Mac Mini Might be “the” Mac for Filmmakers

The Mac Mini has long been popular with production companies as a little “do anything” device. With Thunderbolt 3, it might be the best option as a main system.

Apple has been working very hard to get back into the good graces of professional users, with a huge wave of activity in 2018 letting us know that pros are a high priority. While we wait on the long-rumored 2019 Mac Pro and what wonders it might offer (Thunderbolt 3 AND USB-C ports! PCI card slots!), right now, in January 2019, we spent a few weeks testing the Mac Mini.  We’ve owned Mac Minis over the years, both in our office as a “mini-server” and at home as a media player and all around backup system, and while we’ve always liked them, we’ve never thought of them as our main system.

However, as Thunderbolt 3 finally matures, we might consider the new Mac Mini to be a real contender as a “main machine” for even demanding post users, like colorists.

The biggest thing that makes the Mac Mini exciting isn’t even the Mac Mini itself, though with its new Space Gray color scheme and fully integrated design it’s an attractive little box. No, it’s the increasing benefits of Thunderbolt 3.  When the original T3 Macbook Pro came out in 2016, there wasn’t anything to really make T3 worth it; you mostly just used an adapter and T2 accessories.

Between the Blackmagic eGPU and the wave of affordable Thunderbolt 3 SSDs that are hitting the streets, there are some real benefits to the little connector.  

Despite the existence of the 2013 Mac Pro “R2D2,” the older 2006-2010 “Cheese Grater” Mac Pro is still dominant in post.  Why?  Well, when (and it’s when, not if, if you work in motion pictures), the graphics card dies on a 2013 Mac, you have to send the whole unit in to get refurbished.  Even if it’s under Applecare and “free,” that doesn’t account for the time you lose to having the machine out of commission.

If you go the Mac Mini eGPU route, when that eGPU dies, you send it off to be repaired and plug another in. I could see busier production facilities keeping a spare eGPU sitting around, and since you could plug up to four of them directly into a Mini, you can have a graphics powerhouse and an array of “backup” graphics cards ready to go at any moment. Of course, you might still cook the internal Intel integrated graphics, but that is far, far less likely if you are pushing the bulk of graphics processing out to the external processor.

On top of that, for a small fee, you can upgrade the system to 10gig ethernet. While many post houses run on fiber, many “indie” post houses and production companies run on copper, 1gb ethernet to connect machines and move files around. 10gig has been around for a while but has always been too pricy. Putting 10gig into the Mac Mini, with it also in the iMac Pro, means that a whole host of new machines are going to have it built in.

If you wanted, you could buy a passel of 10gig Ethernet apapters and turn a mac mini into a little 10gig switch. That’s actually one of the first questions I had for Apple when playing with the machine, and the Apple expert I was talking to pointed out that they had it set up that way at the moment.

We do wish they would space out the T3 connectors a bit further apart: thumb driver and adapters are wider than power cables.

The other big thing that makes the Mac Mini so appealing is the inclusion of the same T2 chip seen in the Macbook Pro and iMac Pro, that is used to speed up H.265 renders. While H.265 (otherwise known as HEVC) hasn’t become the dominant replacement for H.264 quite yet, it is coming, and it does offer substantial image quality benefits, or even slightly, smaller files sizes compared to the market-dominant H.264. 

Why isn’t it more common?  Because it’s a massive time eater to render. On a traditional Mac Pro (2013, 6-Core, D700 graphics), it took 1:43 to render our test prores file to H265 time compared to only 58 seconds for H.264.  On small files, that isn’t a big deal, but if you do a lot of exports or work on longer projects, that really adds up. 

On the new Mac Mini, a machine 1/3 the cost of the Mac Pro at base specs and something like 1/5th the price in top spec?  A Mac Pro H.264 render that took 58 seconds now runs at 23 seconds on the Mac Mini and the H.265 render took precisely the same amount of time, at 23 seconds.

That’s because there is hardware acceleration built into the T2 for H.265.  Of course, the new 2019 Mac Pro will have T2 (or T3, maybe) chips and fast H.265 encoding as well. But the Mac Mini is affordable and accelerated. Even better, by putting HEVC encoding on the T2, your CPU stays relatively free for other tasks. The same renders on the top spec Macbook Pro took about 20 seconds, but of course, that is a dual graphics card machine that can cost twice what the Mac Mini will run you. 

We compared Compresso and Media Encoder, with both showing good times on the Mini, but unsurprisingly Compressor had a slight speed edge (20 vs. 23 seconds). Since Apple makes both, they can presumably optimize in a fashion that no third-party software can match.

It’s small.  Affordable.  Fast.  Configurable.  Extensible. Even if the 2019 Mac Pro is everything we dream it will be, the Mac Mini might still be the smart option for filmmakers this year.

Available now.

Tech Specs:

  • GHz Intel Core i7 Six-Core and Four-Core processors
  • Up to 64GB of 2666 MHz DDR4 RAM
  • Integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630
  • Up to 2TB internal PCIe SSD
  • 1 x Gigabit Ethernet Port, Upgradeable to 10 Gig
  • Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) | Bluetooth 5.0
  • 4 x Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C) Ports
  • 2 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A | 1 x HDMI 2.0
  • 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg)
  • T2 security chip with HEVC optimized encoding

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