Apple Mac mini – Apple’s ARM PC outperforms its rivals

Apple’s Mac mini (M1, 2020) is the first Mac desktop to use Apple’s latest M1 chip, which is built on ARM. Even though it’s motivated by the same chip as the far more costly MacBook Pro, it’s still the most affordable way to dip your toe into the brave new world of Apple Silicon. It won’t run Windows apps via Bootcamp like an Intel Mac, and there will be some growing pains as developers adapt to the new hardware, but it provides tremendous raw performance, excellent long-term potential, and more than reasonable real-world performance in the short term.

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Though I was initially suspicious of Apple’s decision to abandon Intel, the promised success of their custom silicon piqued my interest, and I was eager to learn more about how that raw power translates in real-world situations. I was able to use an M1 Mac mini as my primary work machine for about a week, plugging in my keyboard and monitors and leaving my primary rig to collect dust.

Obviously, I paid close attention to performance during my time with the M1 Mac mini, particularly how well it handled non-native apps and apps designed for iOS. I couldn’t totally abandon my old hardware due to Bootcamp’s lack of support, but there’s no denying that this is some amazing hardware at any price, let alone one that is less expensive than the previous version.

The frame is made of the same sleek aluminum.
The major adjustments are all under the hood, as Apple chose to keep the Mac mini (M1, 2020)’s overall design unchanged from the previous iteration. It’s still a block of milled aluminum with rounded corners, a satin finish, and a gleaming Apple logo on top. Aside from the emblem, the top is flat and unmarked, and the front and sides of the case are featureless, except for a small LED on the front that indicates when the device is turned on.

The ports are all located on the back of the unit, where the aluminum case has been cut away to make room for a black plastic panel. There’s a power button and a power cable connector, as well as an Ethernet port, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI port, two USB type A ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. A cutout located just below this series of inputs shows the internal heatsink.

The biggest difference between this version of the hardware and the previous one is that the previous Mac mini had four Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of only two. Even the port layout is the same, illustrating the fact that only two ports occupy space that could comfortably accommodate double that amount.

The bottom of the M1 Mac mini is still unchanged from the previous hardware iteration, with the majority of the space taken up by a circular plastic cover intended to make access to the internals easier. It causes the Mac mini to stand up a little from whatever surface it’s on, and it has very little gripping ability, as before. If you put it on a slick surface, keep in mind that the tiniest nudge may cause it to slip off.

The M1 Mac mini, unlike the previous edition, lacks any user-serviceable parts or components. That means you’re locked into the ram and storage configurations you choose at checkout, and you won’t be able to upgrade later to more RAM or a larger SSD.

Apart from the fact that the M1 Mac mini received no cosmetic updates, the biggest drawback here is that Apple disabled two Thunderbolt ports and the ability to upgrade your memory. The first isn’t a big deal because the Mac mini has always looked amazing and continues to do so. Similarly, the shortage of Thunderbolt ports isn’t a big deal because there are plenty of ways to get around it. However, the lack of upgradeability restricts the hardware’s versatility, making it all the more necessary to choose the amount of memory and storage that you’ll be satisfied with for the lifetime of the unit.

Setting up the Apple hardware is fast and painless, but you won’t be able to use a Bluetooth keyboard or mouse.

The configuration method is close to that of a macOS system if you’ve done it before. Accepting some terms, modifying some initial settings, and attaching your Apple ID are all that’s needed. As always, getting access to another working piece of Apple hardware that you’re already logged into would make setup simpler.

The only snag is that you won’t be able to use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with the Mac mini. To finish the setup process, plug in a wired keyboard and mouse and then pair your Bluetooth hardware, or use a keyboard and mouse combo that uses a wireless dongle.

I was able to plug in the dongle from my Logitech K400+ Touch Keyboard, for example, and the Mac mini automatically recognized the peripheral. This helped me to finish the setup without having to look for wired peripherals.

Performance: Awe-inspiring, with a few hiccups.

While the architecture of the Mac mini (M1, 2020) remained largely unchanged, the internals were completely overhauled. This is Apple’s first desktop to feature the company’s latest M1 chip, which is a huge deal. Though one of the M1’s main selling points, lower power consumption, isn’t as important here as it is in the MacBook Air, this chip is still much more powerful than anything else you’ve ever seen in a Mac. The Mac mini, in reality, has the same chip as the MacBook Pro, but with one more GPU core than the MacBook Air.

The M1 CPU has eight cores, including four output cores and four efficiency cores, as well as an eight-core GPU on the same chip.

However, this isn’t a case of Intel integrated graphics. Both the CPU and GPU components in the M1 provide impressive processing power. That translates to silky-smooth day-to-day activity from Big Sur, fast-loading and running apps, lightning-fast video rendering and image editing, and intriguing gaming possibilities.

