Jeremy Laukkonen is automotive and tech writer for numerous major trade publications as well as the creator of a popular blog and video game startup. A fan of EVs since the early 2000s, he stays up-to-date on the myriad complex systems that power battery electric vehicles.
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Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire
Intel apps run well with Rosetta 2
Native M1 apps run even better
Fewer ports than previous model
Memory and storage upgrades expensive
Can’t upgrade memory later on
The Mac mini seems to do the impossible in both bringing down the price and massively improving performance compared to its predecessor.
Lifewire purchased the Mac mini to evaluate its features and capabilities. Read on to see our results.
The Mac mini (M1, 2020) is the first Mac desktop to receive Apple’s new ARM-based M1 chip. It’s also the most affordable way to dip your toe into the brave new world of Apple Silicon, even though it’s powered by the exact same chip found in the much more expensive MacBook Pro. It can’t run Windows apps via Bootcamp like an Intel Mac, and there will be some growing pains as developers switch gears and start catering to the new hardware, but that hardware offers tremendous raw performance, excellent potential in the long term, and more than acceptable real-world performance in the short term.
While I was a bit skeptical of Apple’s decision to leave Intel behind, the promised performance of their custom silicon left me eager to dig in and see how that raw power really translates into real-world situations. I was able to spend about a week with an M1 Mac mini as my main work machine, plugging in my keyboard and monitors, with my primary rig left to gather dust for the duration.
During my time with the M1 Mac mini, I paid close attention to performance, of course, with a special eye to how well it handles non-native apps and apps that were designed for iOS. The lack of support for Bootcamp meant I wasn’t able to completely leave my old hardware behind, but there’s no getting around it: this is some impressive hardware at any price, let alone a price tag that’s cheaper than the previous iteration of the hardware.
The big changes here are all under the hood, as Apple opted to leave the overall design of the Mac mini (M1, 2020) unchanged from the previous model. It’s still a block of milled aluminum with the same rounded corners, satin finish, and shiny Apple logo emblazoned on the top. The top is smooth and unmarked aside from the logo, and the front and sides of the case are completely featureless aside from a small LED on the front that lets you know when the system is powered on.
The ports are all found around the back, where the aluminum case is cut away to accommodate a black plastic panel. There you’ll find a power button and socket for the power cable, an Ethernet port, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI port, two USB type A ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Situated just below this array of inputs is a cutout that reveals the internal heatsink.
The biggest change here from the last iteration of the hardware is that the last Mac mini featured four Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of just two. The configuration of the ports is even the same, drawing attention to the fact that just two ports occupy space that could easily support twice that number.
The bottom of the M1 Mac mini also remains unchanged from the last version of the hardware, with most of it taken up by a circular plastic cover that’s designed to allow easier access to the internals. As before, it causes the Mac mini to stand up a bit from whatever surface you place it on, and it has very little gripping power. If you place it on a slick surface, be aware that it could slide off with the slightest nudge.
Unlike the previous model, the M1 Mac mini doesn’t have any user serviceable parts or components. That means you’re stuck with the memory and storage configurations you choose at check out, and you can’t go back in later to add extra RAM or a bigger SSD.
The biggest disappointment here, aside from the fact that the M1 Mac mini didn’t receive any sort of aesthetic update, is that Apple removed two Thunderbolt ports and the ability to upgrade your memory. The first isn’t that big of an issue, since the Mac mini looked great before and still looks great. The lack of Thunderbolt ports, similarly, isn’t a huge deal, because there are a ton of ways to get around such a limitation. The lack of upgradeability certainly removes a degree of flexibility from the hardware, though, making it much more important to select the amount of memory and storage that you’ll be comfortable with for the life of the device.
If you’ve ever set up a macOS device before, the setup process isn’t any different here. It’s just a matter of accepting some terms, tweaking some initial settings, and connecting your Apple ID. As always, setup is going to be easier if you have access to another functional piece of Apple hardware that you’re already logged into.
