Apple Mac Mini (M1): Winding Down

Posted on January 9, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Apple, Hardware, Mac and macOS, Mobile, Windows 10 with 51 Comments

I always keep at least one modern Mac on hand for testing purposes. But it’s clear that the M1-based Mac Mini should not be that Mac. So I’m going to return it and pick up a MacBook Air (M1) or MacBook Pro (M1).

I’m not sure which I’ll be getting yet, but I’ve already started the return process on the Mac Mini and will be getting the purchase price back in the form of an Apple gift card. So I can pull the trigger on a portable M1 Mac whenever that happens.

For now, however, I’d like to wind down the discussion about the M1-based Mac Mini.

You may recall in my quick look at hardware and software compatibility that I mentioned that the set of applications that I rely each day on mostly works well on the M1-based Mac Mini, thanks to a mix of those that have been updated for Apple Silicon and Rosetta 2-based translation for those that have not. The one major exception, I noted, was OneDrive: This app installed and “ran,” but anytime I tried to access settings (for example, to enable Files on Demand), it would “beach ball”—how Mac apps hang—and become unresponsive.

Well, that situation did remedy itself, but it took well over 36 hours. I kept checking back, kept observing the spinning (or stuck) rainbow-hued beach ball, and it kept hanging. Until well into day two, when it suddenly just started working. Whatever, it works, and it works normally now. So that’s good news.

I can’t recall if I wrote about this or just discussed this on First Ring Daily at some point last week, but one of the minor frustrations of my Mac Mini set up was self-inflicted: In using any Mac with a Windows keyboard, there are some key mix-ups to overcome. The worst involve the Ctrl, Windows, and Alt keys on my keyboard, which map awkwardly to Ctrl, Command, and Option/Alt on the Mac because some of the keys are in different positions on the keyboard.

So I eventually ditched the Windows keyboard and mouse set that I use with my PC and connected an Apple keyboard and Microsoft mouse, both Bluetooth-based. I’m not a big fan of Apple’s non-ergonomic keyboards, but it was still the right choice (unless I’d be moving exclusively to the Mac for some reason, which I wouldn’t be).

I also wrote about my early experiences using a technical preview of Parallels Desktop that’s designed for M1-based Macs and that it can, for now at least, only run ARM-based virtual machines (VMs). So I tested an Insider Preview version of Windows 10 on ARM (WOA) per Parallels’ instructions. That also worked quite well, given the limitations of WOA. But I have two quick and related follow-ups.

First, I upgraded the VM to the latest Insider Preview build from early December so that I could test x64 app emulation. (And yes, that means that an M1-based Mac is running WOA virtually which is, in turn, emulating yet another app architecture.) This also appeared to work, but Microsoft provides optimization packages for three specific WOA-based PCs, so I couldn’t (or at least didn’t) install those.

Worse, and this is my second observation, I could never get the Microsoft Store app to successfully launch, meaning that I couldn’t install any x64 apps, like Affinity Photo, from the Store. Looking into this, I’ve found—and a few readers have pointed out—that the Store app is an ARM32 executable, and Parallels on M1 can only run 64-bit (ARM64) ARM executables. (And yes, there are PowerShell-based solutions for getting those apps installed. Life’s too short to worry about that kind of thing.)

Yes, I did test x64 app compatibility in WOA under Parallels, if briefly: I installed the 64-bit (x64) version of Chrome for Windows, and it appears to work normally.

And I should note, too, that Store wasn’t the UWP only app that wouldn’t run: Many/most of the apps that come bundled with Windows 10 wouldn’t run either. If Microsoft ever decides it wants to specifically support WOA on M1-based Macs, this will need to change. (Or, perhaps Parallels will figure out how to use “normal” (x64) versions of Windows 10, and then those apps will run virtually.

Whatever happens, using an Insider Preview version of WOA is not sustainable. This isn’t something Parallels (or Microsoft) can officially support, and some change—either the formal availability of WOA for purchase or x64 VM support—is needed.

And, really, my emphasis on Parallels and Windows virtualization is just that, my emphasis. For the vast majority of customers who adopt an M1-based Mac, this isn’t not going to be a concern. Most people will simply set it up, install the native, translated, and web apps that they always use, and just get to work. That this is possible, for most people, so early in the game is what makes Apple’s work on the M1 architecture so impressive. And WOA, by comparison, doubly depressing.

