Mac mini and Apple Silicon M1 review: not so crazy after all | GeekComparison

Apple is crazy, right? The Mac has just had its best year of sales ever, and Cupertino is entering the platform with a shock it hasn’t had in nearly 15 years – at a time when the Mac not have such a good year. Apple begins replacing industry-standard Intel chips with its own custom-designed silicon.

In a way, we’re not just reviewing the new Mac mini – a Mac mini is always a Mac mini, right? We’re reviewing an ARM-based Mac for the first time. And this isn’t exactly the same story as all the other ARM machines we’ve looked at before, like Windows 10 on ARM – a respectable option with some serious trade-offs.

Sure, longer battery life and fast wake up from sleep mode are already available on other ARM computers. But as you may have seen in our hands-on earlier this week, what we’re seeing here is also a performance leap – and as you’ll also see in this review, a remarkable success in making this new architecture compatible with a large library of what could now suddenly be called outdated Mac software.

Not everything is perfect; we will talk about iOS apps on Mac and also some other issues. But if this Mac mini proves anything, it’s that Apple wasn’t crazy. The M1 makes Apple’s strategy seem soberingly sound.

Specifications

Apple Mac Mini (2020) with Apple M1 Chip product image

Apple Mac Mini (2020) with Apple M1 chip

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales made through links in this post through affiliate programs.)

The big news in terms of specs is, of course, the M1 system-on-a-chip. The M1 is an 8-core CPU with four performance and four efficiency cores, as well as an 8-core GPU and a 16-core Neural Engine for on-device machine learning tasks.

Based on an ARM instruction set, this is the first Apple-designed CPU and GPU for the Mac. For more than a decade, Apple’s laptops have featured Intel CPUs and Intel, Nvidia, or AMD graphics. The transition away from that status quo starts here. There’s a lot more to talk about, of course, but let’s get the other specs out of the way first.

By default, the Mac mini comes with 8 GB of RAM, but that can be upgraded to 16 GB. That’s well below the 64GB limit in the Intel Mac mini, but for now, that Intel Mac mini still exists in Apple’s lineup.

Currently, Apple has only replaced its very low-end machines with Apple Silicon variants. It looks like we’ll be waiting a while before we get more powerful versions with more RAM and more ports (the M1 Mac mini and 13-inch MacBook Pro only have two Thunderbolt ports each instead of four) – which is a very real disappointment for many people.

Similarly, solid state storage starts at 256 GB, but you can go up to 512 GB or even 1 TB or 2 TB. Doubling the RAM adds $200 to the purchase price, while going up to 2TB of storage from the base 256GB configuration more than doubles the cost of the device. That storage bump is the main reason why the purchase price of our review unit is so much higher than the base.

Specifications at a glance: 2020 Mac mini
Operating system macOS Big Sur 11.0.1
Processor Apple M1
RAM 16GB
GPU Apple M1
HDD 2TB SSD
Networking Wi-Fi 6; Bluetooth 5.0
ports 2x Thunderbolt 3, 2x USB-A, 3.5mm Headphones, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet
Guarantee 1 year or 3 years with AppleCare+
Price as rated $1,699

The Mac mini has a built-in speaker – which is perhaps a little surprising for a computer like this – but it doesn’t have a built-in microphone. The speaker is frankly bad; it sounds like an old MacBook Air speaker with the lid closed. There is a 3.5mm headphone jack though. Other ports include two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4.0, two USB-A, Ethernet, and HDMI.

In terms of wireless, you get Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0.

The box doesn’t contain much, just a power cord and the computer itself. You will of course have to buy a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a microphone and headphones separately. Again, Apple’s adage that costs balloon when you add essentials applies here as always.

As the name suggests, the Mac mini has a very small footprint. It measures 1.4 x 7.7 x 7.7 inches (3.6 x 19.7 x 19.7 centimeters) and weighs 2.6 pounds (1.2 kilograms).

It comes in two standard configurations. The first starts at $699 and includes 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. The second raises the starting price to $899 and simply increases the storage to 512 GB.

The base configuration here is $100 less than the previous Mac mini, which is nice to see. Again, Apple still sells an Intel-based Mac mini alongside this one, with a 6-core 3.0GHz Intel Core i5, Intel UHD 630 graphics, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of solid-state storage. However, nothing has changed on the Intel version of the device this year, so we won’t go into that.

Design

If you liked how the last Mac mini looked, you’ll like this one too: nothing is changed. For that reason, we won’t spend too much time on the aesthetics in this review. As before, the Mac mini prioritizes a very low profile. It’s essentially a screenless laptop in a 7.7 x 7.7-inch square.

