Transforming a Mac mini into a great desktop workhorse

Don't discount the Mac mini when you look at the Mac lineup. It might be small in size, but there's a lot of power packed into that aluminum housing.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

My shift from Windows to Mac continues, but I'm now shifting my focus from notebooks to desktop systems.

See also: Why I've all but given up on Windows

Apple's iconic Mac is the all-in-one iMac, but I happen to like its little brother, the Mac mini. Why do I like the Mac mini? Bottom line, I like the fact that I'm not tied to the iMac display, and I'm free to pick and choose a panel to suit my needs. I also like the fact that the Mac mini is such a compact system, yet it comes with an Ethernet port, a Thunderbolt port, and a handful of USB 3.0 ports.

Another thing I like about the Mac mini is that it's cool and quiet. It doesn't make the office stuffy, and it's a pain in the rear when I'm on the phone.

But it's also quite a powerful beast, especially if you go for the quad-cored Core i7 edition. Throw in 16GB of RAM and a fast drive – such as a solid-state drive (SSD) if you want real speed and have deep pockets – and you've got yourself the beginnings of a sturdy system.

And that's exactly what I've got.

OK, so you've got the Mac mini, what else do you need? Well, I don't have a camera in your office to see how you work, but I do know how I work, and I can tell you what I've added to my Mac mini to turn it from a dinky little system into a beast of a desktop.


Over the Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort, the Mac mini can output 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, while using HDMI it is limited to 1,920 by 1,200.

I like the sound of getting an image that's 2,560 pixels wide, but I want to make the most of those pixels.

There are a lot of nice big displays out there in the 27-inch range, but given my background with multi-monitor systems, I decided to take a different approach and go for a 29-inch widescreen display that features a 21:9 aspect ratio as opposed to the more run-of-the-mill 16:9. This gives me a wider display than normal, allowing me to adopt a dual-monitor workflow on a system with a single screen.

I chose to go with a 29-inch LG UltraWide IPS display. Not only is this a really nice panel, but it also comes with software that allows me to virtually split the screen to make better use of it.

The display also features Dual Link, allowing me to connect two devices to it, for example, the Mac mini and my MacBook Pro.

The display is attached to an Ergotron LX wall mount for convenience.

The only drawback is that in order to pump all those pixels I have to dedicate the Thunderbolt port as a DisplayPort port, which means it can't be used as a Thunderbolt port. This isn't a bother for me since I mostly use USB 3.0 or NAS storage devices, but if you have Thunderbolt hardware then you might want to opt for a display that can be powered over HDMI of DVI-D instead.

Input devices

I'm a big fan of Apple's Bluetooth keyboard, so that takes care of the typing side of things, but when it comes to a pointing device rather than go for a regular mouse I instead went for an Apple Magic Trackpad.

And guess what? It's great! It's especially great for me because I can take all those gestures I learned using the MacBook Pro and apply them to the Mac mini.

There's also nothing stopping me from connecting a mouse to the Mac mini also, and I've also got a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet for times when I need high precision.


Being a pro-am photographer I have bags of storage, ranging from USB 3.0, Thunderbolt and NAS boxes on side, to cloud storage.

My favorite storage options at present are Western Digital and G-RAID hardware. Both are robust, secure and powerful, and come in a range of storage options to suit most needs.

The bottom line

Don't discount the Mac mini when you look at the Mac lineup. It might be small in size, but there's a lot of power packed into that aluminum housing.

If you opt for the high-end version, and back that up with high-end peripherals, you can turn what some consider to be a toy into a beast of a desktop computer capable of handling high-end applications such as Photoshop, Lightroom and so on.

I've also got a lot of screen real estate to play with, and the 21:9 aspect ratio gives me a pseudo dual-screen arrangement without the hassle of having to add a second display.

I get all that, along with the stability, convenience and ease of OS X.

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