In early 2023, Apple updated the Mac mini from the M1 chip to the M2 chip, and also introduced the option for an M2 Pro chip. Let’s take a look at what the similarities and differences are between the 2 chip options, and see what that $700 price premium actually gets you.
The M2 and M2 Pro versions of the Mac mini are essentially the same product with different internals, and indeed Apple calls it the Mac mini (2023) edition on it’s technical specifications support page. Let’s start by examining some areas that similar.
The design of the M2 and M2 Pro Mac minis are identical, being a silver-colored aluminum square that hasn’t really changed in over 12 years. Unfortunately the Space Gray-colored Mac mini that Apple released in 2018 is no longer an option with the Apple Silicon chips. The M2 Pro Mac mini, however, is slightly heavier than the M2 Mac mini, coming in at 2.8 lbs vs 2.6 lbs. Whenever there’s a weight difference like this due to a more powerful chip, it’s usually because of a different cooling system to combat the additional heat that will generated.
Communications: Wireless, Bluetooth, and Ethernet
Both the M2 and M2 Pro Mac minis support the same communication standards, namely Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3, and Gigabit Ethernet. For both models, the Ethernet upgrade to 10 Gb costs $100 extra.
When it comes to audio, both M2 and M2 Pro Mac minis have a built-in speaker and can output audio over a 3.5mm headphone jack (including support for high-impedance headphones) or over HDMI with multichannel audio output. I’ve not seen reports that the audio quality is any different between the M2 and M2 Pro models, and I wouldn’t expect it to be. If anyone actually uses the Mac mini speakers for anything other than basic notifications or diagnostics, well, you’re ears are more study than mine.
Ports: Thunderbolt and HDMI
In terms of connectors and expansion slots, there are a similar set of ports as well. Starting from the left, we have the power button, power connector, Ethernet port, Thunderbolt 4 ports, an HDMI port, 2 USB-A ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
This is also where we see our first major difference. The M2 Mac mini has only 2 Thunderbolt 4 ports, while the M2 Pro has 4.
However, there is another hidden difference, which is related to the display support. The HDMI port on the M2 Mac mini is only HDMI 2.0, while the M2 Pro Mac mini has an HDMI 2.1 port. That means it can support higher resolutions and refresh rates, and is critical if you want to use a display with only HDMI input such as a 4K 120Hz TV.
Indeed, if we check the display support specs, we can see that the M2 Mac mini’s HDMI port only supports up to 4K resolution at 60Hz, while the M2 Pro Mac mini can support up to 8K resolution at 60Hz or 4K resolution at 240Hz. I’ve made several videos testing the limits of the HDMI 2.1 support on the M2 Pro chip, so be sure to check those out later if you haven’t already.
Besides just the HDMI port, the total number of displays supported is also different. The M2 Mac mini can support only up to 2 displays, while the M2 Pro can do 3. The 2 displays on the M2 is limited to 1 at up to 6K resolution @ 60Hz over Thunderbolt, while the second is either up to 5K@60Hz over the other Thunderbolt port, or 4K@60Hz over the HDMI 2.0 port.
The M2 Pro Mac mini has a few different configuration options, but all of them can only use 2 of the 4 Thunderbolt ports for displays. With 3 displays, you can use 2 of them on Thunderbolt for up to 6K@60Hz, but that limits your HDMI display to only 4K@60Hz, which is the same as the HDMI 2.0 bandwidth on the non-Pro M2 version.
If you only use 2 total displays, then the Thunderbolt one is still up to 6K@60Hz, but the HDMI display can go up to 4K@144Hz. Finally, if you only use the HDMI port for a display, that’s when it can reach 8K@60Hz or 4K@240Hz.
So what you need to be aware of is that connecting displays over Thunderbolt on the M2 Pro mac mini will actually limit how much bandwidth the HDMI 2.1 port can output. So do be careful and figure out what resolutions and refresh rates you plan to use and see if they’ll work before you buy an M2 Pro.
M2 vs M2 Pro Chip
Now let’s look at the most obvious difference between the M2 and M2 Pro Mac minis, the chip. Unsurprisingly, one has the M2 chip, while the other has the M2 Pro chip. There are 3 major differences between these 2 chips to pay attention to.
