Apple Mac Mini M1 Review: Buy it

Last modified date

Clickbait headline or reality? Most definitely the latter. The Mac Mini is one of my best purchases of 2020, if not longer.

This isn’t actually review of the Mac Mini I recently bought, but an opinion piece looking at all the new Apple devices launched last month.

There are plenty of reviews out there, and the reaction from everyone (not just those seeded devices by Apple) has been incredible.

I can’t recall seeing anything negative written about the new M1 powered Mac products*, which has to be a first for anyone. Sure, the PC fanboys have tried their hardest to poo poo the new machines, but when benchmark after benchmark shows just how powerful a base Mac is, it’s hard to do so with a straight face.

* Actually that’s not strictly true: a few people have raised some issues with some non-optimised applications, but that’s merely a temporary issue until the likes of Adobe update their apps. You shouldn’t buy a new Intel powered Mac just because an app doesn’t run fully optimal right now because these issues should go away in a month or two.

£699 for the base model – the model almost everyone should buy.

The fact is, as any smartphone owner will know, ARM processors are so much more power efficient it hurts compared to ageing x86 architecture chips. We’ve had phones that come close to offering PC performance for some time now, but Apple has finally bridged the gap and taken mobile processors (not to be confused with Intel’s interpretation of a mobile processor, which usually means a cut in performance) into the computing space.

For a ‘first attempt’ the results are spectacular. Seeing YouTubers have fun by comparing ever more powerful equivalents against the base Mac Mini is entertaining, but also very serious in that they all show how we’re seeing computing taken to a new level; a level where Intel and AMD must now be pondering hard on how to catch up.

You see, if you’re looking at a powerful PC that is comparable to a new M1 powered Mac, you’re going to be having to ignore most computers on sale right now and look at the very high-end. And at the high-end comes a high price tag, plus even then you’re still not going to see all the benefits, like strong battery life and excellent power management.

Intel has a major headache right now

Rumours have it AMD is already working on an ARM processor, but I have a real fear Intel is in a pretty bad place right now. Intel tried and failed to get into mobile, had no end of problems with its modems (falling way behind Qualcomm and others on 5G), and has now been kicked hard by Apple dropping their chips on future computers. Intel has also been left wanting by AMD. While AMD has been stealing the thunder from Intel for a while, it too has problems now these chips are on the market.

Microsoft must be now looking on carefully and realising its future is ARM. Qualcomm has been emboldened by Apple’s success in such a short space of time, giving more credibility to the ARM based computing platform that could one day take over from Intel. It’s somewhat ironic that Apple will ultimately make ARM get taken seriously in the Windows space, after many years of false starts and disappointment.

MediaTek is also releasing next-gen ARM processors for new Chromebooks in 2021, with manufacturers no longer seeing them as powering the entry-level machines only. For the first time, we can expect mid to high end Chromebooks using ARM – with all the benefits that carries for running Android applications in the most optimal conditions.

In other words; the whole computer industry has been given a shot in the arm thanks to Apple. As someone who is so often critical of Apple’s business practices over the years, this really is a genuine endorsement and not someone drinking the Apple Kool Aid.

I sold my iMac 5K for the Mac Mini (fantastic screen, but the base model was never that fast and it aged terribly), and ditched my entry-level MacBook Air for a Chromebook some years ago because battery life was my primary concern when going out to events and travelling.

The MacBook Air was a gorgeous bit of engineering, but it was never high-performance and the battery left a lot to be desired. For being used much like a Chromebook by most people, it cost at least twice as much and in many cases far more.

For any decent level of performance, you either specced it up (and ended up paying hundreds more on top making it even less competitive), or you got a MacBook Pro and paid even more again.

A Chromebook kept things simple, and offered 8, 9 or 10 hours plus in battery. For almost all usage needs on the move, it was perfect (bear in mind, I don’t do video editing on the go or play games).

With so many people doing their ‘work’ within a browser, Chromebooks have really taken off and are now very well established in education and some enterprise sectors.

But imagine if a base model MacBook Air could offer the same battery life (or even loads more) and work for 100% of your usage needs? Imagine too if this entry level machine could also do away with the need for a more powerful desktop PC at home, replaced instead with a monitor and USB-C hub.

Well, that’s where we are with the entry-level MacBook Air. Yes, an Air, not even the Pro.

Suddenly, besides the cost, there’s less incentive to buy a Chromebook when a M1 powered Mac laptop will let you use it with all the benefits of a Chromebook for most of the time, but with the ability to do everything else if you want (and still not compromise the battery life thanks to the thermal efficiency).

Sure, you won’t get to run Android apps (nor get a touchscreen, as with most Chromebooks) but you can now run iOS and iPad apps if you want. That said, you don’t really need to run smartphone/tablet apps if you can run full-blown apps without any downsides.

Touching experience?

Apple might launch a newly designed range of laptops with a touchscreen next year (it seems Apple can’t resist doing so any longer), but only you can decide if that’s important to you. For me, I’ve rarely used any of my Chromebooks in tablet mode, and being able to touch the screen is a feature I’ve seldom used (it’s nice to have, but not essential).