The one wrinkle that you may run into is that you can’t set up the Mac mini with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. You’ll need to plug a wired keyboard and mouse in to complete the setup process and then pair your Bluetooth hardware, or use a keyboard and mouse combo that uses a wireless dongle.
For example, I was able to plug in the dongle from my Logitech K400+ Touch Keyboard, and the Mac mini recognized the peripheral immediately. That allowed me to complete the setup process without digging around for wired peripherals.
While the Mac mini (M1, 2020) remained mostly unchanged from a design perspective, the internals received a massive overhaul. This is Apple’s first desktop to receive its new M1 chip, and that’s a really big deal. Though one of the M1’s headline features, reduced power use, isn’t as big a deal here as it is in the MacBook Air, this chip is still massively more powerful than anything you’ve ever seen in a Mac before. In fact, the Mac mini has the exact same chip as the MacBook Pro, with one more GPU core than the MacBook Air.
The M1 CPU features eight cores, including four performance cores and four efficiency cores, and the same chip also includes an eight core GPU.
This isn’t an Intel integrated graphics situation, though. The M1 boasts some pretty impressive processing power from both the CPU and GPU components. In real world terms, that translates to silky-smooth day to day operation from Big Sur, fast-loading and running apps, speedy video rendering and image editing, and intriguing possibilities in the realm of gaming.
While the numbers Apple has tossed around have been impressive, and my own experience with the M1 hardware was almost uniformly positive, I had to run some benchmarks. First up, I ran the Cinebench multi-core test. The Mac mini achieved a score of 7,662 in that test, putting it between an Intel Xeon E5-2697 at 3GHz and an X5650 Xeon processor at 3.66Ghz. That’s almost within spitting distance of an eight core AMD Ryzen 7 1700X, but only about half the score of a 1950X Threadripper.
For a processor in a mini-computer at this price range, the M1 turned in decent enough multi-core numbers. When running the single-core Cinebench test though, decent goes right out the window. In that test, the M1 Mac mini scored 1,521, which is the second highest score Cinebench has on record.
I also ran a few gaming benchmarks from GFXBench Metal. I started with Car Chase, which is a benchmark that simulates a 3D game with advanced shaders, lighting effects, and more. The M1 Mac mini scored a decent 60.44fps in that test, which would be entirely playable if we were dealing with a real game and not a benchmark. It scored a nearly identical 60fps in the less-intense T-Rex benchmark.
In addition to GFXBench, I also ran the WildLife benchmark from 3DMark that’s designed for iOS, made possible by Big Sur’s native support for iOS applications. In that test, the Mac mini scored 17,930 overall and registered 107fps. Both numbers were a bit higher than the MacBook Air managed on the same test, which is understandable since the Mac mini GPU has one more core.
This is one area where Apple’s decision to switch from Intel to their own bespoke silicon is unlikely to pay off for a while. The issue is that while the M1 chip is powerful, it’s going to take a while for game developers to offer any kind of real support for it. That means the already anemic Mac gaming scene could be even more anemic until devs see a reason to put substantial resources into games that run natively on the ARM-based M1 hardware. In the long term, cross-compatibility between macOS and iOS apps could end up being a massive game-changer.
Since the gaming scene was already anemic on macOS, a lot of gaming on Macs is really done in Windows via Bootcamp. If you do a lot of gaming on your current Mac, you’re probably familiar with big tentpole video game titles that never make it off Windows in the first place, and afterthought macOS ports that are poorly optimized and run a whole lot better if you just play the same game on the same hardware in Windows.
With the switch to ARM-based architecture, the Mac mini no longer provides the option to run Windows alongside macOS, so that gaming option is gone. Windows can’t run on this hardware, so the only way to play Windows-only games is through a virtual machine environment, which is not a good way to play games. That means you just won’t be able to play some games if you rely on a Mac mini, or any M1-based Mac, as your only gaming rig.
