Very good for the money – Apple Mac Mini M1

The new Mac Mini packs enormous power with its M1 chip in a more affordable package


By Brian Westover

The Apple Mac mini with M1 processor is the first desktop to get Apple Silicon. Apple M1 chip replacing the Intel Core i3 and Core i5 CPUs offered on past models. It’s tough being the first to get new hardware, but the littlest Mac is more than up to the job. 

When Apple announced it was going to switch the Mac family of laptops and desktops away from Intel in favor of Apple’s own processing hardware. There was some understandable doubt as to whether Apple could actually offer an alternative to the long-dominant Intel. But as our Mac mini with M1 review will show, this is a new and exciting era for both Apple and industry competition. Apple’s tiny powerhouse desktop is back, and the all-new, all-different Mac mini is arguably the best it has ever been.

Mac mini with M1 review: Design

The exterior is unchanged from years past. The aluminum chassis is still milled out of a single block of metal, and finished in the silvery bare aluminum it’s used for years. 

The Apple Mac mini design is just as impressive as it has been in years past. Despite the mini PC category expanding to include a huge array of very tiny computers with a wide variance of designs. The Mac mini’s square shape and rounded corners are iconic. Literally like an icon rendered in 3D aluminum. The look has been consistent since the introduction of the third-generation Mac mini back in 2010. Since then the only changes to the design have been the removal of the optical drive slot in 2011. And the change to a darker Space Gray anodized finish in 2018.

On the bottom of the compact machine is a black round plastic disc. This serves several purposes, acting as a foot for the PC. It is elevating it slightly for ventilation, and providing internal access for the tiny desktop. Unlike previous iterations of the Mac mini, the new model isn’t user serviceable and there are no options for aftermarket upgrades.

Mac mini with M1 review: Ports

There is one notable change to the exterior of the Mac mini, and that is the port selection. With all the ports grouped on the back side of the chassis in a black plastic I/O panel, the M1 mini is outfitted with an ethernet port, dual Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI connection capable of handling up to 6K resolution, dual USB 3.0 ports and a headphone jack.

Compare that to the 2018 Mac mini and you’ll notice a couple of big changes. The first is the loss of two Thunderbolt 3 ports – the 2018 Mac mini boasted four. The new model matches the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with its dual Thunderbolt ports. However it is still a step down for anyone looking to upgrade their Apple desktop to the latest version.

A related limitation – which may be attributed to the reduced number of ports, the limitations of Apple Silicon, or perhaps both – the M1 Mac mini only supports two displays. And only one of those over Thunderbolt. The other is forced to use HDMI. The older 2018 mini supported up to three. I guess that Apple continues with reducing connectivity of their hardware. That is forcing customers to buy additional hardware to make up for it.

Thunderbolt 3 rather than Thunderbolt 4

It’s also worth noting that the Thunderbolt 3 ports found on the Mac mini are also USB 4 ports. While that may leave some users scratching their heads – Thunderbolt and USB were initially competing formats – the recently released USB 4 standard conforms to most of the Thunderbolt 3 specs. USB 4 uses a USB type-C connector, offers 40 gigabits per second of speed and supports power delivery up to 100 watts. These all specs that sound extremely familiar if you’ve read up on the details of Thunderbolt 3. Essentially, the once disparate USB and Thunderbolt standards have merged. Thunderbolt 3 is more or less interchangeable with USB 4. It’s also backwards compatible with USB 3.2 and USB 2.0. However, that is less of a concern thanks to the two USB 3.0 connections already offered by the Mac mini.

This is also notable in part because Apple – an early adopter of Thunderbolt technology – has not switched to Thunderbolt 4. It might be because the development of the M1 processor focused on the well-established Thunderbolt 3 standard instead of the new Thunderbolt 4. But we can’t discount the possibility that Apple opted for the now universal standard instead of Thunderbolt 4 because it’s a proprietary Intel connection. Apple/Intel relationship is profoundly different now that Apple is migrating away from Intel-based Macs.