The Android apps I run are not the type to need touch, and if I can run the full apps instead, it’s not an issue any longer.

As they say, your mileage may vary.

The issue for some might be macOS. Can you run the apps you need on a Mac compared to a PC? Well, as time goes on more and more apps are becoming available for the Mac. Some of the best creativity apps started on Mac first, and as time goes on developers who are now working with ARM for their mobile and tablet apps will find it a real advantage for making apps for ARM based computers.

As time goes on, developers will have zero reason not to produce ARM apps. In the meantime, Rosetta 2 does a fine job of emulating x86 applications, and thanks to that immense processing power the emulated apps are often out performing Intel machines running the apps natively. Go figure!

A worthy investment

I opted to keep my Chromebook for now (I am looking forward to seeing what comes out next year) and bought a Mac Mini, but in less than a month of ownership I am actually considering purchasing a MacBook Air in 2021, once we hopefully begin to get back to normal and can travel for work again.

I could not be happier with the Mac Mini, and the money made selling my old Apple products paid for the Mac Mini, external HDD and a Samsung ultra-wide monitor with a few quid left over. The monitor isn’t able to beat the iMac Retina display for pixels-per-inch, but it’s a perfect alternative to the haphazard dual-screen setup I had before (one 27-inch Retina display, one 24-inch 1080p display alongside).

Realistically, I see no reason my Mac Mini won’t serve me well for five or even 10 years before I need to upgrade given its performance. You really don’t need to upgrade the base spec even for video editing, so £699 divided up is a bargain even for five years, let alone ten.

It must be rather frustrating for Apple that all the recommendations are that 8GB of RAM is fine, as that’s a £200 saving straight away. Even 256GB of SSD storage is ample, with a USB-C external hard drive serving as a far better method of adding more. I went for a traditional hard drive, but external SSDs are now highly affordable and bring incredibly fast transfer speeds (and in a tiny form factor too).

If you’re reading this and still assuming 16GB is a must, or questioning if even that is enough, just look at the many reviews to learn why unified memory drastically changes the way things work with the M1 chip. The speed of the internal SSD also means using virtual memory doesn’t have any significant degradation of performance.

It’s fine to be sceptical, as I was because historically more RAM was always better, but trust me when I say that 8GB is going to be just fine.

Apple must also have hoped that more people wouldn’t have concluded in their reviews that a MacBook Air is as good as a MacBook Pro, if you can live with a slightly dimmer display and no touch bar (there’s also one less GPU core on the base model Air, but that appears to be make little difference in the grand scheme of things).

The lack of a fan on the Air is perhaps a benefit too, as it means no dust ingress over time to slow things down. Besides the wear and tear on the battery, the MacBook Air is likely to perform as well in 2 or 3 years as it does from day one.

This is another reason why I opted for the Mac Mini, as there’s no battery to degrade over time. Once again, your mileage may vary and Apple has given three distinct choices to cover all the bases – and they haven’t even begun on the Mac models higher up the chain!

Put on your shades – the future is going to be very bright

If you’re wasting away a quiet evening watching more people test out the M1 chip in ever more entertaining ways, just take pause and imagine what the next chips are going to be like!

Today we have a processor that can take on a high-end 11th gen Intel chipset, but within the next 12 months we’re likely to see an even more incredible leap. 16 or 32 cores, vastly improved GPU performance and, yes, more RAM!

The benchmark results will likely be so far off the charts, Intel simply won’t know what to do. Unlike today, someone trying to spec up a comparable PC to what these higher-end Macs will offer might actually find it hard to find a way to do so.

In my opinion, these new machines will be far beyond what the average consumer wants or needs. Of course, some people just want the best, and just like these new M1 machines today, Apple will be offering next-generation performance for considerably less money than its rivals.

Take pause to consider what I’ve just said; that Apple is now the one offering by far the best bang for the buck. It’s quite incredible to think this is possible for a company that charges a premium for just about everything (take a look at yesterday’s announcement of the AirPods Max as a classic example – costing just £150 less than a Mac Mini!!).

It just doesn’t seem possible for Intel to catch up with what it is currently selling, or even with what it has in the pipeline. Just throwing more watts and upping clock speeds isn’t a realistic solution. Intel is going to have to do something very radical, and soon.

Go green

Reducing heat and power consumption brings clear and obvious benefits at a time where everyone is, or should be, a little more mindful of the environment.

Besides heat bringing with it thermal throttling and noisy fans (fans that in time clog up with dust and reduce performance further without some TLC), you can’t argue that a computer consuming 150-300W of power and running at almost 100 degrees is in any way, shape or form as good as one sipping 30 or 40W, and hovering around 50-70 degrees, with the same level of performance – or even more.

The impact on your electricity bill if you have just one computer in the home might not be that significant, but imagine the savings for even a small office. Now scale up and look at the bigger picture for larger businesses.

Once again, Intel is left wanting and has no solution that I can see right now.

Comments?

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – especially what you think Intel and AMD need to do now to catch up, and where you think MediaTek and Qualcomm might be able to capitalise….

Oh and finally, if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, you can currently get a Mac Mini for a pretty decent discount too!

Share