It looks nice but modest. It has that classic Mac silver color, while its predecessor was gray. The ports are all on the back, so it should work fine with most cable management solutions.

A few frustrating limitations

Before we get into the good news – basically everything related to M1 performance and software support – let’s take a look at some of the really frustrating choices Apple has made regarding ports and peripherals.

As mentioned above, the RAM and storage configurations don’t stretch as far as the Intel Mac minis, and neither do ports. Two Thunderbolt ports is honestly just okay, although there are also two USB-A ports on top. At least it’s not the new M1 MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro, both of which are limited to two Thunderbolt 3 ports total.

The Mac mini can only drive two displays at a time, and one of them must be via HDMI. Since that HDMI port is HDMI 2.0, it doesn’t have the throughput to handle 4K at 120 Hz or 8K at 60 Hz. There are not many such monitors now, but there will be more and more in the coming years. Overall, we want our machines to stand the test of time.

Neither the Mac mini nor any of its M1 brethren support external GPUs. That’s pretty disappointing, and it calls into question Apple’s push for eGPUs over the past few years.

It wasn’t that long ago that Apple stated that eGPUs were the future of Mac graphics performance. Now it’s not clear they’ll be part of the Mac experience at all.

The ports on the back of the Mac mini.
Enlarge / The ports on the back of the Mac mini.

Samuel Axon

In addition, some people have used the Mac mini as a file server. Many of them will probably want to stick with Intel for now, as the M1 Mac mini only has a gigabit Ethernet port, while the Intel Mac mini can be configured to have a 10Gb port.

Apple sees this first batch of Apple Silicon devices as the bottom end of its range. So we’re now in a very strange situation where if you want cutting-edge performance, you have to go for low-end Mac configuration options. If you want lots of ports and RAM, you should stick with Intel for now. That will most likely change with the introduction of more expensive Macs with a faster, hypothetical M1X chip or something similar, but we have no idea when that will happen. We only know that eventually it will happen.

Apple M1

With that out of the way, it’s time for the good stuff.

As mentioned above, the Mac mini (and its new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro siblings) has Apple’s M1 system-on-a-chip, with an 8-core GPU, a CPU with four performance and four efficiency cores, a 16-core Neural Processing Unit (NPU) called the Neural Engine, and a bunch of other stuff.

Built on the ARM Instruction Set Architecture (ARM ISA), the M1 features 16 billion transistors and was manufactured in a 5nm process. According to Apple, each performance core in the M1 qualifies as the world’s fastest CPU core yet, while the efficiency cores match the performance of some recent Intel Macs.

We read that each of the four performance cores is clocked at 3.2GHz, and while the iPhone and iPad’s A14 chip has 8MB of L2 cache, the M1’s performance cores get 12MB. Unlike some previous chip designs, all performance and efficiency cores can be used simultaneously, although there are signs that things are getting a bit more complicated when it comes to the cache.

Apple claims the M1 achieves its strong performance in part due to its unified memory architecture (UMA), which allows the CPU and GPU to easily access relevant data without having to slow things down by copying it.

We’ll talk about specific performance tests and results shortly, but spoiler alert: the M1 is quite fast. That’s especially true for graphics compared to Intel’s graphics solutions (which don’t seem worthy of even being listed in the same category as what the M1 offers). These improvements are thanks to all of the above, plus techniques such as tile-based deferred rendering and Apple’s proprietary Metal graphics API, which is designed to take advantage of this architecture.

This has received less attention, but the M1 includes a lot of other stuff besides the elephants-in-the-dice that are the CPU, GPU, and NPU. It has the Secure Enclave, Apple’s encrypted tool for handling sensitive data on the device. It has an image signal processor, which isn’t very relevant on the camera-less Mac mini, but it reportedly improves the FaceTime camera quality on the laptops. The M1 also includes a storage controller and hardware for controlling encryption, among other things.

In 2017, Apple introduced the T2 chip on the iMac Pro, and it went on to most other Macs for years to come. The T2 incorporated security features and various other things like some of what we’ve mentioned above, and we speculated when it was first introduced that it could be a precursor to Apple’s eventual Mac SoC plans.

As it turns out, we (and everyone else who picked up on that fairly obvious clue) were right. As such, the new M1 Macs do not have T2 chips. It’s all on the M1 now.

Of course, a change in architecture suggests all sorts of compatibility issues with older software, to say the least. The M1 cannot run native apps made for Intel-based Macs. But surprisingly, that doesn’t really matter in most cases. Many buyers of the M1 Macs won’t even realize that anything has changed under the hood.

To examine that point, let’s go through the M1’s software is doing run.

Leave a Comment