Apple Mac Mini (M1) First Impressions

Posted on January 4, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Mac and macOS with 50 Comments

The new M1-based Mac Mini arrives in a form factor that is identical to its predecessor but with fewer expansion ports and dramatically different internals.

I wrote about my plans to assess the new M1-based Mac Mini a few weeks ago. Here, I’ll provide some early impressions of the hardware itself, but I of course have bigger plans for reviewing this computer going forward. So we’ll discuss that a bit as well.

This Mac arrived a lot earlier than originally promised, which is typical of Apple. You may recall that the original estimate was for a January 14 delivery, but I got an update last week indicating that it would come a week earlier, on January 8 (this coming Thursday). This morning, I woke up to an email telling me that it was on the UPS truck and would be delivered today. That kind of news is always appreciated.

So. The new Mac Mini.

From a form factor perspective, there’s not much new about the M1-based Mac Mini: It utilizes the same enclosure as its Intel-based predecessors. I don’t like that this computer has no ports at all on the front. Here, Apple has chosen the clean lines of its design preferences over practicality, and that was—and still is—a mistake.

On the rear, you’ll find the first—and arguably the only—external visual differences between the M1-based Mac Mini and those earlier products. Both provide a power port, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 2.0 (video-out), two USB-A ports (with speeds up to 5 Gbps), and a 3.5-mm headphone jack. But where the Intel-based Mac Mini provides four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, the M1 version provides only two.

There is one important technical difference in those USB-C ports too. Those two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports support USB4 at up to 40 Gbps on the M1 Mac Mini, where the Intel versions do not. (The ports’ other capabilities— USB 3.1 Gen 2 up to 10 Gbps, plus DisplayPort, and Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, DVI, and VGA support via adapters—are the same between both versions.)

Compared to Intel’s wonderful NUC mini-PCs, the Mac Mini is bigger: It’s much wider and deeper, though less tall. Given how much smaller the M1-based board is inside the Mac Mini, I think we can expect a much smaller and redesigned Mac Mini in the near future. I have to think it could be about half as big. (Even the packaging seems really big, especially for an Apple product.)

As with all previous generation Mac Minis—dating back, some forget, to the original Power PC-based versions—the new M1-based unit doesn’t come with any extras: There’s a power cable in the box with the Mac and that’s it.

You’re expected to provide your own keyboard, mouse, and display, so I plan to be toggling back and forth with the hardware I currently use with my NUC. This includes a Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse (accessed via a USB-A dongle) and my HP Z27n G2 (1440p) display, plus whatever other peripherals I need for podcasts.

The bottom of the Mac Mini

And that will be the first big test, right? How well—and how automatically—does the M1 Mac Mini work with the most basic hardware that I rely on every day? After that, the next potential issue, of course, is the software that I use: Can the M1 Mac Mini effectively run the applications that I use? I expected good things here, given the mainstream nature of my basic needs, which amounts to Microsoft Office, Microsoft Edge, OneDrive sync, and some graphics package (I own Adobe Photoshop Elements on the Mac). I’ll get to that today and report back.

And then there’s performance, of course. It’s early yet, but I will say that I was immediately suspicious of the over-the-top excitement about the performance that the Apple-picked wave-one reviewers gushed about. I have used many, many Macs. So we’ll see what happens there.

Properly evaluating the Mac Mini effectively will require time, of course. But so far, everything points to Apple having done a better job of handling the key areas in which WOA stumbles—performance and compatibility—though both will vary by one’s workload requirements. I look forward to finding out for myself.

More soon.

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Comments (54)

54 responses to “Apple Mac Mini (M1) First Impressions”

  1. Avatar

    VancouverNinja

    HDMI 2.0 seems odd. Why would they not include HDMI 2.1?


    • Avatar

      wunderbar

      In reply to VancouverNinja:


      Probably the same reason it only includes 2 USB-C/thunderbolt ports. Likely a limitation of the chipset.

      • Avatar

        VancouverNinja

        In reply to wunderbar:

        That would make sense. It really limits the device by having only 2.0 though for any type of streaming - its not a simple difference either. HDMI 2.0 to 2.1 is a massive difference and renders it a lame duck for any streaming use.

