again (jumping all the way to 32 cores). You can also buy an M1 Pro equipped MacBook Pro sporting a 32 GPU M1 Pro for an extra $400.

Both the Pro and Max increase Neural cores from the M1's 8 to their new baseline of 16 cores.

Apple doesn't publish the M1's memory bandwidth, but Anandtech did some testing, reporting the M1 gets to a peak of about 68GB/sec. Apple does publish the memory bandwidth for the M1 Pro and Max, and while they're both likely idealized numbers, they're fast: 200GB/sec for the M1 Pro and a whopping 400GB/sec for the M1 Max.

Keep in mind that the M1 is considered a system-on-a-chip (or SOC). Rather than having separate subsystems connected over an external bus, CPU, GPU, ML processing, RAM, and IO are all built into the chip.

Systems equipped with the M1 Pro support 32GB RAM (double that of the base M1). Those equipped with the M1 Max can push that all the way to 64GB. Not everyone needs a ton of RAM, but if you're running multiple VMs, doing AR or VR, doing large video renders, or other big projects, being able to scale RAM is mission-critical.

As you can see, merely replacing the M1 Mac Mini's processor with the M1 Pro or M1 Max opens up huge doors for professional users. Making that change alone would justify it displaying the Mac Mini Pro name.

It's almost a given that the new Mac Minis will be available with the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors. The only reason they might not is if supply chain issues are preventing the production of enough chips.

The Mac Mini Pro: The port question

But there's still the question of ports. So far, the only machines with the Pro or Max processors are 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros. Here, the MacBook Pro is vastly superior to the previous MacBook Pro model but not as well equipped from a port perspective as the base M1 Mac Mini.

The M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros offer three Thunderbolt 4 ports. These are faster than the M1 Mac Mini's Thunderbolt 3 ports, but there are only three of them. There are also no USB-A ports. The MacBook Pro does have a headphone jack, and it adds an SDXC card reader -- a welcome returning feature from MacBook Pros of old.

But while the MacBook supports a card slot, it doesn't have an Ethernet port. The M1 Mac Mini does, but it's only a 1GB port, not the 10GB port available on the Intel 2018 Mac Mini.

Since the SOC silicon also dictates the port capacity, it's hard to make a prediction of what the next Mac Mini will be able to offer in terms of ports. There's no doubt the processor can handle 10GB Ethernet and the bandwidth from, say, four Thunderbolt 4 ports and two or four USB-A ports.

But what will Apple include? We won't know until we know, but it's a fair bet that if the M1 Pro and Max architecture supports more ports, we'll see more ports in the new Mac Mini. Apple has generally not held back when equipping the diminutive computer with connection points.

The Mac Mini Pro: Other questions

There are a few other questions we can ask. Will the Mac Mini change form factor? There are good arguments for making it smaller (Apple loves sleek) and good arguments for making it larger (better heat dissipation, more room for features).

What about color? Apple has never presented much color choice with the Mac Mini. But with the gorgeous colors of the new 24-inch iMac, it might be quite nice to see different colors available in Mac Minis. And, for those building racks or arrays of Mac Minis, those colors could be used to signify configuration differences.

And, finally, there's the question of price. The Mac Pro is almost ludicrously expensive and therefore is unavailable to many independent creatives. But the previous fully-equipped 2018 Intel-based Mac Mini (which was pretty much a Mac Mini Pro) wasn't that bad. My fully equipped unit cost just about $2,000, and I spent another $1,000 on third party upgrades. Maxing out that machine was still half the price of a base Mac Pro.

The Mac Mini Pro: Final thoughts

Let's be clear. The MacBook Pro, the Mac Mini Pro, and the Mac Pro all fit different markets. The MacBook Pro is for creatives and pros on the move and has a particularly special appeal in today's hybrid work environment. The Mac Pro needs to scale as much as possible because there will always be movie studios and labs that need just all the power possible.

The Mac Mini Pro fits an interesting niche. It's very flexible. It can drive a desktop or be headless and part of a rack of servers. It can accomplish most creative and pro-level tasks, as long as those tasks aren't given to it by folks at Pixar. It has also historically been quite affordable, and as I showed a few years ago, it's almost impossible to duplicate in a PC configuration.

The Mac Mini, and by extension the Mac Mini Pro, is Apple's flexible workhorse computer. It's closer to the traditional desktop/monitor/keyboard model that's been around for the past 40 years. But it's also hugely flexible and can be put anywhere, making it an innovative tool whether you're a creative professional, someone building a rocking home entertainment system, someone trying to put some Mac-based brains at the edge of a network, or someone building a special-purpose private cloud.

Will we see a Mac Mini Pro? Or will Apple introduce pro features but still call it a Mac Mini? What do you think? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Editorial standards