How I made my Mac Mini a 4K Editing Machine

I’ve always been a Mac kind of guy and only took a seven-year hiatus during college and seminary because Grove City gave me a Windows PC.  When I returned to the Mac world I fell in love with the Mac Mini.  I’ve never been a fan of the integrated display iMacs (just a personal preference) but the Mini was perfect.  Small, economical, and still packed plenty of power.  

That was, until the 2014 Mac Mini’s came out.  Previously, the Mac Mini was one of the best machines to buy because it was so easy to upgrade.  But the 2014 Mac Mini changed that.  In short, what you see is what you get.  8GB of RAM, and a hard drive that is really hard to get to.  

Honestly, this wasn’t much of a problem until two things changed.  1) I need the ability to edit 4K video.  2) My wife started using my computer.  I understood that with all the things running on my machine that it would take a while to boot up.  My wife?  Well, it just annoyed her.  

The problem?  I’m limited on what I can upgrade on the Mini, most notably the RAM is fixed at 8GB.  So I started with what I could - fast disk drives.  

I’ve used Mac OS X’s built-in RAID function for a number of years now and while it’s not as fast as hardware RAID, it’s still faster than just a disk.  But I knew this round I might need more, so I bought a Western Digital My Book Duo (8TB Edition) (Amazon link).  Although this disk was faster than anything I had had before, I actually bought a second identical disk and now have a 16TB 4 Disk RAID 0 drive.  How fast is it you ask?  This fast.  

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While I ended up spending as much on external disks as I did on the computer itself, what I ended up with a blazing fast 4K capable disk setup for less than $700.  This drive set up can sustain playback of 4Kp60 footage in ProRes 4444 mode.  

But that was only part of my problem.  That worked great once the machine had booted up and Final Cut Pro X was up and running, but to get to that point was still a long and arduous process.  So, next stop!  Interal hard drive!

Or not.  

Again, the old Mac Mini’s used to be so easy to upgrade but when I looked on iFixIt for how to upgrade the internal drive on my Mini even I was intimidated.  But then I had a thought.  Could I run my Mac off an external system disk?  As it turns out, you can - and it’s completely supported by Apple.  

I had a Sandisk Ultra II 480GB SSD drive on hand and was just going to do that, and then I thought of something else.  Sure, one SSD would be fast - but what if I got two and made a RAID drive out of them.

Where I splurged a bit was getting a Thunderbolt Hard Drive dock (this one) rather than USB 3.0.  My reasoning was simple though.  Thunderbolt is the fastest connection I’ve got and I’m relying pretty heavily on my USB 3.0 bus already since that’s how my external RAID connects.  Plus, Thunderbolt would be a dedicated connection and therefore maximize the speed of my drives.  So, I order the dock and a second (identical) 480GB Sandisk Extreme II SSD (this one).  I used Carbon Copy (30 Day Free Trial) to clone my start up disk which was much better than using Time Machine since all I had to do was clone the drive, select it as a start up volume, and was off and running.  As for speed?  Well, here’s the comparison:

Disk Comparison

Simply put, my SSD Drive array is 5-6 times faster than my internal hard drive, and it’s very easy to tell the difference.  Programs launch in seconds instead of half a minute and the boot up time is incredible.  The biggest benefit though is the increased speed for virtual memory.  Simply put, when your computer runs out of RAM is uses hard drive space to temporarily store items.  When you have limited RAM (which the Mac Mini does) and a slow disk (which it did) it makes the whole system drag when you’re trying to transition between programs.  Now, I’ve got RAM-like speed from my hard drive.  

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The last thing that kills the Mac Mini?  The graphics card.  Although my Mac Mini has the Iris Pro graphics it’s still not great for editing and playback of 4K material, particularly within Final Cut Pro.  But there’s a very simple trick you can use in Final Cut Pro X - change your priority from Quality to Performance.  What this does is downgrade the quality of the video during playback so that it doesn’t drop frames.  Kind of a bummer, but when you stop playback it reverts to full quality.  It’s a trade-off, but one that enables smooth and even speedy editing of 4K footage.  

My logic in doing all this (instead of just buying a new computer) is that I was going to have buy new disks no matter what - even if I got a Mac Pro.  So in essence my only cost was for the SSD Array which amounted to about $270 (since I already had one drive on hand).  The speed upgrade has been completely worth it and has given my little Mac Mini a new lease on life.