I’m curious to see if M1 inspires Microsoft and/or Qualcomm to look at backward compatibility a bit differently. WOA currently runs x86—and soon x64—apps using an emulation environment that’s based on the “Windows on Windows” compatibility layer that dates back to Windows NT. Perhaps the translation approach used by Apple is superior for this kind of thing and might help Microsoft move its customer base to this new architecture more easily.

We’ll see. In the meantime, Apple has again shown us all how to manage an architecture transition properly, and without any drama. And while an M1-based Mac is still just a Mac, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? WOA, after all, is less than real Windows. For this kind of thing to work properly, it needs to be boring. It needs to not impact regular users. And that, folks, is an impressive achievement.

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Comments (56)

56 responses to “Apple Mac Mini (M1): Winding Down”

  1. brzilian

    Hi Paul - long time fan here (been listening to Windows Weekly since 2007).


    On the keyboard topic, the first thing I do with any new Mac or fresh MacOS install is go into System Preferences->Keyboard->Modifier Keys if not on a MacBook or using a Windows keyboard layout.


    I swap assignments for Command and Option keys so placement matches what you get on a Mac keyboard (Command immediately to the left of spacebar). I do this because as a 13+ year Mac user, I rely on muscle memory rather than looking at keys on the keyboard. Works well for me.


  2. Piras

    Paul, it is not stated clearly as to why a change to a pro or an air laptop will change your experience.

    • MikeCerm

      In reply to Piras:

      I can't say what Paul's reasons are here (he really doesn't say anything critical about the Mini that wouldn't apply to any other Mac), but I can give you a couple reasons. For me, the trackpad is an essential part of the Mac experience. There are enough differences in the keyboard layout that using a PC keyboard with a Mac is a little weird. If you buy a Magic Trackpad and an official Apple keyboard to go with your Mac Mini, this adds almost $300 to the price of the Mini. If you just buy one of the MacBooks, you're getting those things, plus a really nice screen, in a laptop form factor with performance and battery life that you really can't get with a Windows laptop, and certainly not one that starts at $1000. The Mac Mini is a pretty nice NUC alternative, but the performance doesn't really blow away other desktop PCs, and the lack of expandablity is a big downside. It doesn't give you the same unique advantages that a Mac laptop does. And if you're the kind of person that doesn't really care for Mac OS, then there's really no point. You can get a desktop PC that rivals the Mac Mini. You can't get a Windows laptop that matches the efficiency of the M1 CPU and with a trackpad nearly as good.

    • Paul Thurrott

      You don't understand why a portable PC would be different from a desktop PC? Really.
      • MikeCerm

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        I think it was fair question. When evaluating the Mac Mini, it seemed that your main issues had to do with OneDrive compatibilty and how Parallels is not really usable in its current state. Those are not problems that are going to be solved by getting a MacBook. Perhaps you were thinking, "I thought I could replace my main desktop with the Mini, but it's not going to work for me. I'm going back to my old NUC, and I'll get a MacBook for testing purposes instead," but you didn't say that, so it's fair to ask.

        • Paul Thurrott

          There's no combination of factors that would get me to switch to a Mac. I really don't like macOS. But that doesn't stop me from keeping my eye on this platform---I've own more Macs and Apple devices than most Apple fans---and evaluating it fairly. My concerns with this product were twofold: Whether the performance and compatibility met the claims (mostly yes) and what the state of M1 virtualization looks like. Not whether I could move to this product full-time.
  3. jimchamplin

    I just installed pop!_OS Linux on a Late 2010 quad-i7 Mac mini. It runs faster than macOS and blaahhhhhhhhhhh


    elementaryOS delivers a macOS-style whole desktop,complete with high-quality applications.


    Desktops like Gnome 3.3x on Ubuntu and pop!_OS 20.04 run on a heavy desktop distro with up-to-date packages. There's a very real possibility that ARM-64 packages come up fast and quick behind x64 stuff... shit it happens! DEBATE!!!

  4. wright_is

    You say that it is clear tha the mini isn't the right Mac for you, but you don't actually explain why. What factor finally tipped it for you?

    Also, you said: The worst involve the Ctrl, Windows, and Alt keys on my keyboard, which map awkwardly to Ctrl, Command, and Option/Alt

    Why is that a problem? On my Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard, they are in the "normal" positions and they are more-or-less in the same position on a Mac keyboard, at least in Germany - Ctrl, Windows/Command, Alt and Ctrl, Alt, Command. Given you are used to typing on the Windows keyboard, I would have thought it would have made more sense to keep the Windows layout for the short(er) periods of time you are using the Mac?