The issue is that while the M1 chip is powerful, it’s going to take a while for game developers to offer any kind of real support for it.
However, thanks to Rosetta 2, the Mac mini can play any game that’s designed to run in macOS on an Intel machine. There’s some level of performance cost involved, but I wasn’t able to notice it with any of the games I played. Notably, I was able to run Steam using Rosetta 2 and then download and play macOS games through Steam seamlessly.
Civilization 6 is currently in the middle of a nearly year-long content drip, and I was able to fire it up via Rosetta 2 and Steam with zero issues. Even with the world size cranked up all the way, more civs than recommended, and maxed out city states, the M1 sailed along effortlessly with fast load times and tolerably snappy AI turns.
For something less demanding, yet much more fast-paced, I fired up Rocket League. Though Psyonix technically no longer supports macOS, I was able to download and launch through Steam, and set up a local match. It ran without a hitch, with zero slowdown or stuttering as the cars zipped around the arena at breakneck pace.
The last game I tried out was Streets of Rage 4, the long-awaited fourth entry in the Streets of Rage series that finally arrived earlier this year. The fast-paced online brawler ran just as smoothly as it does on my Windows gaming rig, with no lag or slow down at all.
Aside from lack of support from game developers, the only real drawback here in terms of gaming comes from the HDMI port itself. While the M1 Mac mini can pump out 4K graphics, it’s limited to a 60Hz refresh rate. That’s fine for most casual gamers, but anyone who has fallen in love with their high refresh rate monitor will experience a bit of pain here.
The great thing about the Mac mini line is that it’s always been so flexible. You can use a Mac mini for work, but the size and relative affordability of the hardware means you aren’t locked into using it that way. If you do aim to use an M1 Mac mini for work though, it’s more than up to the task. Native apps and the operating system itself run fast and smooth as you could possibly hope, with none of the sitting around looking at spinning beach balls that you may have gotten used to with older hardware.
Thanks to the emulation offered by Rosetta 2, the M1 offers most tools people will need for productivity. If you currently run an app in macOS on older hardware, Rosetta 2 will allow you to run it on an M1 Mac mini until a native app arrives. And even if a native app doesn’t arrive, your productivity shouldn’t be affected too much.
I was able to run apps like Photoshop and Lightroom through Rosetta 2 without a hitch or even a hint of slowdown.
Those are both examples of apps that will get native -versions, according to Adobe, but they run pretty well under Rosetta 2 in the meantime.
Multitasking also works flawlessly, and I was able to juggle an impressive number of browser windows, intensive apps like Photoshop and Handbrake, voice and video chat over Discord, and more without running into any real problems.
The M1 Mac mini is great in almost every category, but audio isn’t one of them. There’s a speaker inside that sleek aluminum block, but it isn’t one you’ll care to listen to. It’s tinny and hollow, and absolutely a placeholder for more capable external speakers. You’ll want to hook up headphones or some kind of speakers or soundbar shortly after setting the M1 Mac mini up, because the built-in speaker isn’t really even suitable for watching YouTube videos, let alone listening to music or streaming your favorite shows or movies.
The M1 Mac mini does include a 3.5mm headphone jack on the back along with built-in Bluetooth, so you have a lot of options. Just make sure to budget for some sort of external speakers or headphones, because you don’t want to get stuck with the built-in speaker.
The Mac mini includes a wired gigabit Ethernet jack, support for Bluetooth 5.0, and a Wi-Fi 6 network card that’s also 801.11a/b/g/n/ac compatible. Performance from the wired and wireless networking options was uniformly strong, with fast download speeds and no issues streaming 4K video or video chatting.
To test the M1 Mac mini’s network capabilities, I used a gigabit connection from Mediacom that measured just shy of 1Gbps at the modem at the time of testing. First I hooked up to the router via Ethernet and checked the speed using the Speedtest app from Ookla. With the wired connection, the M1 Mac mini turned in an impressive 937Mbps down, which is one of the fastest measurements I’ve seen on this connection. At the same time, it measured an upload speed of 63.7Mbps, which is close to the upper limit of this connection.