Although Apple’s numbers were amazing, and my own experience with the M1 hardware was almost unanimously positive, I needed to run some tests. I began by running the Cinebench multi-core test. In that test, the Mac mini scored 7,662, placing it between an Intel Xeon E5-2697 processor running at 3GHz and an X5650 Xeon processor running at 3.66GHz. That’s almost as good as an eight-core AMD Ryzen 7 1700X, but just around half as good as a Threadripper 1950X.

The M1 generated adequate multi-core numbers for a processor in a mini-computer in this price range. However, when it comes to the single-core Cinebench test, decent is thrown out the window. The M1 Mac mini earned a score of 1,521 in that test, which is the second highest Cinebench score ever.

I have used GFXBench Metal to run a few gaming benchmarks. I began with Car Chase, a benchmark that simulates a 3D game using advanced shaders, lighting effects, and other features. In that test, the M1 Mac mini managed a reasonable 60.44 frames per second, which would be perfectly playable if we were dealing with a real game rather than a benchmark. The less-intense T-Rex benchmark yielded a nearly equivalent 60 frames per second.

In addition to GFXBench, I used Big Sur’s native support for iOS applications to run the WildLife benchmark from 3DMark, which is optimized for iOS. The Mac mini earned a cumulative score of 17,930 and a frame rate of 107fps in that test. Both numbers were marginally higher than the MacBook Air’s on the same test, which is to be expected given the Mac mini GPU’s additional heart.

Apple Mac Mini

Gaming: Limited but promising

This is one place where Apple’s decision to abandon Intel in favor of their own custom silicon is unlikely to pay off for some time. The problem is that, although the M1 chip is strong, game developers will take some time to provide some kind of real support for it. That means the Mac gaming scene, which is already thin, could become even thinner before developers see a compelling reason to invest significant resources in games that run natively on the ARM-based M1 hardware. Cross-platform software support for macOS and iOS may be a game-changer in the long run.

Since the gaming scene on macOS was already thin, a lot of gaming on Macs is done in Windows via Bootcamp. If you play a lot of video games on your current Mac, you’re probably familiar with big tentpole titles that never make it off Windows in the first place, and afterthought macOS ports that are badly optimized and run a lot better if you play the same game on the same hardware in Windows.

Because of the transition to ARM-based architecture, the Mac mini can no longer run Windows alongside macOS, so gaming is no longer an option. Since Windows can’t run on this hardware, the only way to play Windows-only games is via a virtual machine setup, which isn’t ideal. That means you won’t be able to play any games if your only gaming rig is a Mac mini or any Mac with an M1 processor.

The problem is that, although the M1 chip is strong, game developers will take some time to provide some kind of real support for it.

The Mac mini, on the other hand, can play any game built for macOS on an Intel computer thanks to Rosetta 2. There is a performance penalty, but I didn’t find it in any of the games I played. Notably, I was able to use Rosetta 2 to run Steam and then seamlessly download and play macOS games via Steam.

Civilization 6 is currently in the middle of a nearly year-long content drip, and I was able to start it up with no problems using Rosetta 2 and Steam. The M1 sailed along smoothly with quick load times and tolerably snappy AI turns, even with the world size cranked all the way up, more civs than recommended, and maxed out city states.

I fired up Rocket League for something a little less taxing but a lot more exciting. Despite the fact that Psyonix no longer supports macOS, I was able to download, launch, and set up a local match using Steam. It went off without a hitch, with no stuttering or slowing as the cars sped around the arena at breakneck speeds.

The most recent game I played was Streets of Rage 4, the long-awaited fourth installment in the Streets of Rage franchise, which was released earlier this year. The fast-paced online brawler ran as smoothly on my Windows gaming rig as it does on my Mac, with no lag or slowdown.

Apart from a lack of funding from game developers, the only real gaming disadvantage is the HDMI port itself. The M1 Mac mini can generate 4K graphics but only at a 60Hz refresh rate. That’s perfect for most casual gamers, but anyone who has fallen in love with their high-refresh-rate display would be disappointed.

Apple Productivity: Ready to get to work.

The Mac mini line has always been versatile, which is one of its best features. You can use a Mac mini for work, but due to the small size and low cost of the hardware, you aren’t obligated to do so. However, if you intend to use an M1 Mac mini for work, it is more than capable. Native apps and the operating system run as easily and smoothly as you might expect, with none of the spinning beach balls that you might have become used to on older hardware.

The M1 provides the majority of productivity resources thanks to the emulation provided by Rosetta 2. If you have a macOS app that runs on older hardware, Rosetta 2 will let you run it on an M1 Mac mini until a native app is released. Even if a native app isn’t available, your efficiency shouldn’t be harmed significantly.

Without a hitch or even a hint of lag, I was able to run apps like Photoshop and Lightroom via Rosetta 2 without any issues.

According to Adobe, both of these apps will get native versions in the future, but they work fine under Rosetta 2 in the meantime.

Multitasking is also seamless, and I was able to juggle a large number of browser windows, resource-intensive applications like Photoshop and Handbrake, voice and video chat over Discord, and more without having any issues.

If you want audio, it is accessible.