        • Avatar

          vladimir

          In reply to VancouverNinja:


          that's not really true. If the bandwidth of the HDMI port is not enough, one can always use one of the two usb-c ports that support USB4 and thunderbolt 3. It's no lame duck by any means

          • Avatar

            VancouverNinja

            In reply to Vladimir:

            I do not believe that USB4 or Thunderbolt 3 supports any form of HDCP. Also my understanding is that USB supports only up to HDMI 1.4b at this time and it is limited to a refresh rate of 60hz. Clearly a major fail. All the efforts on USB4 for display compatibility center around DisplayPort and HDMI does not seem to be a main initiative.

            • Avatar

              vladimir

              In reply to VancouverNinja:


              I don't understand your point. Practically, to what kind of monitor would not be possible to connect the mac mini to the point that it would make it a "lame duck"?

              If you really want to use it as a streaming device to watch netflix (which is definitively not its purpose), you can use a 4k/60hz monitor with HDR, Dolby vision etc. For professional use, you can connect it to any pair of high-end monitors on the market. You can also connect it to any eGPU. Is there any all in one/laptop in existence that does more than the M1 mac mini?

              • Avatar

                VancouverNinja

                In reply to Vladimir:

                M1 mini is brand new on the market and while you seem to be in love with it, as many on this forum, its biggest drawback to me is MacOS. I don't get overly excited over a hardware refresh for boxes like this as Apple always falls behind with its hardware features in the PC category and you end up paying more for less, and are stuck with MacOS. I was simply curious why an expensive PC box shipped with an outdated HDMI port, it seems like such an Apple move to shave a few pennies of a premium PC box.

                • Avatar

                  vladimir

                  In reply to VancouverNinja:


                  I’m not in love with it at all. I don’t have an m1 Mac and I’m not planning to buy one anytime soon. I was just pointing out that it can connect to any monitor/screen at any resolution. Maybe it will not work with 8k but anything else is fine.

                  if this means that it’s a lame duck how do you define surface devices that don’t even have TB3?

                • Avatar

                  VancouverNinja

                  In reply to Vladimir:

                  I would have the same attitude towards a Surface device that comes out this year with an HDMI 2.0 port vs HDMI 2.1. It is a major change in the spec from 18gps / 60fps 4k / ARC to 40gps / 120fps at 4k and 60fps at 8k + Dynamic HDR and eARC. There is small difference from a surface device though and a pc box like the M1; they are sometimes used inside home theatre set ups or a windows pc box - they are perfect to use in that situation. As for TB3 (which is great progress for the tech) most of the tech behind it is nowhere near a deal breaker for users utilizing the port however the difference to users needing HDMI ports for the current gen of video it is a more complex situation.

            • Avatar

              behindmyscreen

              In reply to VancouverNinja:

              Huh? USB 4 supports DisplayPort 2 which in turn supports HDCP.

  2. Avatar

    will

    I would guess that the next Mac mini will be a little larger than the current Apple TV, just a little wider for the ports.


    I do agree with you that having SOME port on the front would be good. A USB-C port on the front would be a big help for just a wide range of quick use needs.

  3. Avatar

    prebengh

    It is amazing how many Apple-picked wave-one reviewers exist on Youtube. If you care to look at the various Youtube videos (and there are hundreds) you will not find many negative comments regarding performance, especially compared to other laptops.

    However when you picked the Mac Mini you will not discover many of the benefits of the M1 chip set:

    -high sustained performance independent of running on battery or mains

    -long battery life

    -silent operation (although that is also the case for the Mini)

  4. Avatar

    nbplopes

    In reply to lvthunder:


    Sure, use a MacBook Air M1 for that matter using the same workflows (we have) That is why I mentioned the x360 too


    Now, the Mini compared with what? The NUC connected to Mic using Skype? Using Chrome Apps? Seriously? I guess how many chrome tabs can be opened at the same time will be the decisive factor :)

  5. Avatar

    waethorn

    Given the apparent lack of cooling necessary for the M1 chip, it's a wonder why Apple didn't choose to make a smaller "Mac nano" desktop with passive cooling, say similar in size to some of the smaller-than-NUC Zotac PC's.

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      It may have to do with the Mini's use in render farms where it will be going all out all the time and would need active cooling. But yeah, a fanless Mini seems possible. Maybe they could have base units with passive cooling for M2 or whatever.
  6. Avatar

    waethorn

    I might go with the Mac desktop route after about a year of this MacBook Air 2020 Intel model. I'd want a new monitor but the LG True Tone-compatible monitors that Apple suggests for the Macs (like the Mac mini) are an ungodly price ($700CAD for a 24"!!). I might wait and see what kind of iMac's ship this year with whatever M-series processor they decide for it. A 27" is too big. I hope they update the lower-cost ~22" models into something thinner and lighter with their ARM processor. Getting one of those seems a bit more cost-effective than going the separate monitor route. I don't keep systems more than 3 years (usually less) so getting something with AppleCare for that period and trading it in or selling it before the warranty expires looks like a good option.