I also tested the wireless connection, hooking the M1 Mac mini to my Eero mesh network. When connected wirelessly, I measured a respectable 284 Mbps down and 54 Mbps up. At the same time, in the same location, my HP Spectre x360 measured 254Mbps down and 63Mbps up.
Software is the biggest stumbling block for M1 hardware during these early days, as there isn’t a whole lot out there that’s actually designed to run on Apple Silicon. Big Sur was built specifically for this hardware and to integrate seamlessly with Rosetta 2 for running legacy Intel macOS apps, and a number of first party Apple apps also run natively, but that’s about it at launch.
I’ve already touched on it a few times, but the biggest casualty of Apple’s move to in-house ARM-based silicon is that the hardware doesn’t let you dual boot Windows, and x86 emulation for Windows apps is also a no-go. The good news is that a new version of Parallels Desktop for Mac that will run on M1 hardware is on the way, but some apps require dual booting, or run poorly in a virtual machine environment, so that won’t solve every problem for everyone.
Software is the biggest stumbling block for M1 hardware during these early days, as there isn’t a whole lot out there that’s actually designed to run on Apple Silicon.
The bottom line is that if you currently rely on Bootcamp for a Windows application or utility that you need for work, or even just for gaming, the M1 Mac mini just won’t run that software for you. That may change in the future, as Windows does actually have an ARM version, but for the time being you’re out of luck in that department.
For the time being, the trade off is that Big Sur and native apps like Safari run extremely well, and with remarkably low power consumption and heat generation compared to Intel Macs.
The Mac mini saw a price increase alongside its last major retool, but Apple actually played against tradition and handed us a price reduction with the transition to M1 hardware. The baseline M1 Mac mini is actually hundreds of dollars cheaper than the previous iteration of the hardware, which is remarkable considering how much more powerful it is. The last Intel Mac mini was already a good deal, so the even cheaper M1 Mac mini looks even better in comparison. Considering its capabilities, it’s also a good deal when compared to non-Apple mini desktop hardware like the Intel NUC lineup.
This is a bit of an unfair fight, but the fact is that Apple still sells the Intel Mac mini, so it’s a natural comparison to make. The two mini desktops share an identical form factor, with the Intel version coming in Space Gray and the M1 version finished in Silver. The Intel Mac mini has a base price of $1,099 compared to $699 or $899 for the M1 Mac mini.
The Intel Mac mini is more similar to the $899 model of the M1 hardware since both come with 512GB of storage. They also both have 8GB of RAM. Where the M1 Mac mini has the 8-core M1 chip, the Intel version includes a 6-core Intel Core i5 and integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630.
In terms of performance, the M1 Mac mini blows the Intel version out of the water. The Intel version does include a couple extra Thunderbolt ports though, and it can do one thing the M1 version can’t: run Windows via Bootcamp.
If you don’t have any need to run Windows apps, then there’s no real question. The M1 Mac mini is superior, and it costs less. The Intel Mac mini is worth considering if you absolutely need to run Windows apps and don’t mind the extra cost, but the question then becomes whether the Mac mini is really the best platform to be running those Windows apps considering how much more expensive it is than a pure Windows machine of similar capabilities.
If you're weighing different options, be sure to check out our guide for the best laptops.
If all you need is a Mac, the M1 Mac mini is your destination.
The Apple Mac mini with M1 is a tremendously impressive piece of hardware, offering staggering performance at an affordable price. The only real catch here is that in leaving Intel behind, Apple may have left you in the lurch. If you currently can’t get by without running specific apps through Windows by way of Bootcamp, then the M1 Mac mini just isn’t what you’re looking for. If you can live and work in a world that’s entirely free of Windows, then the M1 Mac mini is ready to welcome you home.
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