    It is also possible to remap the keys in the settings, as far as I can remember - I used to use a Microsoft Natural keyboard with my old iMac.

  5. CRoebuck

    Paul,

    Thanks for this. I suspected (sadly) that WOA running under Parallels on M1 wouldn't be anywhere near "production-ready" but as somebody who uses Parallels daily, I still got excited at the possibility. After all, M1 really does promise a lot of benefits right now not to mention where it's headed on more powerful machines like a future 16" MacBook Pro. What was surprising is that it sounds from your review that the Parallels side of the experiment in general, worked. For native Apps to not launch on WOA surely that's a WOA problem? Either way looks like I'm stuck using Parallels on Intel Macs for now with all the heat and noise that brings with it.

    • wright_is

      In reply to CRoebuck:

      If you read closely, the apps that aren't running are 32-bit ARM, which is specifically not supported by macOS, only 64-bit is allowed. As Parallels is trying to run 32-bit code, it isn't really a surprise that it doesn't work.

      Parallels is a virtual environment, it doesn't translate the code in the VM, it allows it to run in a sandboxed environment on the macOS host.

      That requires the host OS and the underlying hardware to support the execution of a virtual environment and that the client OS is compatible with the hardware environment. In this case, it is trying to execute 32-bit code on a system that specifically rejects that.

  6. wright_is

    In reply to sammyg:

    For a start, it is slowing the Mac down by having to deal with all the exceptions and writing those to the error log.

    It is something that it shouldn't be doing. Whether it is hindering the user is irrelevant, there is a problem with the kernel in its current state.

  7. nbplopes

    I always thought for your usage, getting a Mac desktop made no sense apart from the cost savings compared to a MacBook Air. A MacBook Air I believe it would suit you needs better as you can always satisfy your curiosity in the couch. Fundamentally you seam to use it out of curiosity compared to your preferred environment. just to see how it compares and write your impressions even though the practice is little.


    The truth is that a Mac and MacOS is fundamentally an alternative to Windows for people that aren’t happy with what the later delivers. This is not your case at all.


    Either one goes one way or the other there is always a trade off. It really depends on what people value.


    Fundamentally Apple solutions compared with Wintel and WinMD gave me the uncompromised stability and innovation. Meaning one does not compromise the other as much as the competition. It does compromise in other areas, that for me are less valuable at this moment in time. But I keep an eye on those has some are becoming worrying.

    • solomonrex

      In reply to nbplopes:

      A Mac Mini set up for remote access would make a ton of sense, but also he reviews tech for a living, including the hardware, so returning things is optimal anyway.


      I think lots of people at this level - reading reviews or writing them - can utilize multiple OSs quite readily, which is common in the mobile era. The only difference is that Macs never got the market share that IOS devices have had. MS has done well to integrate Linux well, to appeal to people like me that otherwise choose MacOS to work more easily with open source software on the unix command line.

  8. beholderseye

    For god sake, why in hell do people purchase apple computers and insist on using micro$oft apps???? Most stupid thing I continue to see....

  9. smoothbond

    Like others have mentioned you don’t actually touch on why you’re returning the Mac mini for the Air/Pro.

  10. nbplopes

    In reply to Bob_Shutts:


    It is in several countries. Usually at the expense of the reseller.

  11. paradyne

    WoA does do translation. It just does it as you run the app instead of at install time (and does cache it so it only translates the first time you use each part of the code). Hopefully they are working on improving its performance as well as adding the x64 support.

  12. whiplash55

    Seems very impressive for so early on in the transition to ARM Macs. As I slowly change from Windows to Apple for the majority of my computing needs this is encouraging. Microsoft should be able to do better, and if they design their own chip they will do better, but for now Apple really has embarrassed them. As for One Drive I never found it to be great on Macs, so I'm not surprised it doesn't work great. Great review, hopefully Apple will release a new iMac with Apple Silicon later this year so I can replace my old Windows desktop that finally went tits up last month.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Hours I could understand. Over a day and a half to sync is ... broken. Granted, it's x64 code and involves some kind of shell extension, so I'm sure a native M1 version will fix things.
  13. linear2202

    I don't get it. Why are you returning this? Because of Parallels and not being able to run Windows? Is it the keyboard/mouse thing? Why not get at least an Intel Mac if you are returning this?

