Lab tested: The Mac mini, maximized with Fusion Drive

With build-to-order options, the new Mac mini makes a giant leap in performance.

The $799 standard configuration Mac mini comes with a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 5400-rpm 1TB hard drive. We customized it to include a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor (a $100 upgrade), 16GB of RAM (another $100), and a 1TB Fusion drive (a $300 upgrade). The BTO Mac mini is $1449, but it adds up to one of the fastest Macs the Macworld Lab has ever tested.

With a Speedmark 8 score of 249, the BTO Mac mini was 52% faster overall than the standard configuration $799 Mac mini. The super-charged mini was faster in our processor-intensive tests: 8% faster in MathematicaMark and 13% faster in Cinebench CPU test.

2012 BTO Mac mini: Speedmark scores

All results are scores. Higher scores are better. Best result in bold. Reference models in italics. Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Albert Filice, Kean Bartelman, and William Wang.

But it was the Fusion Drive that really kicked the BTO Mac mini into overdrive. The standard configuration $799 Mac mini with its 5400-rpm hard drive took more than three times as long to complete our copy file and uncompress file tests as the Fusion Drive did in the BTO Mac mini. The BTO Mac mini's PCMark productivity test score (using VMWare Fusion) was three times higher than the high-end standard configuration's score.

I'll dig deeper into the Fusion Drive in my next article, but in brief, Fusion Drive is Apple's answer to the high-price-per-gigabyte problem of solid-state drives. SSDs are fast as all get out, but they have very limited capacity and they cost a lot more than traditional drives. Fusion Drive gives you the best of both worlds by bringing together a separate 120GB SSD and 1TB hard drive and presenting them to both the user and applications as a single drive. (A Fusion Drive is not Apple's special implememtaion of a hybrid drive, which houses a SSD and a hard drive in one mechanism.) Data is written to the SSD first, so the idea is that you get SSD speeds but with the capacity of standard hard drives. As you can see, our benchmark tests bear that out.

The BTO Mac mini's combination of extra RAM, a speedy SSD, and a quad-core Core i7 processor was so good, its performance earned a Speedmark 8 score just below the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros. That makes sense, seeing how the high-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro has the same 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor as the BTO Mac mini and uses flash storage instead of standard rotational hard drives.

The scores would've been even higher had Apple offered a discreet graphics upgrade alternative to the capable--if somewhat lackluster--Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. The BTO Mac mini failed to beat the 2011 high-end Mac mini in Portal 2 and Cinebench Open GL tests. And the Mac mini's GPU was totally overwhelmed by the graphics performance of the 15-inch Retina display MacBook Pros and their discreet nVidia GeForce GT 650M graphics with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. Cinebench Open GL tests on the 15-inch 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro with 500GB flash storage and 8GB of RAM were 70% faster than the BTO Mac mini. The Retina MacBook Pro's Portal 2 tests displayed twice as many frames per second.

The BTO Mac mini was actually faster than the Retina MacBook Pro in a few tests, like the iPhoto, iMovie, and Aperture import tests. But file copy and file uncompress tests were a bit faster on the Retina MacBook Pro with its "pure" flash storage than on the Mac mini's Fusion Drive.

We have more Fusion Drive benchmarks and articles in the works. Stay tuned.

2012 BTO Mac mini: Individual application scores

Results are in seconds. Lower results are better. Best result in bold. Reference models in italics.

2012 BTO Mac mini: Individual application scores

Results are in seconds. Lower results are better. Best result in bold. Reference models in italics.

2012 BTO Mac mini: Individual application scores

Results are in seconds. Lower results are better. Best result in bold. Reference models in italics.

2012 BTO Mac mini: Individual application scores

iTunes and Cinebench CPU results are in seconds, (lower results are better). VMware PCMark and MathematicaMark 8 are scores (higher results are better). Best result in bold. Reference models in italics.

2012 BTO Mac minis: Graphics tests

Results are in frames per second. Higher results are better. Best result in bold. Reference models in italics.

Updated 11/9/12 at 10 a.m. PT to correct the amount of RAM in the BTO Mac mini. It was customized with 16GB or RAM, not 8GB. Also adjusted the final price of the BTO Mac mini, which is $1449.

This story, "Lab tested: The Mac mini, maximized with Fusion Drive" was originally published by Macworld.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies