Apple Mac mini with M1 review

Apple Mac mini with M1 review

Last Updated on October 4, 2021 by Daniel Osakwe

With the Apple M1 chip, the Apple Mac mini, the first desktop to have Apple silicon, replaces the Intel Core i3 and Core i5 processors in previous models. New hardware is always tough, but the littlest Mac is more than capable.

The announcement that Apple would switch its Mac desktops and laptops from Intel to its own processing hardware raised some questions about whether Apple is capable of providing an alternative to Intel. This is a new and exciting era for Apple and competition in the industry, as our Mac mini with M1 review will demonstrate. In many ways, the all-new, all-different Mac mini is the best it’s ever been. It’s among the best mini PCs – and one of the great computers in general. As a matter of fact, it won the award for best mini PC this year.

Mac mini with M1 review: Design

Mac mini

Although Apple introduced new processors, the exterior remains unchanged from years ago. Despite years of use, the aluminum chassis is still milled from one block of metal and is finished in silvery bare aluminum.

Even though the mini PC market category has expanded to include a wide lineup of very tiny computers that each have a unique design, Apple’s Mac mini design remains impressive as it always has. Mac mini’s square design and rounded corners are iconic. It looks like it is a 3D metal version of an icon. As of 2010, only the optical drive slot had been removed from the design, and the anodized finish on the Mac mini was changed from Silver to darker Space Gray starting in 2018.  

With the 2020 M1 Mac mini, Apple has rolled back the anodized finish for the silvery bare aluminum of the previous generation. Despite its decade-old design, the unibody remains sleek and clean. It stays familiar, even comfortable–a term I’d probably not associate with a desktop PC. Nonetheless, Apple wants the Mac mini to feel as familiar and consistent as possible since the only new aspect of it is its hardware. One can only speculate whether it was done to emphasize the M1’s brilliance or to assuage fears of easily scared Apple loyalists.

This compact machine is equipped with a black round plastic disc located at the bottom. By separating the PC from the tiny desktop, this works as both afoot for the computer and an elevated platform for ventilation. In contrast to previous generations of the Mac mini, there is no option for aftermarket upgrades on the new model.

Mac mini with M1 review: Ports

mac mini

The port selection on the Mac mini is one noteworthy change to the exterior design. There are four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, an Ethernet port, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back of the M1 mini chassis.

There are a few important differences between the 2018 Mac mini and 2017 one. Firstly, the 2018 Mac mini was equipped with four Thunderbolt 3 ports, unlike the 2019 model. Despite its dual Thunderbolt ports, the new model is a step backward for those upgrading from a previous Apple desktop model.

The M1 Mac mini can only support two displays, and only one of those over Thunderbolt, which may be attributed to the reduced number of ports, the limitations of Apple Silicon, or both. HDMI is the only other option. Previously, the mini could support up to three displays.

Mac minis from the past could also be configured with 10-gigabit Ethernet connections, but the M1 mini only comes with standard ethernet. Although the average user may not require a 10-gigabit connection, that feature was especially useful for video professionals who needed that speed for pulling uncompressed video files from network-attached storage, as well as other professionals who may have 10 gigabits available at work. Apple has historically catered to a niche of users who have experienced this inconvenience.

Aside from Thunderbolt 3 ports, the Mac mini’s USB 4 ports are also Thunderbolt 3. This may leave some users scratching their heads – Thunderbolt and USB were originally competing formats – but USB 4 is largely consistent with Thunderbolt 3. Despite its overall similarity to Thunderbolt 3 in many respects, USB 4 has a USB Type-C connector and supports data transfer speeds of up to 40 gigabits per second. There is now more or less no difference between Thunderbolt 3 and USB 4, as the once disparate standards have merged. As for backward compatibility, it’s also compatible with USB 3.2 and USB 2.0, but with two USB 3.0 ports available on the Mac mini, this is less of an issue.

The fact that Apple is not using Thunderbolt 4 may also be due to the fact that the M1 processor is based on the well-established Thunderbolt 3 standard rather than the new Thunderbolt 4 specification. The Apple/Intel relationship has radically changed since Apple is moving away from Intel-based Macs, so it’s possible that Apple chose Thunderbolt 4 instead of the now universal standard because Thunderbolt 4 is a proprietary Intel connection.

Mac mini with M1 review: Hardware changes

mac mini

Powered by Apple’s Apple silicon M1 processor, the Mac mini M1 is the first Mac to use the Apple silicon family. By offering the same hardware, the Mac mini offers performance that more or less matches that of the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. That will be discussed at a later time.

Added to its silicon are 16 billion transistors allowing it to run at 3.2 GHz. In addition to processing and graphics, it also includes a secure enclave for security, unified memory to use RAM more efficiently, and an integrated storage controller with accelerated cryptography for faster, more secure storage. With this chip, you’ll be able to solve every bottleneck in modern PC design with one chip. A 5-nanometer process technology enables Apple to pack more power into a single CPU, making it possible for the design to achieve greater efficiency.

