Of all the reasons to be excited by Apple Silicon, its potential to put high-end performance in more affordable computers like the Mac mini M1 could be the biggest. Apple’s diminutive desktop is the cheapest way to get your hands on a new Mac and, while there may be some compromises to accommodate, it’s arguably the most impressive way to experience the new M1 chipset so far.
As with the MacBook Air M1 and MacBook Pro 13 M1, Apple didn’t stray too far from what was familiar for the industrial design of this Apple Silicon-flavored Mac mini. Indeed, side by side with the Intel-based version, the giveaway is the color: silver for the M1, space gray for the Core i5.
Inside, there’s 8GB or 16GB of memory, and between 256GB and 2TB of SSD storage. This particular version of the Apple M1 has an 8-core CPU – with four performance cores and four efficiency cores – along with an 8-core GPU, and the 16-core Neural Engine.
Connectivity is more full-featured than on any of the other M1-based Macs. There are two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, two USB-A ports, an HDMI 2.0 port, gigabit ethernet, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. WiFi 6 802.11ax and Bluetooth 5.0 are standard, too.
Pricing kicks off at $699 for an 8GB model with 256GB of storage. Doubling the memory is another $200, as is doubling storage. Maxed out, with 2TB of SSD to play with, you’re looking at $1,699.
While no RAM option bigger than 16GB has given many would-be M1 adopters pause, Apple’s unified memory approach bears revisiting. Rather than separate RAM chips, the Mac mini’s memory is physically integrated into the M1 itself. There, it can be accessed simultaneously by all parts of the SoC, whether the CPU, GPU, or Neural Engine.
One big upshot there is speed: if the GPU wants to work on something that the CPU is processing, it can address it in the same memory pool rather than having to make a copy to its own memory first. Another is flexibility. Now, you can of course still run out of memory with particularly demanding workloads – at which point macOS Big Sur starts using the SSD as overflow – but my experience has been that it happens a lot less frequently than with an Intel-based Mac.
Although Apple promises the ability to drive up to a 6K 60Hz display via Thunderbolt (plus up to a 4K 60Hz display via HDMI), I was still impressed to see just how handily the Mac mini can cope with the GPU demands of the Pro Display XDR. Yes, for the price of one 32-inch Retina 6K monitor – at $4,999, plus $999 for the Pro Stand – you could get eight Mac mini, so I’ll concede it’s overkill. Nonetheless, they make for a beguiling setup.
That’s because apps like Final Cut Pro really do fly on Apple Silicon. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that would-be video editors should combine Apple’s most expensive screen with its cheapest Mac. The combination of the SoC’s efficiencies and the display’s incredible color accuracy and detail, along with the desktop’s active cooling mean you get the most performance out of the M1 here, of the three models currently using the chipset.
It’s rare to actually hear the fan, though. Even when I was crunching through 4K video processing, the Mac mini was both silent and cool to the touch.
Despite what Apple’s hype and the generally positive reception to Apple Silicon might lead you to believe, this switch to Arm isn’t a magic bullet for performance. Third-party software is gradually catching up with native M1-compatible apps for macOS Big Sur, but while the homegrown chipset can be unexpectedly fast, there are still limits to its capabilities.
What stands out, then, is where those limits lie. Trying the new Apple Silicon-optimized version of Affinity Photo, for example, I was a little disappointed to find that HDR processing still took about the same few seconds per shot as it did on my 16-inch MacBook Pro. Then again, that has 32GB of memory and an Intel Core i9 processor – a configuration that will currently cost you more than $3k – versus the $899 an M1-powered Mac mini with 16GB of memory will set you back.
The list of apps with native Apple Silicon support keeps getting longer, too, albeit sometimes only in beta form. As I found with the MacBook Air M1, it’s worth checking the unofficial compatibility lists if there’s particular software you can’t do without. Finding something which doesn’t play nicely with Rosetta 2, Apple’s emulation system, is rare, at least for consumer-focused apps right now.
For the moment, the Intel version of the Mac mini is sticking around. It’s $100 more expensive and, I suspect, its Core i5 processor will actually be slower at some of the media-focused tasks where the M1 shines. In its favor, though, are its four Thunderbolt 3 ports and support for up to three displays, its user-accessible memory slots, and the 10Gb ethernet option for those who need the very fastest network connection.
There’s no doubt that it’s on borrowed time, though. Apple says its expects the Apple Silicon transition to take about two years, and of course the M1 is only the first of a series of homegrown chipset designs. It’s not hard to imagine another Mac mini with an even speedier SoC that addresses those absences on the current model.
Apple Mac mini M1 Verdict
While iOS and iPadOS apps on Big Sur can still be a mixed bag, not all software takes advantage of Apple Silicon yet, and you sacrifice ports and flexibility versus the Intel version, I can’t help but be wowed by what the Mac mini M1 offers. If your day to day includes video or photo processing, the advantages that Apple’s chipset brings to the table are legitimately astonishing. Even if you don’t take the somewhat manic route of pairing it with a Pro Display XDR, the ability to build out a truly capable video editing suite for this price is ample reason for Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA to be concerned.
Sure, it’d be nice to be able to plug in more peripherals on the back, and I still wish Apple had a version of its wireless keyboard with a Touch ID sensor – and a cheaper version of the Pro Display XDR, for that matter. You should budget at least $899 to get the 16GB memory upgrade, too, since that’s not something you can swap out for later, and you’ll have to provide your own display and peripherals.
They seem like laughably small drawbacks to me, though. By putting this much potency into its most attainable Mac, Apple Silicon wastes no time in making its big pitch for the future. Existing Intel Mac owners will likely be wowed at the performance comparisons; newbies to the Mac ecosystem will get ample performance despite the slim sticker price. I’m excited at the future of Apple Silicon, yes, because everything we’ve seen so far suggests just what made iPhone such a juggernaut being brought to bear on Mac, but I’m also excited at just how much this first Mac mini M1 delivers on day one.