  7. Avatar

    waethorn

    In reply to SvenJ:

    The baseline Air has a disabled GPU core.

  8. Avatar

    jdawgnoonan

    We bought my mother-in-law an M1 Macbook Air for Christmas to replace her old notebook (a hand me down from me: a 2011 Macbook Air). I was also doubtful of the claims about the new chips until I spent time migrating her data, getting her applications, and setting up her profile. For the price of that machine its performance was simply amazing.

  9. Avatar

    suhailali

    The next iPhone Pro should have capability to be used as a mac mini.

  10. Avatar

    michael_johnston

    Apple may keep the form factor as many people have been rack mounting these for quit some time...



  11. Avatar

    mikegalos

    In reply to SvenJ:

    The reality is that it IS a desktop. That it's built using laptop components doesn't change its use case. Or, if you're going to pretend it's a laptop because of its components then you'd need to do things like include it's battery life and the quality of its keyboard and trackpad and screen.


  12. Avatar

    codymesh

    People should go look up videos on youtube of the x86 version Google Chrome on this thing. It was just as awful as it was on Windows.


    However, as is with everything Apple, third-party developers had their arms twisted so of course native Google Chrome was ready to go within days

  13. Avatar

    nbplopes

    In reply to lvthunder:


    I fully agree. I think MBAs can be compared high end laptops from DELL, Surface, HP, Intel MBPs ...


    How many chrome tabs, Skype, teams ... aren’t really workloads that reveals its capacities to its full extent. For those workloads it’s just snappier than my 2020 2.5k laptop all while not sweating a fan.

  14. Avatar

    spiderman2

    try it with an ultrawide monitor or 2,3 monitors :)

  15. Avatar

    waethorn

    In reply to sammyg:

    Does it support True Tone though? True Tone on MacBook screens is amazing. AFAIK only the TB/USB-C monitors supported it.

  16. Avatar

    waethorn

    In reply to sammyg:

    If I was using something for a game console, I'd get a TV with Dolby Vision + Atmos.

  17. Avatar

    itrimble

    @Paul I am curious if you will be able to test out the Windows virtualization capabilities. I know parallels is in their 2nd beta for Windows emulation support.

  18. Avatar

    michael_babiuk

    In reply to lvthunder: No, one cannot compare the M1 Mac Mini with ANY laptop - because it is NOT a laptop.
    I suggest we compare the M1 Mac Mini to a family of desktops that Paul has already compared it to in his article, that is, to "...Intel’s wonderful NUC mini-PCs..." and then let's see how those "wonderful NUC mini-PCs" stack up to the M1 Mac Mini. Grin
  19. Avatar

    markbyrn

    I have an M1 MacBook Pro and while it's definitely snappier, it's not "crazy-fast" as some of the Apple YouTube shills claim. I've been using the technical preview of Parallels to run Win 10 ARM and I have been impressed with performance at least in terms of the applications that run under Win 10 ARM.

  20. Avatar

    nbplopes

    It’s kind of weird your choice of the Mac Mini to review the M1 when clearly this first gen chip was targeted to laptops. The the most complete review matching our experience was done by Linus ...”Apple made a big mistake ...”.


    Looking foreword to read the take using your workflow.

    • Avatar

      crunchyfrog

      In reply to nbplopes: I've always viewed the Mac Mini as a screenless laptop anyway. One of the biggest advantages of the M1 in the Mini or a laptop is thermal management. This new CPU simply creates far less heat under load so it's perfect for these devices.


      • Avatar

        nbplopes

        In reply to crunchyfrog:


        Using the Mini it’s impossible to ascertain the performance / / battery life ratio. Battery life, just one of the things important on a laptop and that has been touted as one of the main benefits of adopting ARM. At least when reviewing devices such as the Surface X and HP Spectre x360.


        So I digress from such a point of view. I guess will never know :)


        Mac Mini is a desktop.

  21. Avatar

    ll2019

    I am curious for a full depth review, as i have been using intel base systems for a long time and be curious to buy one of these for my home. I will agree with your Apple vs MSFT WOA Comment, Apple definitely took there time to perfect both hardware & software, which MSFT cannot do themselves (even on the x86 side, they constantly fail at it).