Mac mini with M1 review: macOS Big Sur and Rosetta 2

On the software side, the Mac mini comes with Big Sur, Apple’s latest iteration of Mac OS and the first one built with Apple’s processing hardware in mind. It’s worth noting that Big Sur has to do double duty supporting both Mac and Intel processors. It includes Rosetta 2, which translates apps designed for Intel x86 hardware for use on the ARM-based M1 processor. With most non-Apple software already written for Intel hardware, Rosetta 2 provides an emulation layer to keep things running smoothly. It is a technical tool to make everything play nicely while Apple balances two very different systems, providing equal capability to both until Apple is able to fully transition to Apple Silicon for all Macs sometime in the next couple of years.

Mac mini with M1 review: New guts, new problems

But with new hardware and software, there are always some snags, and we did hit a few during our review of the Mac mini. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about getting the new Mac mini.

Software is a potential problem, with Big Sur and Apple Silicon promising compatibility with roughly anything that has been compatible in the past. However, we have seen a few hiccups ourselves and others have run into similar problems. If you rely on x86 emulation for Windows apps, you’re fresh out of luck. 

The lack of Boot Camp for running Windows will also be a stumbling block for a lot of potential buyers. There’s no way to run Windows on this new Mac machine. And with that loss you also give up Windows games. And a lot of programming and developing usefulness, as well as whatever programs you may prefer that don’t have an Apple equivalent. In the past Boot Camp was the solution to all of these problems. However, there’s none of that on this Mac mini, and that’s likely due to Apple’s new processing hardware simply not having that compatibility, and requiring software emulations such as Rosetta 2 in order to even run programs designed for Intel processors.

Bluetooth connectivity is another clear issue. Mac mini boasts Bluetooth 5 for wireless connectivity. We ran into problems with wireless keyboards, mice and headphones that had trouble establishing or keeping a connection. Even once connected, other users have noted laggy performance, with Bluetooth mice failing to track at consistent speeds across the screen. This is likely something that can be fixed with a software patch down the road. But it is a problem you’ll need to worry about in the meantime.

No support for external graphic cards!

There is another major limitation that will impact professional users more than casual Apple fans, but is definitely worth noting! The new Mac mini does not support external graphics cards! This means there’s no option for connecting an eGPU like the Razer Core X or the Blackmagic eGPU that Apple sells for use with other Macs. Adding an external graphics card has been a handy feature on past Macs for more graphics horsepower. It was a capability prized by video and photo editors on past Macs, as well as gamers.

Mac mini with M1 review: Verdict

The M1 Mac mini isn’t a perfect machine, but it’s surprisingly close. For a system that’s offering a price cut from past versions while introducing new hardware and balancing Apple-centric software with Rosetta 2-translated apps, it’s shockingly good. While there are some issues, they’re few and far between.

For most users, this is a no-brainer. The M1 Mac mini is the most affordable of Apple’s new crop of Macs. It delivers huge value for the affordable price. If you’re a professional or were keen for now-missing features like eGPU support, then you might want to look elsewhere. If you just want a Mac desktop that won’t cost a lot of money, the M1 Mac mini is the best thing out there.

OUR VERDICT

The Mac mini (M1, 2020) updates Apple’s cult Mac with its latest M1 hardware. For many people, this is exciting, as it means the Mac mini no longer feels like it’s being neglected by Apple; however, it does come with a few compromises that not everyone will like.

FOR

  • Same lovely design
  • Very good performance
  • New M1 hardware has potential

AGAINST

  • Can’t use eGPUs
  • Maximum of 16GB memory


Buy it if…

You want a powerful and compact PC
The Mac mini (M1, 2020) is a small and silent PC that really does impress when it comes to performance.

You want a Mac, for less
The new Mac mini is the cheapest way to get a new Mac, and thanks to its powerful components, it easily rivals the likes of the iMac, but for a lot less cash.

You own a lot of iOS apps
Got an iPhone or an iPad with loads of iOS apps and games? You can now also run them on the Mac mini thanks to the M1 chip.

Don’t buy it if…

You want some serious graphical firepower
While the Mac mini offers some excellent video editing performance, even at 8K, it can’t compete with workstations with discrete GPUs. The loss of eGPU support stings as well.

You want a gaming PC
Sure, the Mac mini can play the odd game, but it’s really not built for that. Look elsewhere if you want to play Cyberpunk 2077.

You want to upgrade in the future
Even by Apple’s less than stellar standards, the Mac mini is a PC that cannot be upgraded. Due to the M1 chip, even memory and storage can’t be replaced. Go for an Intel NUC instead.

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