In almost every group, the M1 Mac mini excels, but audio is not one of them. Within the sleek aluminum block is a speaker, but it’s not one you’ll want to listen to. It’s tinny and hollow, and it’s certainly a stand-in for better external speakers. After setting up the M1 Mac mini, you’ll want to plug in headphones, speakers, or a soundbar, since the built-in speaker isn’t even good for watching YouTube videos, let alone listening to music or streaming your favorite shows or movies.

There is a 3.5mm headphone jack on the back of the M1 Mac mini, as well as built-in Bluetooth, so you have plenty of choices. If you don’t want to be stuck with the built-in stereo, make sure to budget for any external speakers or headphones.

Apple M1 Mac

Strong Ethernet and Wi-Fi 6 networking are available on the network.

The Mac mini has a wired gigabit Ethernet socket, Bluetooth 5.0 support, and a Wi-Fi 6 network card that supports 801.11a/b/g/n/ac. The wired and wireless networking options provided consistently good performance, with fast download speeds and no problems streaming 4K video or video chatting.

I used a Mediacom gigabit link to test the M1 Mac mini’s network capabilities, which tested just short of 1Gbps at the modem at the time of testing. I began by connecting to the router via Ethernet and testing the speed with the Ookla Speedtest app. The M1 Mac mini delivered an incredible 937Mbps down over the wired link, which is one of the fastest results I’ve seen on this connection. Simultaneously, it measured an upload speed of 63.7Mbps, which is similar to the connection’s maximum speed.

I also tested the M1 Mac mini’s wireless connectivity by connecting it to my Eero mesh network. I got a decent 284 Mbps down and 54 Mbps up when linked wirelessly. My HP Spectre x360 measured 254Mbps down and 63Mbps up at the same time and in the same area.

Software: So long, Windows compatibility

During these early days, software is the biggest stumbling block for M1 hardware, as there isn’t anything out there that’s actually built to run on Apple silicon. Big Sur was developed specifically for this hardware and to function in tandem with Rosetta 2 to run legacy Intel macOS software. A few first-party Apple apps still run natively, but that’s about it for now.

The biggest casualty of Apple’s move to in-house ARM-based silicon, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the hardware won’t let you dual boot Windows, and x86 emulation for Windows apps is also out. The good news is that a new version of Parallels Desktop for Mac is on the way that will run on M1 hardware, but some apps need dual booting or work poorly in a virtual machine environment, so that won’t solve everyone’s problems.

During these early days, software is the biggest stumbling block for M1 hardware, as there isn’t anything out there that’s actually built to run on Apple silicon.

The bottom line is that if you rely on Bootcamp for a Windows program or service that you need for work or even just gaming, the M1 Mac mini won’t be able to run it. That could change in the future, as Windows does have an ARM version, but for now, you’re out of luck.

For the time being, the trade-off is that Big Sur and native apps like Safari perform admirably, with remarkably low power consumption and heat generation as compared to Intel Macs.

Price: It’s more affordable than it’s ever been.

The price of the Mac mini was increased in accordance with its most recent big retool, but Apple broke with custom and gave us a price cut with the change to M1 hardware. The M1 Mac mini is hundreds of dollars less expensive than the previous generation of hardware, which is impressive given how much more versatile it is. The previous Intel Mac mini was already a nice buy, but the M1 Mac mini appears to be even better. It’s also a decent deal when compared to non-Apple mini desktop hardware like the Intel NUC lineup, given its capabilities.

Apple Mini

Apple: Mac Mini Intel vs. Mac Mini M1

This is an unequal battle, but the Intel Mac mini is still available from Apple, so it’s a natural comparison to make. The two mini desktops have the same form factor, with the Intel model being Space Gray and the M1 model being Silver. The Intel Mac mini starts at $1,099, while the M1 Mac mini costs $699 or $899.

Since both come with 512GB of storage, the Intel Mac mini is more similar to the $899 variant of the M1 hardware. They both have 8GB of RAM as well. The Intel Mac mini has a 6-core Intel Core i5 processor and integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630, while the M1 Mac mini has an 8-core M1 cpu.

The M1 Mac mini outperforms the Intel version in terms of performance. The Intel edition, on the other hand, comes with two additional Thunderbolt ports and can do something the M1 version can’t: run Windows via Bootcamp.

If you don’t need to run Windows programs, there’s no need to worry. The M1 Mac mini is better and less expensive. If you simply must run Windows apps and don’t mind the extra cost, the Intel Mac mini is worth considering. But, given how much more costly it is than a pure Windows computer with equivalent features, the question becomes whether the Mac mini is the right platform for running certain Windows apps.

If all you need is a Mac, look no further than the M1 Mac mini.

The Apple Mac mini with M1 is a stunning piece of hardware that delivers incredible performance at an affordable price. The only catch is that by abandoning Intel, Apple might have left you out in the cold. If you can’t live without running specific apps via Windows through Bootcamp, the M1 Mac mini isn’t for you. If you’re willing to live and work in a world without Windows, the M1 Mac mini is ready to welcome you home.

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