  22. Avatar

    crunchyfrog

    I've always been a huge fan of the Mac Mini and recently decided to trade in my i5 Mini for the new M1 Mini thanks to a generous offer from Apple. So far, I'd say there's nothing radically better to report. The biggest difference for me is that while my i5 Mini made a convenient space heater when running video tasks, the new M1 is so quiet that I have to check to see it's still on.

    I am also running it through its paces but I have noticed that some of my apps that require emulation are noticeably slower to load and operate which is not what I expected after reading and watching the flood of reviews online.

    One app I'll point out is my video player of choice, VLC. It runs, however the launch time is very slow and initial performance is laggy at best. My i5 Mini never hesitated at all running this app.


    I have no doubt that as the OS gets updates and apps start moving to M1 support, these issues will slip away over time. Unlike Microsoft, Apple devs and users have no choice in the matter but to make the switch.

  23. Avatar

    DBSync

    Another key feature of the Thunderbolt ports is they support hubs. Not the ones that you are used to, but ones that give you more thunderbolt ports.

    • Avatar

      bkkcanuck

      In reply to DBSync:

      Actually, Apple TB3 (before the Mac Mini) will support hubs.... Apple has always had a more complete and higher standard of implementation of TB3 than your average Windows implementation (I think you will find Apple already supported all of the TB4 standards already - except for the security one that relies on Intel CPU as part of the standard). Youtube - Lon.tv - Title: "OWC Thunderbolt Hub Full Review - 3 Thunderbolt Ports Plus Power Delivery!" (compatible with any Mac with TB3, while only compatible with PCs with TB4).

      • Avatar

        michael_babiuk

        In reply to bkkcanuck: Nice clarification. Even my 2015 12" MacBook (retina) laptop - Apple's first computer to incorporate USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 ports (but not Thunderbolt 3 ports) supporting a max of 5 Gbps bandwidth. I used an OWC USB-C hub with that laptop.
        However, Thunderbolt 3/USB-4 ports support hubs providing much greater bandwidth - 40 Gbps - as found on other Apple Laptops.


  24. Avatar

    davidl

    I'm curious if you could power the Mac Mini via the USB-C.


    I have a 34" wide screen Dell U3419W that lets me connect to my monitor, keyboard, mouse, Logitech Brio via a single USB-C connection. Works great with a laptop via USB-C.


    I'd consider getting the Mac Mini if I could use it via a single USB-C...if not, I'd get a (more expensive) MacBook Air.

  25. Avatar

    sammyg

    I got my mini on Dec 22, 16gig, 1TB SSD. It has been flawless. I came from a 2017 Mac Pro trash can (both work provided) that had a 8 core XEON, 32 gigs of RAM and a 500gig SSD.


    I do not have an extreme workload but I do use it every day. From Microsoft I use Office 365 M1 version, Teams & OneDrive (rosetta) the Edge Canary M1 version, and RDP (rosetta). I also use OmniGraffle Pro M1 version, Affinity Photo M1 version, Secure CRT (rosetta), SnagIT (rosetta) and my Global Protect VPN software (rosetta).


    The Mac Pro was not slow at all. The Mini is not slower in any way and with some software it is noticeably faster, like Affinity and OmniGraffle Pro, both are faster to load and open files. I also think some of the Apple apps are faster as well, notes (I have hundreds) Photos app (thousands of photos) and Safari is fast, the fastest version I have ever used.


    The mini has been silent and never warm. Any Intel Mac's I have had would really crank up the CPU, fan and heat, when I did the initial sync of photos from the cloud down to the Mac (icloud). I have over 100gig that comes down and then the local photos app goes to work on it, like any photo app does on a computer.


    I was worried about my VPN app not working since that is at the network stack and not being a native app. It works no different than it did before. I have the Logitech Brio Ultra HD and it just worked when I plugged it in. I print to one printer in my house, some brother MFC, again it just worked.


    I am sold and when they come out with a 16inch Macbook/M2 I will pre-order one. I can't wait to see what the M1X, M2, M3 bring.

  26. Avatar

    millerkl61

    Paul,


    I just received my new M1 Mac Mini, and have a setup question. Do you recommend tying my Apple ID to the Mac Mini during initial setup, or skipping that step and doing it later? With Windows I skip tying a PC to my Microsoft account during initial setup, and do it later.


    Thanks.

  27. Avatar

    sscywong

    I'm waiting for the 2nd gen Mini (or nano or whatever it will call) with the size of the Apple TV

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