What is Final Cut Pro X like running on a new Mac mini? We take a look at the new model, its features and how well FCPX performs. It even beats an iMac Pro in one of our tests!
Before we plug the new Mac mini up, it is important to understand that this version of the unit has changed. Changed a lot.
Back in 2005, the Mac mini was designed for switchers from PCs. It didn’t come with a screen, keyboard or mouse and keeping the price down helped make the transition to Mac OS 10.3 Panther and a PowerPC processor as painless as possible.
Times and technology have changed, no need now for the DVD slot or a spinning hard disk for storage.
The switchers of today are buying MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros as their first Macs, not the mini.
So this gives Apple a chance to change and retarget the use of the Mac mini. Consequently, that’s exactly what they have done with the new range of models.
But instead of offering (To quote Steve Jobs) a ‘stripped down Mac’ they’ve actually put the logic board on steroids!
The fourth generation Mac mini now has a choice of quad and 6-core processors, up to 64GB of Ram, up to 2TB of SSD storage and the option of a 10GigE port over the standard GigE.
There are also four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports fed from two controllers, an HDMI port that supports 4K and two USB 3 ports. So yes, you can plug your own keyboard and mouse in without having to buy any adaptors.
Can the user upgrade the RAM in the new machine? Yes, it is possible, but it is not a case of flipping up a slot and exchanging the cards out.
You have to remove the cooling fan and then slide out the logic board. Make a mess of it and you’ll invalidate the warranty, so it is best to stick to an Apple approved centre for the upgrade. Should you want to get your spudger out and see the insides of the new Mac mini, head over to the excellent iFixit site.
The machine on test is a 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7, 32GB 2666MHz DDR4, Intel UHD Graphics 630, 1TB SSD storage and the 10 Gigabit Ethernet option.
If the colour of the Mac mini looks familiar, it is exactly the same as the iMac Pro and (after seeing them side by side) the Blackmagic external GPU. This also makes sense of the decision for Apple to sell the black keyboard and mouse and also probably hints at the new Mac Pro colour. (And possible footprint- a skyscraper sized oblong trashcan?)
Connecting it up
I’m lucky to have 2 10GigE connections on the back of my QNAP NAS. Final Cut Pro X needs fast drives to be able to build the ‘always live’ waveforms and thumbnails.
Plumbing the Mac mini into the edit system is easy and I’ve detailed how to do point to point 10Gig connection before if you haven't got a router/switch.
If you need the internet on the machine, a cheap USB to Ethernet adaptor from Amazon for $15 works as well as anything else. Run a speed test to make sure you are accessing the NAS via the higher speed route.
I powered a 4K monitor from the HDMI port; this works well and avoids any more dongles having to be bought.
After 25 years of Mac ownership, I have enough keyboards and a spare mouse to finish off the system!
The machine comes with Mojave installed and defaults to dark mode on the now silent boot. The machine is very quiet and can’t be heard over the fan of the nearby QNAP, which isn’t that loud either. This machine could easily sit on your desktop and not annoy you or your co-worker.
I read a recent review that the sound was pretty terrible out of the Mac mini. I’d disagree. It isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either. I’d say it was better than the old cylinder Mac Pro, but not in the league of the Mac notebooks. You wouldn’t want to use it as edit monitoring.
The Mac mini does have a headphone socket and I can see many editors sitting in offices with the machine on the desk and headphones on editing all day.
Although I worked the machine hard with rendering, the shell didn't get too hot. However I did feel the warm rush of air out of the back of the machine which caught me by surprise when the mini was angled away from me.
I wouldn't have it in this orientation for continuous use, ie situated under a central monitor post with cables pointing at you. Instead I suggest putting the cables and heat exhaust to the back. It will make plugging the headphones in a bit trickier, but I hate sitting in draught!
Final Cut Pro X Performance!
Let’s give it a real test and put it up against an iMac Pro!
I thought I’d dive straight in with a 4K Project and use a Library with a short minute and a half sequence with large still images, transitions, multiple title and adjustment layers.
It is in a Library that I duplicated to both machines with the media staying on the QNAP. The cache was set to both desktops respectively as the RAM in both runs at up to 3Gig speed.