    • jchampeau

      In reply to linear2202:

      He talked about it on one of the podcasts. He said he needs it to be portable so he can, as he said, do things like take it with him around the house and use it while doing other things.

    • wright_is

      In reply to linear2202:

      If he is getting an M1 based MacBook Air or Pro instead, I'm assuming it is the lack of portability that is the problem.

    • retcable

      In reply to linear2202:

      The best I can decipher, since Paul did not really say why he is abandoning the project, is that the whole purpose of the enterprise was to install Windows via Parallels onto the M1 Mac, and for a variety of reasons that (to me) could be seen coming a mile away, it did not work, so therefore the M1 Mac is not for him. I don't think the failure bears badly on the Mac or the M1, it's just that Windows via Parallels on an M1 does not work properly,.....yet......at least within the rather exotic use-case that Paul is trying to set up. Given time for both Microsoft and Parallels to work on and optimize their software for the platform, it might be OK in the future, but not yet.

  14. richardbottiglieri

    I was torn between the M1 Air and the M1 Pro, but I sprung for the Pro and the 16 GB RAM. I could take or leave the touch bar, but two things pushed me to the M1 Pro: the screen brightness (25% more than the Air) and the fact that the CPU isn't throttled back as much on the Pro since that model has a fan. It just provides some more flexibility, especially if you intend to run a virtualized OS down the road on the machine.

  15. davehelps

    It's a long time since I've had a mac, but I used to use a Mac Mini with a Micrsofoft Comfort Keyboard.


    IIRC, if you install IntelliType, you can re-map CTRL, ALT and WIN to work in a sane manner.

  16. winner

    Paul, did you always intend to test the Mini and then send it back, or was there some discovery that caused you to change your mind and not keep it?

  17. spacecamel

    Consider using Costco when you buy your next Mac as they give you a two year warranty with the purchase instead of the typical 90 days.

  18. ll2019

    Interesting feedback on the M1 Mac mini, I am stuck on whether to get the m1 or the intel version (I am leaning on Intel since I could have potential to install Linux when Mac OS becomes too much to deal with).

  19. mattbg

    Thanks for this series on the M1 Mac - very interesting.

  20. reformedctrlz

    I think the biggest takeaway here is just how much benefit Apple gets from making their own processors. It’s clear they’ve had this future in mind for some time and have been able to use iOS as a test bed getting everything ready before moving over MacOS. Combined with the fact that Microsoft could never go fully ARM, where Apple can move 100% of their internal development towards getting Mac on ARM up and running.


    It also shows how how Microsoft has waffled on their consumer offering and don’t have a unified direction - while Apple, can put 100% of their development team into getting MacOS ready to transition over. I think should motivate Microsoft into putting more devs into the WOA team, come up with a better consumer strategy (be it 10X or otherwise), and put some pressure on Qualcomm to make better desktop oriented chipsets.

  21. prebengh

    Paul, did you at any time during your testing hear fan noise?

    How is that compared to the Intel NUCs you have tested? Or are they fanless?

    What is your impression of the general speed in day to day work, opening applications, files, web pages?


  22. fishnet37222

    I have a Logitech keyboard that has keys labeled "opt/start" and "cmd/alt" so it can be used with both Macs and PCs without having to remember which key is which.

  23. RossNWirth

    it’s clear that the M1-based Mac Mini should not be that Mac.”


    Why/how is that clear?


    The issues you outline aren’t specific to the Mac mini, but Parallels/Windows emulation on M1, and thus consistent regardless of device running that chipset.

    • Chris_Kez

      In reply to RossNWirth:

      He would prefer to have a laptop form factor. Blink and you’ll miss it, but he writes “So I can pull the trigger on a portable M1 Mac whenever that happens.” (emphasis mine)

      Paul discussed this on Windows Weekly and First Ring Daily so I read this article already knowing why it’s was going back, but I can see how there might be some confusion.

      • BigM72

        In reply to Chris_Kez:

        But it begs the question why get the Mac Mini at all then?


        He would have known desire for a portable Mac even before buying the Mini?

        • Paul Thurrott

          I'm right here guys. I already described why I bought the Mac Mini. I will let you find that for the full reasoning, but it boiled down to cost. What I realized after getting this was that the inconvenience of being tethered to a desk when this would be my only Mac outweighed the cost. But again. Feel free to look it up.
  24. harrisonjr98

    Before I start, I must say your M1 coverage has been excellent and I loved seeing your conclusions about your time evaluating Apple Silicon!


