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2018 Mac Mini blocks Linux, here are alternative small form factor PCs

Apple’s long-awaited refresh of the Mac Mini includes a component called the “T2 Security Chip” which Apple touts as having “a Secure Enclave coprocessor, which provides the foundation for APFS encrypted storage, secure boot, and Touch ID on Mac,” as well as integrating “the system management controller, image signal processor, audio controller, and SSD controller,” which were separate components in previous Mac systems. Because of the extent to which T2 is involved with the boot sequence of this new hardware, Apple controls what operating systems can be loaded onto their hardware.

While Apple provides a way to unlock parts of this process using Boot Camp Assistant to enable installation of Windows, Apple’s documentation (PDF link) indicates that “there is currently no trust provided for the the Microsoft Corporation UEFI CA 2011, which would allow verification of code signed by Microsoft partners. This UEFI CA is commonly used to verify the authenticity of bootloaders for other operating systems such as Linux variants.”

SEE: Comparison chart: NAS devices (Tech Pro Research)

Because of this restriction, the Mac Mini is not suitable for users looking for a small form factor (SFF) PC to install Linux on. Though it may seem counterintuitive to purchase a Mac to not run OS X, Apple’s diminutive SFF PCs remain popular options with Linux users since they were introduced in 2005. Since that time, other manufacturers have introduced compelling miniature PCs with robust support for Windows and Linux, with easier access to internals for component upgrades.

Intel “Hades Canyon” NUC series

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The Hades Canyon series includes a front-facing HDMI port for connecting a VR headset.

Image: Intel

Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) series, introduced in 2013, is perhaps the second most well-known brand of SFF PCs. Intel sells NUC systems as barebones kits, requiring the user to add their own memory and drive. Of these, the Kaby Lake-G, also known as “Hades Canyon” series are by far the most powerful, as they fuse Intel’s 8th generation Core CPUs with a custom AMD Radeon RX Vega M GPU on chip, providing a significant graphics performance benefit over the Intel UHD Graphics 630 found in the Mac Mini. The Hades Canyon NUCs have a wealth of ports, including two HDMI 2.0 and two ThunderBolt 3 USB-C ports, as well as five USB 3.0 Type-A, one USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C, and one USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A ports, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

The NUC8i7HVK has a quad core i7‑8809G, rated for 3.1 GHz base/4.2 GHz turbo, with 8MB L3 cache, with an AMD GPU with 24 computing and 1536 shading units, rated for 1063 MHz base/1190 MHz turbo, paired with 4GB of HBM2 memory. It can be equipped with up to 64 GB RAM and has two PCIe 2.0 x4 linked M.2 slots. Intel was asking $999 at launch, though was discounted almost immediately thereafter. (Amazon sells it for $849.)

The NUC8i7HNK offers the same ports, but has a modestly less powerful CPU and GPU, smaller cache, and the CPU is locked on this model, preventing overclocking. The average $100 cost savings on this model is not worth the performance penalty. The case is not as visually appealing as the Mac Mini, but the LED Skull on the case is software-controlled and can be easily disabled, making it invisible. The case is slightly more retangular than the Mac Mini, making it modestly longer, though not as deep at 8.7 x 5.5 x 1.5″ (221.0 x 139.7 x 38.1 mm).

Intel Coffee Lake NUC series

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The Coffee Lake series of NUCs share the same case style. All three models include additional headroom to store a 2.5″ HDD or SSD, as pictured, though the Core i5 and i3 models have a shorter variant which use only an M.2 SSD.

Image: Intel

For those who do not need a discrete GPU, the Coffee Lake series NUCs are affordable alternatives. That said, the Iris Plus Graphics 655 featured in the Coffee Lake NUCs have 48 execution and 384 shading units, double that of the CPUs used in the 2018 Mac Mini. Iris Plus also features 128 MB eDRAM, while the UHD Graphics 630 has none. The Coffee Lake NUCs have four USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A ports, and one ThunderBolt 3 USB-C port, as well as one HDMI 2.0, and one Gigabit Ethernet port each. The Coffee Lake series can be equipped with up to 64 GB RAM.

  • The high-end NUC8i7BEH has a quad-core i7-8559U, rated for 2.7 GHz base/4.5 GHz turbo, and space for one 2.5″ and one M.2 drive, and retails for $469.
  • The mid-range NUC8i5BEH has a quad-core i5-8259U, rated for 2.3 GHz base 3.8 GHz turbo, and space for one 2.5″ and one M.2 drive. While the NUC8i5BEK has only space for one M.2 drive. Both retail for $360.
  • The low-end NUC8i3BEH has a dual-core i3-8109U, rated for 3.0 GHz base/3.6 GHz turbo, and space for one 2.5″ and one M.2 drive. While the NUC8i3BEK has only space for one M.2 drive. Both retail for $275.
  • The Coffee Lake NUCs are smaller than the Mac Mini, measuring in at 4.6 x 4.4 x 2.0″ (116.8 x 111.8 x 50.8 mm), with models lacking space for a 2.5″ drive decrease height to 1.4″ (35.6 mm).

Gigabyte Brix

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Like Intel’s Coffee Lake NUCs, the Gigabyte Brix series of SFF PCs include space for a 2.5″ HDD or SSD, as pictured, though shorter variants which use only M.2 SSDs are also available.

Image: Gigabyte

Popular motherboard manufacturer Gigabyte also offers a variety of configurations in their Brix lineup of SFF PCs, from the high-end Intel Core i7 to low-power Celeron offerings.

For the current generation of Brix systems, the GB-BRI7H-8550 is powered by a quad-core i7-8550U, rated for 1.8 GHz base/4.0 GHz turbo, space for one 2.5″ and one M.2 drive, and retails for $499. It measures in at 4.7 x 4.43 x 1.84″ (119.4 x 112.6 x 46.8 mm) with the GB-BRi7-8550 removing space for the 2.5″ drive, decreasing height to 1.35″ (34.4 mm).

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