First, the M2 chip has an 8-core CPU with 4 performance and 4 efficiency cores. The M2 Pro chip adds on 2 additional performance cores for 10-core CPU with 6 performance and 4 efficiency cores. So while it’s 25% more CPU cores in total, it’s actually 33% more performance cores, which are the higher power ones. However, Geekbench shows about a 25% increase in multi-core performance in their benchmarks, so as usual, the actual benefit you’ll get depends on what applications you’re using. For single-core, the benchmark scores are the same whether M2 or M2 Pro.
Second, the M2 chip comes with a 10-core GPU, while the M2 Pro comes with a 16-core GPU, which is 60% more cores. This doesn’t mean you’ll get 60% more performance, but it’s more like an upper bound guideline. You’ll probably have to dig for benchmarks of certain apps or games you care about to see how performance scales with core count for these Apple silicon chips.
Third, the M2 chip doesn’t have any upgrade options, while the M2 Pro chip can be upgraded from the 10/16 base model to a 12/19 configuration for $300. That means 12 CPU cores (8 performance and 4 efficiency) and 19-GPU cores.
Is it worth the upgrade? Well, you are getting 20% more CPU cores and 18.75% more GPU cores. Geekbench shows a multi-core performance improvement of about 17%. Coming from the base M2 Pro model price of $1299, a $300 increase is 23%, so from a value perspective, it’s not quite worth it. Unless you know you need the additional performance, I’d skip it.
A similarity worth pointing out is that both M2 and M2 Pro chips have the media engine, which supports hardware-accelerated video encoding and encoding. In the previous M1 generation of chips, the non-Pro M1 did NOT have the full media engine, which was an additional reason to upgrade to the Pro version. However, in the M2 generation, both M2 and M2 Pro chips have the media engine.
A difference that is worth pointing out, though not worth much consideration, is that memory bandwidth in the M2 chip is 100GB/s, while in the M2 Pro chip it’s double the speed at 200GB/s. There’s not really much point worrying about this, as it’s just an inherent feature of the M2 Pro chip. Instead, we should look at real-world performance to see how the chips do, which may be more affected by CPU, GPU, or the amount of unified memory. After all, it’s not like we can choose to buy an M2 chip with 200GB/s of memory bandwidth or an M2 Pro with 100GB/s.
Where we should pay attention, though, is the amount of memory these systems have. The base model M2 Mac mini comes with 8 GB of memory, and can be upgraded to 16GB for $200 extra, or 24GB for another $200 extra. That means you pay $200 per 8GB of memory upgrade.
The M2 Pro Mac mini comes with 16GB of memory already, and you can pay $400 to upgrade to 32GB. That memory cost is actually the same at $200 per 8GB. In case you haven’t realized, paying $200 for 8GB of memory is extremely expensive. Yes, memory is one of the most useful upgrades if you don’t have enough of it, but it’s also one of the most worthless upgrades if you do. So you’ll want to be careful and not get more than you need.
If you aren’t sure how much you actually need, I generally recommend buying the base model from a store with a good return policy and trying it out yourself. If you find that it doesn’t meet your needs, then return it and go for something more expensive. Apple themselves have great return policies, if not a bit short at 14 days in the United States, while other stores like Costco can give you up to 90 days.
The only upgrade I haven’t mentioned yet is storage. The M2 Mac mini base model comes with 256GB of SSD storage, while the M2 Pro comes with 512GB. For the M2 model, you can upgrade to 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB. The cost of the upgrade seems to be the same at each level at first glance, but remember that you’re upgrading from 256GB, not 0. That means you’re actually paying $200 for an extra 256GB at the first level, which is actually $800 per terabyte!
Upgrading to 1TB means you are paying $533 per terabyte, and the 2TB option costs $457 per terabyte. If you thought unified memory was expensive, these storage upgrades are quite ridiculous.
The M2 Pro Mac mini is slightly better when it comes to pricing of storage. From the base 512GB, you can upgrade to 1, 2, 4, or 8TB. Again, since we start from half a terabyte, the storage upgrade costs per terabyte at each level are actually $400, $400, $343, and $320. Even the first level upgrade here costs less per terabyte than the M2 Mac mini, but it’s still really expensive, especially since 4TB SSD drives can be had for less than $250 nowadays.
Of course, the drive speeds will be different, but you should seriously consider whether you need a ton of storage at the superfast speeds of the internal SSDs, or if you just need storage. I personally use a NAS, or Network Attached Storage, to keep all my files, so every computer and device can access them. That also means I only need enough storage in each computer for the applications and temporary working files. External drives can also work if you keep a computer on all the time as a file server, and the efficient Mac mini is great candidate for that.