    I've been enjoying my M1 Mac since it's launch, outside of one particular issue that Apple doesn't seem to have acknowledged yet. As someone as well versed and articulate as yourself, I was hoping you could either shed some light on why I'm dead wrong about it being a problem or you haven't heard about it yet and might find it interesting.


    As you may or may not be aware, there's currently an issue that appears to affect all M1 Macs on all versions of Big Sur that Apple hasn't acknowledged yet. The issue can be recreated as follows - open Console on your M1-based Mac. Select "start streaming" and then the tab "errors and faults" to weed out the normal activity. You should see an error populating in rapid succession:


    KERNEL - Failed to write key xxxxxxxxxx to SMC with error code 86


    The key numbers, represented by "xxx" above, vary. "SMC resets" by the traditional methods (M1 Macs, as you've said, don't even really have an SMC in the way we used to think about it) don't appear to solve this, new installs don't solve it, machine replacements and recreating before doing anything else after setup - still there! The very-very-woefully-software-unqualified techie in me wants to postulate that it could be an older operation in macOS trying and failing to write to a now nonexistent T2 based SMC.


    That being said, I don't want to throw gas on the fire as specific error codes pertaining to kernel-level activity are well outside of my knowledge. Across multiple forum threads, I have not once yet witnessed someone who doesn't have a Console flooded with this same error, and its been happening since before 11.1 as well so it's not something new.


    I'm thoroughly puzzled by this issue and hopeful to see it resolved via software soon, but I'll also be the first to admit that it's out of my knowledge wheelhouse and I'm flying blind as far as any actual attempts to nail down what's causing it.


    Thanks in advance for anything you have to say, and for reading at all!

  25. oscar999

    Paul, as for the keyboard. I recommend you get the full size apple keyboard with the numeric keypad, totally worth it.

    • MikeCerm

      In reply to oscar999:

      For $80, it would be worth it. At the price that Apple charges it's really not worth it at all. You can get a really nice mechanical keyboard for less, replace the modifier key caps and remap them so they match how they work on Mac.

      • ianbetteridge

        In reply to MikeCerm:

        Them's fighting words :)


        But seriously, for anyone who spends a lot of time typing keyboard feel is a very personal thing, and I always recommend either trying before you buy, or ensuring you can return any keyboard you get. I ended up getting an expensive mechanical keyboard because nothing else felt anywhere near as good, but lots of people prefer good quality non-mechanical keyboards too.

      • oscar999

        In reply to MikeCerm:

        Almost all keyboards are mechanical, i think you mean keyboards with MX switchs. I havent seen hardly anyone outside gamers using these and its nothing that professional writers should use, for obvious reasons.


        • MikeCerm

          In reply to oscar999:

          No. The vast majority of keyboards are not mechanical. Most keyboards use either rubber dome or membrane switches -- not what people mean when they say mechanical. Keyboards that use mechanical keyswitches and mechanical. Cherry MX were the first to offer "clicky" keyswitches, but there's lots of other clones out there these days, and other companies with their own unique mechanical switch designs (like Logitech Romer-G).


          Mechanical keyswitches are more reliable and durable (lifecycle measured in millions of keystrokes), offer higher or lower actuation force, vary in feel and sound, all based on model and user preference. Lots of professional writers care deeply about the tools they use to do their job, and keyboard is no exception. Sure, maybe fine with whatever Apple put into their MacBook. This was definitely not the case a few years ago. Lots of writers hate cramped laptop keyboards with insufficient key travel. Wanting a better typing experience customized to your preference is not limited just to gamers. If the only people who wanted mechanical keyboards were gamers, they wouldn't make "blue" keyswitches at all, because those are not well suited to gaming.

  26. techreader

    Paul, the M1 MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan and slows down after processes start chugging along. The Pro has a fan, from my understanding of it, and it will kick in when needed to continue running at full speed.

  27. jimchamplin

    In System Preferences in macOS, go to Keyboard, and look for “Modifier Keys” and that will let you flip Option and Command to make a Windows keyboard mimic the Mac layout.

  28. Mcgillivray

    No wonder Apple stuff is so expensive - it's that they let people test out new hardware and return it so easily LOL

    • wright_is

      In reply to Mcgillivray:

      It depends, I don't know about US law, but here, in Germany, any online purchase can be returned within 14 days, if you are not satisfied with it.

      That applies to all retailers.

      They simply have to live with the legal 14 day cooling off period. The same is true for catalogue sales or door-to-door sales.

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