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Mac mini (M1, 2020) Review

Mac mini (M1, 2020) Review

Mac mini (M1, 2020) performs well even in heavy content creation apps, marks the beginning of new Era.

HIGHLIGHTS
  • Apple is slowing transitioning its Macs over to custom in-house SoCs
  • The Mac mini (M1, 2020) performs well even in heavy content creation apps
  • You’ll need to buy your own monitor, keyboard and mouse
Mac mini (M1, 2020) Review

The new Mac Mini (M1, 2020) 

The new Mac mini is the first Apple desktop to get a new M-series processor, which makes sense since it’s the most affordable, versatile, and general-purpose model in the lineup. While Apple claims massive performance improvements compared to Intel-based models, this PC is at the bottom of the stack and isn’t likely to be used for heavy work where software and hardware compatibility are mission-critical. It also has a new lower starting price, which means it’s a little easier for people to get their hands on one for testing and experimentation.

Mac mini (M1, 2020) price and variants

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the new M1-based Mac mini is that it starts at $100 less than the previous Intel-based version. In India, the base variant with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD costs Rs. 64,900 while doubling the storage to 512GB will raise the price to Rs. 84,900. It’s important to note that both RAM and storage are neither expandable nor replaceable so you have to consider how your usage will evolve over time.

Previous-gen Intel-based options remain available, but only as high-end configurations starting at Rs. 1,04,900 with a 3GHz 8th Gen Intel Core i5 CPU. This can be configured with up to a Core i7 CPU, 64GB of RAM and 2TB of storage, plus optional 10Gbit Ethernet. This is good news for people who use Mac minis as servers or in production environments.

mac mini hand ndtv mac

The M1-based 2020 Mac mini

Mac mini (M1, 2020) design

It’s not immediately obvious how to tell the new M1-based Mac mini apart from its predecessors. The most obvious clue is a return to silver aluminium after one generation of Space Grey bodies. If you look at the rear, you’ll also find only two Thunderbolt Type-C ports instead of the usual four.

The body is milled from a single block of metal. It’s just under 20cm square and 3.6cm tall, weighing 1.2kg. It can easily be tucked away in a corner, though it looks good enough and is unobtrusive enough that most people will want it on their tables. A VESA mount would have allowed this box to be hooked onto the back of most desktop monitors, but you’ll have to buy a third-party bracket if you want to do that.

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There’s also a fairly large vent on the rear. The Mac mini (M1, 2020) is actively cooled with a fan, unlike its sibling the new MacBook Air (M1, 2020) (Review). This makes sense for a desktop PC and also means that sustained performance over long periods should not be a problem.

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The Apple M1 SoC integrates CPU and GPU cores, AI logic, security, connectivity, and system RAM

Mac m (M1, 2020) specifications

Apple, as usual the glaring exception to all trends and rules, used two entirely different architectures (Motorola 68000 and PowerPC) until market forces and faltering suppliers forced it to bend and move over to Intel CPUs in 2006. The transition wasn’t too rough, since Apple develops and controls its own operating system as well as plenty of popular software applications. A tool called Rosetta allowed older software to be “translated” on the fly, and people could for the first time run Windows easily and officially on Mac hardware without sluggish emulation. All in all, it was a good move at the time – but Apple does like to do things its own way.

The new Apple M1 processor is, despite its rather unassuming name, a massive departure from Intel’s architecture. Apple claims the new Mac mini delivers up to 3X the CPU performance and 6X faster graphics than the previous generation, while adding its own Neural Engine subsystem for up to 15X faster machine learning. In laptops such as the new MacBook Air, it also delivers superior battery life.

The M1 includes four high-performance and four energy-efficient CPU cores, an integrated 16-core GPU, storage and IO controllers, security, and an image signal processor. Most interestingly, Apple has integrated DRAM right onto the SoC package giving all the various logic blocks equal access, which should boost speed and reduce latency.

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The Mac mini  has only two Thunderbolt/USB4 ports, whereas the Intel-based model has four

You get Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5, but no NFC or Ultra Wideband support, which Apple has built into all its latest laptops and portables for things like direction-aware AirDrop file transfers. There’s a built-in speaker which works for all audio, not just system-level beeps. One big limitation compared to the Intel-based Mac mini is that there are only two Type-C ports on the rear, rather than four. These support the Thunderbolt/ USB4 standards for up to 40Gbps data transfers.

Mac mini (M1) software and performance

I set up the new Mac mini with a 4K Asus PB287Q monitor and a basic PC keyboard and mouse. This meant no keyboard shortcuts for things like adjusting the volume (without tweaking settings or downloading extra apps). The setup process was simple enough. You can choose whether or not to sign in with an Apple account, but you’ll have to sign in later if you want to use any Apple service or grab anything from the Mac App Store.

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Speaking of apps, there are quite a lot of them including GarageBand, iMovie, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Apple Music, Apple TV, Time Machine, Books, Maps, Mail, and of course Safari, to name a few. All of them loaded very quickly. I had no trouble creating a project with multiple tracks and effects in GarageBand.

You’ll find such apps under a separate tab in the Mac App Store, and many have faint text below their names letting you know that they are “Not verified for macOS” – so your mileage will vary, but things should improve over time.

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A very faint incompatibility disclaimer is displayed on some App Store search results

 

Of course there’s also plenty of legacy software that isn’t yet (or might never be) rewritten for Apple Silicon, and for those, there’s Rosetta 2.

Windows on the Mac mini M1

One huge casualty of the move from x86 to ARM architecture is the fact that you can’t just install Windows 10 on M1-based Macs – at least not yet. Microsoft does develop Windows for ARM-based devices such as its own Surface Pro X so it shouldn’t be so tough to make it happen. If the two companies decide to keep working together as they have so far, we could see official support somewhere down the line.

Apple Mac mini
Price:
1,152.30 USD (as reviewed)


Pros

  • Very good performance
  • Backward software compatibility
  • Compact and quiet
  • Built-in power supply
  • Lower starting price

Cons

  • RAM and storage not upgradeable
  • Limited, expensive configuration options
  • Only two Thunderbolt/USB4 ports

Ratings (out of 5)
Design: 4
Performance: 4.5
Software: 4
Value for Money: 4.5
Overall: 4.5

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