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MacBook Air and Mac mini Review Roundup: Welcome Updates to Apple’s Mac Lineup

Tomorrow, Apple will begin delivering new MacBook Airs and Mac minis to customers around the world. It’s been a long time since either computer was updated; too long many would say. John Gruber of Daring Fireball asked around about the period between updates:

Behind the scenes last week in New York, I asked a few folks from Apple for any sort of hint why these two Macs — the MacBook Air and Mac Mini — went so long between updates. One thing I was told is that Apple wants to focus on “meaningful updates”. The days of “speed bump” updates are largely over. The value just isn’t there.

That may not be a message that long-time Mac users want to hear, but it’s consistent with recent history and seems to be supported by the reviews published today. Regardless of the backstory though, both new Macs are substantial updates that have received generally favorable reviews.

The MacBook Air

Dieter Bohn of The Verge addresses the ongoing debate about whether the new Air is more like an updated MacBook or MacBook Pro with no Touch Bar:

Is this new Air like a 12-inch MacBook, just blown up to a slightly bigger size? Is it more like a 13-inch MacBook Pro (sans Touch Bar), just with cheaper parts? After all, if you set the latter down next to this new Air, you can barely tell them apart.

My answer is that it’s both of those things. But the more truthful answer is that it doesn’t matter. People who have purchased one of those MacBooks already have a fairly modern, powerful computer that’s nice to use. The comparison that actually matters is to the old MacBook Air. There are a ton of people who have been hanging on to theirs because it was so good and so reliable.

The Air is unmistakably an entry-level notebook, but one that reviewers generally find rises to the occasion when more intensive tasks are thrown at it. Gruber, who reviewed an Air with 8GB of RAM, says:

I’ve been using this device heavily over the last few days — as heavily as I could while simultaneously testing the new iPad Pro, at least — and performance has been great. The system is swapping, but I honestly don’t notice. SSD performance is that good.

If you don’t know whether you need the upgrade to 16 GB of RAM, you don’t need it. I would recommend the base 8 GB configuration to just about any typical user.

Although capable for everyday tasks, it doesn’t excel at every task as Bohn highlights:

If you’re hoping you’ll be able to upgrade and get way faster video editing or process a ton of RAW photos at once, get a MacBook Pro. Those kinds of tasks will bring this Air to a chug and spin up those fans. I have found it to be more capable and powerful than the 12-inch MacBook, but, again, the difference is not as big as I’d hoped.

I don’t think of any of this as a problem, though — not really. The Air can do everything I want it to in my daily workflow. I just want to be clear that my daily workflow doesn’t push the limits of this processor. My guess is that if you’re still using a MacBook Air, neither does yours.

It’s clear that the MacBook Air is a better value than the 12-inch MacBook and the better choice for most users. Brian Heater of TechCrunch is convinced that the Air will replace the MacBook:

There’s no doubt the new Air marks a sizable update. It’s pricier, too, though Apple’s kept things more in check here than with the Mac Mini. With all of its upgrades and lower price point to boot, the Air is the clear pick over the 12-inch MacBook in practically every way.

As a matter of fact, barring some major future upgrade, the 12-inch likely isn’t long for this world. And that’s perfectly fine. The new Air is very clearly the better buy.

Regardless of what becomes of the 12-inch MacBook, Jason Snell sums the Air update up well on Six Colors:

Still, Apple has placed the MacBook Air back where it spent the first part of this decade: firmly at the center of the Apple laptop universe. It’s not the cheapest or fastest or lightest laptop, but it’s the lowest-priced Retina Mac and it’s powerful and flexible enough to serve the needs of the broad audience for consumer Macs. The new geographic center of the Mac is once again where it’s been for most of this decade: It’s the MacBook Air.

The Mac mini

On the outside, the new Mac mini is the exact same size as the existing model, but the new model is Space Gray and includes a larger vent and new ports on the rear. The most intriguing thing about the new mini, however, is the range of configurations available, which is best bracketed by reviews from Jason Snell on Six Colors and Marco Arment on, who tested entry-level and top-of-the-line models respectively.

Snell, who uses his mini as a home server, says:

Apple provided me with a base-model Mac mini to test, and I transferred the contents of my home server and ran it all weekend. Even the base model was dramatically faster than my 2011 Mac mini, no surprise there. That’s the combination of the modern processor, 8GB of RAM, and the speed of the flash storage boot drive. I attached my Thunderbolt 2 RAID to one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports via an Apple adapter.

Whether you’ll want to upgrade from the $799 base model really depends on what you’re planning on doing with your Mac mini. The base model certainly seems capable of running as a home server without skipping a beat; if you’re planning on doing more intense work, you’ve got plenty of room to choose to upgrade. I admit to weighing the idea of ordering a model with the upgraded Ethernet port, just so I can max out the speed of the connection between my iMac Pro and my server. Everyone will have their own priorities.

Marco Arment tested a mini with a 6-core i7, 32 GB RAM, 1 TB SSD, which Apple sells for $2499. That’s a substantial step up from the model tested by Snell, but still not the highest end model available, which costs $4200. Arment’s reaction:

The 2018 Mac Mini is real, and it’s spectacular.

It makes almost nothing worse and almost everything better, finally bringing the Mac Mini into the modern age.

Whether you go with an entry-level model or something beefier though, you’re going to get a much more capable mini than before. As TechCrunch points out:

The biggest turn on the I/O side of things, however, is the inclusion of an impressive four Thunderbolt 3 ports. That’s the same number found on the iMac Pro and twice as many as you get on the 2017 standard iMac. It opens things up to a lot more computing versatility. As far as my own desk is concerned, I welcome the ability to power the LG 4K monitor Apple sent along for testing purposes.

Both Mac updates are considerable improvements over past models covering a wide range of use cases that have felt neglected in recent years. Arment’s conclusion regarding the mini sums up Apple’s renewed emphasis on the Mac in general well:

Last year, with the introduction of the absolutely stellar iMac Pro, Apple showed us a glimpse of a potential new direction. It was downright perfect — a love letter to the Mac and its pro desktop users, and a clear turnaround in the way the company views the Mac for the better.

We didn’t know until now whether the iMac Pro’s greatness was a fluke. But now we have another data point: the last two desktops out of Apple have been incredible. After this, I have faith that they’re going to do the new Mac Pro justice when it finally ships next year.

The new Mac Mini is a great update, out of nowhere, to a product we thought would never be updated again.

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