M1 processors have eight cores: four performance cores, and four efficiency cores, which can handle moderately demanding workloads without consuming as much power. Battery life is a major concern when it comes to portable Macs like the MacBook Air, but less so when it comes to stationary Macs like the Mac mini desktop.

Additionally, the same chip includes an 8-core GPU. Apple promises significantly faster performance than the prior Intel-based graphics solution, Intel Iris UHD Graphics 630, for computing tasks such as video rendering and image editing as well as gaming.

Mac mini with M1 review: Performance

We reviewed a new standard base model of the Mac mini, equipped with an Apple M1 processor and 8GB of RAM. In terms of flash storage, this is the cheapest Mac you can buy. In addition, it’s a great evaluation of the M1 chip’s capabilities. Even though we will be comparing the Mac mini with other mini PCs, we can also find some interesting similarities and differences with Apple’s latest laptops, the MacBook Air and Apple MacBook Pro, which both use the same processing hardware.

With over a dozen Safari tabs open and YouTube videos in 4K, we haven’t noticed any performance lag while browsing the web. Even when I opened more than 30 tabs while writing this review, nothing lagged.

The Mac mini scored 7,683 points in the Geekbench 5.3 multi-core benchmark test, which has been optimized for Apple Silicon. The difference is statistically negligible between the 8GB MacBook Air (7,581) and MacBook Pro (7,571).

Since the Mac mini has the cooling system that the MacBook Pro has over the MacBook Air, as well as no battery life concerns, I had hoped Apple would begin to tweak the Mac mini for better performance. 

Although there may be options to boost the performance of the Mac mini and squeeze out a little more performance from the M1 processor in the future, for now, they’re pretty much the same.

The Mac mini scored 6,005 using Geekbench 5, the PC version we’re currently using to test non-Apple systems. However, it had to run the software through Rosetta 2. With an Intel Core i5-8365U processor, Lenovo ThinkCentre M90N Nano scored much fewer points at 3,265. Another model with an Intel Xeon processor, the Intel NUC 9 Pro, scored 7,985 out of 8 in its category. While the Mac mini is somewhere in between those two, it remains at the top of the mini PC market.

To test how quickly a system transcodes a 4K video clip into 1080p, we turn to Handbrake. It took the Mac mini 8 minutes 11 seconds to complete this task using Apple Silicon’s Handbrake 1.4 app. MacBook Air came in at 9:08, the MacBook Pro at 7:46, and MacBook Air slightly faster at 7:46.

When this same Handbrake test was run using the Intel-friendly version of Rosetta 2, it took the Mac mini 12:38 instead of Apple’s optimized version of the program. Although the Mac mini was faster with the native app, it lies between the slower Lenovo ThinkCentre M90n and the faster Nvidia Quadro-equipped Intel NUC 9 Pro. 

As an example of another real-world application, we use the 30-minute Photoshop challenge from PugetBench, which simulates using the system for graphics work. Mac mini ends up with 566 points. However, the Lenovo ThinkCentre M90n only managed 390 points, while the Intel NUC 9 Pro scored 849.7.

We started by examining the performance of the Mac mini in terms of gaming. At 1080p and 4K resolutions, the Mac mini delivered 31.5 frames per second and 17.3 fps, respectively. In comparison, the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro managed 37 and 38 frames per second at 1440 x 900, which was usable on the MacBook’s display.

Despite having a playable 31.5 frames per second, the Mac mini was outpacing both the Lenovo ThinkCentre M90n (73.6) and the Intel NUC 9 Pro (100.1 fps), despite having only a dedicated graphics card.

Regardless of the use case, the Apple M1 chip is a capable competitor to the Core i3 and Core i5 processors. Mac mini puts great value with surprising performance for a budget desktop, but it’s still more powerful than the Intel NUC 9 Pro

Nevertheless, everything isn’t rosy. The Mac mini has limited gaming capabilities, and you’re better off buying Apple’s M1 MacBook if you can afford it.

Pros Cons
Seamless support for most software A few minor hiccups with compatibility and features
Seriously fast performance Fewer Thunderbolt 3 ports
More affordable than ever before No aftermarket upgrades

APPLE MAC MINI (M1): SPECS

CPU: Apple M1 (8-core, 8-Core GPU)

Memory: 8GB / 16GB

Storage: 256GB / 512GB / 1TB / 2TB

Dimensions: 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches

Weight: 2.6 pounds

Verdict

A review of Apple’s Mac mini with M1 aims to highlight what the company has always been good at releasing innovative products with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Despite its shortcomings, the Mac mini M1 comes close to being perfect. It’s shockingly good for a system that offers a price cut from previous versions while introducing new hardware and balancing Apple-centric software with Rosetta2-translated apps, and while there are a few issues, they’re few and far between.

Most users won’t hesitate to buy the Mac mini M1 because it’s Apple’s least expensive new Mac, and it delivers tremendous value. Professionals and those interested in now-missing features like eGPU support may want to look elsewhere. For those simply seeking a Mac desktop with a low budget, the Mac mini M1 is your best bet.