Three Months With the M1 Mac mini

Just try to take it away from me

Key Takeaways

  • The M1 Mac mini is faster than most people need.
  • Big Sur on Apple Silicon finally fulfills the promise of Mac OS X.
  • These Macs could do with more ports, and you can’t upgrade RAM or SSD.
Person holding a Mac mini box
Joey Banks / Unsplash

I’ve had an M1 Mac mini for over three months, and it’s easily the best Mac I’ve ever used—despite several annoying shortcomings and bugs.

The first Apple Silicon Macs went on sale in December 2020, and they blew away all Macs before them. They run as fast as a Mac Pro, are as cool as an iPad, and the M1-powered laptops can go all day—or more—on a single charge. I have a Mac mini with a 32-inch 4K monitor, which replaced my old 2010 27-inch iMac, and it’s better in every way.

It’s like the Mac operating system finally got the hardware it deserves, and the result really sings no matter what you use your computer for.

Speed, But Not Like You Think

The best thing about the M1 Mac is its speed. I’m not talking about benchmarks, or even exporting lots of photos, or converting video. It can do those without breaking a sweat, but the real story here is this is the first time since Apple launched Mac OS X that the Mac has felt snappy. OS 9, aka Classic, was snappy as hell. Menus dropped down instantly, windows moved without delay.

On an M1 Mac running Big Sur, we’re back to that, and more. Many apps open without even a single bounce in the Dock, menus are instant, everything just feels fast.

It’s like the Mac operating system finally got the hardware it deserves.

On my old iMac (which had been fitted with SSDs, and was still surprisingly fast), I’d wake it up while I got myself ready to start work. It needed a while to get going. If I needed to do something computery later in the day, I’d usually just leave the Mac sleeping, and use my iPad instead.

But the M1 Mac is ready to go as soon as you wake it, just like an iPad or iPhone. And this, remember, is on a Mac mini with a third-party monitor attached, which itself takes a moment to wake. With the M1 MacBooks, and probably the forthcoming Apple M1 iMacs, this should be even faster.

Apple Mac mini in silver on a white background

And speaking of portable computers like the iPad, I’m more tempted than ever to get a MacBook, after not using one for well over a decade. Connected to a Thunderbolt dock and monitor, it’s just as fast as my mini, and you also can use it away from the desk. It’s tempting, but I’ll probably wait and see what future MacBooks end up looking like. 

Not Slow

The other most important aspect is you can leave all your apps open, including Safari windows with plenty of tabs, and it doesn’t slow down. Switching between 15-20 open apps is no different from one or two. 

I have the 16GB model, a replacement for the 8GB M1 Mac mini I bought initially. I switched because Lightroom wasn’t too happy with just 8GB of RAM. That 8GB mini was still just as fast as this one with multiple apps open, though. Unless you have a very specific need for more RAM, then 8GB should be fine

App Story

Speaking of apps, M1 Macs have two odd app aspects. One is they can run iPhone and iPad apps, as long as the developer has opted to make them available in the Mac App Store. The other is Mac apps must be updated to run on Apple Silicon. If not, they’ll still run, but slightly slower in the Rosetta 2 translation environment. 

The good news is developers are updating their apps. The only Intel-compiled apps left on my Mac are some background Adobe Creative Cloud processes, and an email app. Everything else I use regularly is already Apple Silicon-native. 

And iOS apps? I experimented with these at the beginning, but they’re mostly terrible to use. The apps run fine, but using a touch interface on a Mac can be a pain, and none of these apps are very Mac-like. You can’t open their preferences with the ⌘ keyboard shortcut, for example. I do keep the Trello app around, but I never launch it. It’s just there to provide a sharing extension in Safari, which the Mac version of Trello doesn’t have. 

The Bad and Ugly

Apart from a few teething troubles, this Mac mini has been fantastic. On reboot, it won’t connect to the monitor over USB-C, so you have to replug the cable to fix it. But that’s it.

The bigger problem, for the mini specifically, is that it doesn’t have enough ports. You get two Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, two USB-A ports, headphones, Ethernet, and HDMI. The Intel Mac mini had four USB-A ports. 

Rear view of the M1 Mac mini in silver

But even this is a weak complaint. I have a CalDigit TS3+ Thunderbolt dock connected to one of those ports, and to that, I’ve connected my 4K monitor, external disks, and an audio interface. This works flawlessly, although the CalDigit dock doesn’t sleep as often as I’d like. 

But the really bad part of all M1 Macs so far is that you can’t upgrade them at all. You’re stuck with the RAM and SSD you choose at purchase. RAM can never be upgraded, and external storage, even using super-fast NVMe drives with Thunderbolt connections, isn’t as fast as the internal storage.

Overall, though, I can’t recommend this Mac enough. It finally brings Apple’s iOS chip-design chops to the Mac, and it’s every bit as good as we hoped. The next few years are going to be very interesting, as Apple (hopefully) changes the design of its Macs to better suit these high-performing, low-energy, cool-running, mobile-sized chips. These M1s are just the beginning.

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