Mac mini M1 review (late 2020): The most affordable Mac just got a LOT better

The Mac mini has always occupied a unique area of the market. Its low (for Apple) price point makes it one of the more affordable devices. But the need to add peripherals such as a monitor, keyboard and mouse also makes it a bit of a false economy.

However, with more of us working from home these days, there’s more of an appetite for non-portable desktop PCs than there once was. In fact, this has been one of the revelations of using the Mac mini for the past week – I’ve enjoyed sitting at a desk with a fixed monitor, keyboard and mouse (well, Apple trackPad actually) more than I thought I would. Rediscovering what it’s like to work in a body position that’s doesn’t involve squeezing my arms into a laptop keyboard has been refreshing.

Couple the above factors with the confidence Apple’s celebrated new M1 chip brings with it, and the new Mac mini is a success.

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Mac mini configurations

The entry-level Mac mini has 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, and is the most affordable option, costing NZ$1,199. I was sent a 16GB RAM and 1TB storage review sample – this is the maxed-out Mac mini and will cost NZ$2,249.00.

Note that all of 2020’s new Mac minis come with the M1 chip with 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, and 16-core Neural Engine.

Apple is playing a different game with RAM to the rest of the computer industry. It has been for years; its iPhones have always only had a modest amount of RAM compared to its Android rivals. The new M1 Macs are doing the same, coming with only 8GB of RAM as standard with Apple only allowing configurations up to 16GB.

This is tiny compared to the rest of the computing industry. The 16-inch MacBook Pro that Apple released last year (2019) could be configured to include 64GB of RAM.

That was the old. That was Intel-based Macs. The new Macs are different. Apple is applying something called “unified memory” now. And the M1 is the ultimate SoC (system on a chip). The M1 houses the Mac’s CPU, GPU and RAM – on the same chip. And the advantages this brings, Apple explains, is why it does not need to equip its M1 Macs with the lofty amounts of RAM found on Intel-based PCs.

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M1 chip

If you’re not a dedicated follower of technology, you may have missed the furore that came with the launch of the M1 chip inside of this Mac mini (…and the new 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro).

M1 is what Apple is calling its new Arm-based chip. And M1 is replacing Intel in Macs. Which is huge news as Apple has partnered with Intel – for its Macs – for 15 years.

While it is huge news, it’s not surprising news. Apple has been making its own Arm-based chips for its iPhone and iPads for years now. And Apple’s iPhones and iPads – with Apple-design chips inside – have outperformed the competition re processing performance and battery life for just as long. 

The M1 is the traditional computing equivalent of Apple’s mobile A-chips. It outperforms the most recent Intel chip by a long way.

I’ll come to benchmarks scores in a minute, but anecdotally, it’s important to note that I have been organically pushing the Mac mini as hard as I can. Keeping multiple programs open, having silly amounts of tabs open in Chrome while editing 4K video in Final Cut Pro at the same time.

The Mac mini doesn’t care. I wasn’t even able to make the fan start to whirl. That’s how powerful these new M1 chips are. 

Ok, Benchmarks! The M1 Mac Mini’s single-core Geekbench 5 score is 10 per cent higher than any other Mac – and that’s when running the benchmark through its translation software, Rosetta 2.

And the M1 single-core Geekbench 5 score is over 50 per cent higher than other Macs. The multi-core scores were just as impressive, with only the Mac Pro beating its score. 

Of course, the main benefits the M1 chips brings is improved performance per watt – which has a big impact on battery life for the MacBook. But this isn’t a thing for the Mac mini as it’s a Desktop PC, and it uses the same 150W power supply as its Intel predecessor. It is 60 per cent more efficient than the intel though.

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How does the M1 Mac mini run Intel apps?

The next biggest problem Apple had to overcome was how the M1 chip would handle MacOS apps designed for Intel. 

Rosetta 2 is its answer. Rosetta 2 – as its name sort of suggests – is a piece of translation software that Apple uses to let the M1 Macs run apps designed for Intel architecture. 

When you first try to run an Intel-designed Mac app, your new MacBook will pop-up a window prompting you to install Rosetta 2 in order to run your Intel app. 5 seconds later, Rosetta 2 is installed and those five seconds are the only difference you’ll notice. 

That’s it. There are no real perceivable performance issues running old Intel apps on the M1 Macs. 

You can run iOS apps on the Mac now!

Sort of.

As I explain above, Apple’s other main operating system, iOS and iPadOS, is already Arm-based. Which means you can now run iOS and iPad apps on the MacBook. For the first time.

Don’t get too excited, though. It sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is. App developers have to make their iOS and iPadOS apps available for the new M1 Macs. 

And Facebook for iPad is the most well-known app I’ve discovered available here in New Zealand, which is pretty redundant as Facebook is already optimised for web browsers – and the Mac is well served in that department.

I was able to access the UK’s My5 and US’ HBO Max video streaming apps by switching my app store and turning on a VPN. This is where I discovered that you could not make iOS and iPadOS full screen on Mac. And that sucks.

Mac mini design

There’s never been a huge amount going on with the Mac mini’s design throughout the years. It’s always been a small box with an Apple logo and a smattering of ports on the rear. This is the same. But with fewer ports than before.

The Mac mini now only has two USB-C / Thunderbolt ports (down from four) and two USB-A ports. Though, the USB-C ports are now USB 4.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. There hasn’t been a single time, in the past two years, when I have needed to use more than two USB ports at once – so it doesn’t really affect my work. Plus you can daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices forever. But two USB-C ports still feels a bit a low.

Another subtle difference is the return to silver from the Space Gray chassis the mini sported in 2018. 

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Mac mini M1: Verdict

It’s impossible not to love the new M1 Mac mini. It’s taken a device that has always occupied and slightly more niche place in the market (than MacBooks) and equipped it with the excellent new M1 chip. This means speed, efficiency and future-proofing. 

World events (Covid-19) have forced more of us to create a space in our homes that is dedicated to work. The Mac mini – with your own screen, keyboard and mouse set up – is a product that I think a lot of people will find attractive, rather than folding their necks and arms into a laptop. I know I do.

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