Although I didn’t time it, it felt like the thumbnails were taking a longer time to draw than I’m used to on the iMac Pro. All render files were deleted before all tests.
Unrendered, the Mac mini played the sequence back in Better Performance, but dropped frames on Better Quality. The iMac Pro played back in both settings without a problem.
Skimming seemed just as fast as the iMac Pro and it didn’t feel underpowered when navigating the timeline or browser.
The iMac is an 8 core machine with 64GB of RAM and more importantly a Radeon Pro Vega 64 GPU.
Both machines are connected to the same storage via 10GigE and renders and exports went to the respective desktops. (Ok I know it is NBase-T which supports 1Gb, 2.5Gb, 5Gb and 10Gb)
Mac mini 7’03”
iMac Pro 1’43”
4K ProRes 422 Export
Mac mini 6’45
iMac Pro 1’40”
As expected here as FCPX uses the GPU for image processing, the much lower powered Mac mini takes a lot longer.
Compressor Convert to HEVC 4K 8Bit
Mac mini 54”
iMac Pro 55”
Well, the Mac mini beat the iMac Pro! This is because all of the conversion is done on the CPUs.
Not really worth testing for Motion as apart from a few things like particles, Motion almost lives on the GPU.
No, not a new breakfast cereal, but Compressor allows you to share the work out over connected machines.
I didn’t realise that the ability to set up a cluster of machines running Compressor was easy to do. Well, when I say easy my first attempt failed, but that might be down to my slightly quirky network topology with the QNAP.
To build a cluster, on the machines you want to add, open up a copy of Compressor. In the preferences, turn the option on for other computers to process batches.
Then on the host machine, make a cluster from the available machines in the list. Here you can see we have got something very wrong! We will be revisiting this topic with the issue fixed when we have more time.
Then having named your cluster (or other single machine), you can then toggle the processing destination in the dropdown menu on the bottom of the host machine's Compressor GUI.
To work properly and fast, all the machines need to be connected with 10GigE via a 10GigE switch. The costs of this networking is now a lot cheaper, Netgear and QNAP make a suitable budget switch.
There is no limit to the amount of Mac minis you can have in a cluster. You'll probably run out of switch ports first!
One note here. For distributed processing, it has to be a self contained movie that gets automatically diced and sliced and sent off to the cluster machines.
Not what I expected. I guess I was in the state of mind thinking that the Mac mini wasn’t a serious machine for anything other than web browsing, Plex serving or basic Photoshop.
It’s a lot more than than. It is a component in building a modular system, which is a new thought considering that Apple has been criticised over the past few years for lack of upgradability in the Mac Pro and iMac Pro.
There are two reasons for this new direction. The first are Thunderbolt 3 connections giving the option of using an external GPU and therefore factoring out the limited onboard Intel offering.
The second is the option of a 10GigE port. Being able to connect to high speed shared storage without going through an adaptor is a huge plus.
Why? Take sever centres for example. Every App on the iOS App Store has been compiled on a Mac. Rack up rows of Mac minis connected with 10GigE and you have a facility that can get apps ready quickly. No need for costly large GPUs here, all the work will be done by the CPU cores. Once set up, the Mac mini is more than happy to run in a headless mode. I've worked with a few producers like that.
This is also true of building a small Mac mini cluster to do the hard work of making all the different deliverables of an FCPX exported finished movie - while you carry on editing something else with your main machine. It would make sense for a large production or facility house to have a rack of these that everybody could access when needed.
Put five or ten of these together in a rack and you have a very fast DIT tool for making proxies and dailies on set. The Mac mini above gets its first on set DIT experience tomorrow!
I’ll leave you with a final thought.
Spec up a 6-core Mac mini with 32GB of RAM, 1TB of SSD storage and the soon to ship Blackmagic RX Vega 56 eGPU and you have a machine that’s not too far from the base model iMac Pro, wait for it... with over £1,200 left spare.
Granted, you’ll have to supply your own monitor, keyboard and mouse, but if upgradability is important to you, this could be a very clever way of getting the power with the flexibility.
Hopefully we will have an eGPU to test soon :)
Peter Wiggins is a broadcast freelance editor based in the UK although his work takes him around the world. An early adopter of FCP setting up pioneering broadcasts workflows, his weapon of choice is now Final Cut Pro X.