When it comes to drive speeds, there is one more thing to be aware off. The internal storage in both the M2 and M2 Pro Mac minis have varying speeds depending on the capacity. Essentially, the smaller capacity drives use fewer storage chips, which results in lower read and write speeds. The 256GB drive found in the base M2 Mac mini only has 1 set of storage chips, which results in about 1500 MB/s transfer speeds. The 512GB drive, which is an upgrade option on the M2 and also the base for the M2 Pro Mac mini, has 2 storage chips, so the speed is double at around 3000 MB/s. Going up to 1TB doubles the speed again to about 6000 MB/s, which is starting to reach the limit. Even higher capacities won’t be substantially faster after 1TB.
But should you care about these transfer speeds? Well, it depends on 2 things: 1) if you plan to do some intensive workloads where it will actually make a difference, and 2) how much unified memory you get. You see, one of ways low disk transfer speeds can cause slowdowns is when the available memory runs out, causing the system to use a swap file on the SSD to switch things into and out of memory. This is reasons that many advise getting 16GB of memory over 8GB.
In general and for most people, however, I don’t think these transfer speeds should be a primary consideration. Instead, the amount of storage you need should decide how big a drive you get. If you are really concerned about these speed differences, I’d suggest looking up some comparisons others have done for your productivity applications to see what the impact will be, if any.
Combined with my earlier advice on getting just enough for storage to run your applications and temporary working files, I’d say both 256GB and 512GB base models are fine, although 512GB is the sweet spot for me. Some applications, and games if you’re into those, can be rather large these days, and 256GB can be limiting. Remember that macOS itself will take up some space, and upgrading to new versions can also require a hefty amount of free space. When macOS Big Sur came out, it required anywhere from 35-45 GB of available storage to upgrade, for example.
However, if you don’t use much storage, then 256GB if you decide to get the M2 Mac mini can do just fine. And of course, if you know you need the additional storage for your workload, which usually means dealing with lots of media assets, then you’ll have to deal with paying Apple’s upgrade prices.
Should You Go M2 or M2 Pro?
So is the higher price of the M2 Pro worth it over the M2? The base model price difference is $700, but that includes the $200 upgrade to 16GB of unified memory as well as the $200 upgrade to 512GB of storage. That means the actual price difference between the M2 and M2 Pro chips is only $300.
That $300 gets you the following: 2 more CPU performance cores (which is 25% more cores), 6 more GPU cores (which is 60% more), support for up to 3 displays (versus 2), support for HDMI 2.1, and 2 additional Thunderbolt 4 ports.
So what it boils down to is whether you 1) want 16GB of memory and 512GB of storage, 2) need the extra 25% CPU and up to 60% GPU performance, 3) plan to use 3 displays, 4) need HDMI 2.1 to support a high resolution and high refresh rate display like a TV.
The reasons of needing 3 displays or HDMI 2.1 are dealbreakers for the non-Pro M2 version, and will force you to get the M2 Pro. Indeed, HDMI 2.1 support is the primary reason I chose to get the M2 Pro Mac mini, since I use an LG C1 TV as my monitor.
But the reasons related to performance, memory, and storage are less set in stone, and will depend heavily on your use case. If you just want to use the computer for basic productivity tasks and media consumption, the M2 will serve you well. Even if you want to edit videos, the M2 having the media engine just like the M2 Pro makes it very capable. The $599 price without upgrades makes it an amazing value for a small and powerful computer.
If you’re a power user and willing to pay extra to have a machine that is more pleasant to use with more headroom in performance, memory and storage, then the base model $1299 M2 Pro Mac mini is still a relatively good value, despite it basically forcing you to pay for the memory and storage upgrades. That’s because of everything else that extra $300 gets you.
However, piecemeal upgrades are quite expensive, and other than the 10Gb Ethernet for those who have a network that can make use of it, I would recommend trying not to purchase upgrades unless you have a professional workload that really requires it. If you’re spending money to make more money, then that’s a good investment. Otherwise, stick with the base model CPU and memory options whether it’s the M2 or M2 Pro, and go external or network storage for your data.
And as always, if you still aren’t sure which one to get, I recommend buying the cheaper one at a place with a good return policy and trying it out yourself first to see if it meets your needs. You could end up saving a ton of money.