Apple Mac Mini (M1): One More Thing

Posted on January 10, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Apple, Hardware, Mac and macOS with 62 Comments

Yesterday, I prepared my M1-based Mac Mini for return to Apple and was reminded of how terrible this process is on Apple’s desktop platform. And as is so often the case, the M1 chipset breaks with the past. But in this case, this process is now both terrible and dangerous, and it can lead to one bricking their Mac by mistake.

What bothers me about this kind of thing, beyond the obvious, is how no one ever discusses it. We’re so buried in stories about how damn fast M1-based Macs are, about how they’re going to change everything, that we often lose sight of the basics. And while Windows certainly has its issues, this is a great example—and not the only one—where Microsoft saw the problem and fixed it years ago. Apple? They started off terrible and only made it worse.

Imagine you want to sell, give-away, or trade-in your Windows PC. In Windows 10, you simply open Settings, navigate to Update & Security > Recovery, and choose the “Get started” button under the Reset this PC heading. During the short wizard-based utility that appears, you’re asked whether you want to “Remove everything” and, if so, whether you want to “Clean data,” which will securely clean the drive of all of your personal information if selected. The process can take 20-45 minutes, depending on the computer, but it’s straightforward and painless.

Now imagine that you want to sell, give-away, or trade-in your (Intel-based) Mac. First, you need to know a non-discoverable keyboard shortcut (Command + R) that you hold down while powering on the Mac from a dead stop. Then, from the recovery environment, you have to use Disk Utility to wipe out your Mac’s hard drive and then install whatever version of macOS that came with the Mac. The process usually takes over an hour, depending on the Mac, and every step (except perhaps the last one) is confusing and non-obvious; most, for example, will choose the install option first, only to discover then that they need to erase the disk first. But whatever, you do a Google search and most will figure it out.

Now imagine you have an M1-based Mac that you want to sell, give-away, or trade-in. In this case, you need to know a new but still non-discoverable technique, whereby you power down your Mac and then continue holding in the power button as you turn it back on. From there, the process should work as above, except it doesn’t. Now there are two partitions on the drive, Macintosh HD, as before, and Data, and it’s not clear if you need to wipe out just one or both. (Is Data your data? Or is it the OS install partition? Or something else?) Choose wrong and you can brick the Mac. But let’s say you figure it out and reinstall macOS Big Sur, a process that will take 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes, according to Apple. (It took me about 50 minutes.) Setup will appear and it won’t let you create a user account. You bricked it again!

It’s not your fault: This harrowing process is completely of Apple’s making, and it’s the dark underbelly of the macOS experience, especially now that it’s been made even more difficult with the new M1-based Macs. Yes, you can argue that most people won’t need to do this right away, and Apple can fix things so that it’s more obvious and takes less time. But this has been a problem for years, and Apple has simply ignored it.

Let’s put this in perspective. Back in the Windows 8 days, my central complaint was about the non-discoverability of key system user interfaces, like the Charms (bar), which Microsoft initially declined to explain to new users. (This despite internal testing that revealed that users would be much more successful using the new system if they were shown a quick how-to video during Setup.) The theory was that users would organically “discover” Charms and Windows 8’s other hidden UIs as they used the system. The reality is that they would trigger these new UIs inadvertently, and have no idea what they were seeing or how they got there, and would thus have no idea how to get back there. That’s the definition of non-discoverable.

This issue on the Mac is similar, with the caveat that most people will probably Google something like “how to factory reset a Mac” and get to the right place. But this Mac situation is now even more problematic because there are literally two places in the process where you, perhaps someone familiar and experienced with the Mac, can inadvertently brick your M1-based Mac because things have changed and are worse. “Can’t find Charms” rates a 2 or 3 on my imaginary problem scale. Bricking a computer is a 10.

I bring this up because I bricked my Mac Mini while trying to factory reset it using Apple’s instructions. I don’t care all that much because I’m literally sending it back to Apple and if anyone can figure out how to set this right, it’s the company’s own technicians. But this would be a serious problem if I were just starting over, as I do from time-to-time with Windows, or selling/giving away the machine. It would be dead in the water. Support chat sessions would have to happen. I’d probably have to send it back to Apple or bring it into a store for a Genius appointment. Or whatever.

Put a different way, for all the “magic” of the M1-based Macs—and yes, I really am impressed with the performance and compatibility, as I’ve noted previously—the other thing we’re all forgetting, especially on the Windows side of the fence, is that they’re still just Macs. And Macs … suck. I’ve owned one or more Macs continually since I got an iBook in 2001 to test the first version of Mac OS X, and I’ve just never been impressed with this operating system. Nor have I felt comfortable enough using it to ever even considering switching. Apple gets some things right, for sure. But macOS isn’t one of them.

And speaking of perspective, it’s not just Windows that gets this right. Have you ever used the Powerwash feature on Chrome OS? This thing securely wipes out a Chromebook and resets it so that someone else can use it as if it were new, just like the Reset this PC feature in Windows 10. But it does so in minutes. Yes, yes, most Chromebooks have small amounts of storage, I know. But this is a great example of a company, in this case, Google, evaluating a need and how others have addressed that need, and then making it even better. With Apple, they’ve done the same and made it even worse. And it was bad to begin with.

In other words, that whole “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” thing still applies.

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