Though this belief is often challenged by sub-optimal iPadOS apps (particularly Microsoft Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint), I've always thought of my trusty iPad as the more likely contender for computing in the world of tomorrow. However, after using Apple's new M1-based Mac mini for nearly three months, I've decided it’s unlikely I will use the iPad as my single "go to" productivity device anytime in the near future.
To start, while the Mac mini has not changed its form factor in years, this was not a problem for me. I've always loved how nicely it fits in a desktop workspace and how easy it is to hide it.
Overall, I have found the user experience to be very smooth and responsive. I consider myself a power user, and the 16GB configuration seems to handle every application I throw at it with aplomb. Now that I have a bit of digital "mileage" with Apple's new Mac mini, I'd like to share some of my initial impressions—mostly positive but with a few notable "gotchas.”
A brand new approach to computing
At a high level, these first new Macs powered by Apple Silicon are, in many ways, a direct reflection of what Apple has learned through years of "rehearsal" with the iPhone and iPad. In other words, they are the manifestation of Steve Jobs' belief that the best user experience can only come from a single company that can deliver complete hardware and software integration—from system design to operating system optimization to CPU assimilation.
Perhaps the most intriguing expression of this concept is Apple Silicon-based Macs’ usage of system memory. With the M1, Apple wants to re-define how users think about RAM and what the company calls “Unified Memory Architecture.”
Unlike Intel processors’ integrated graphics, the M1 has an embedded graphics processor shared between both the processor cores and graphics cores. From a practical standpoint, the crucial difference is that in the M1, memory is an explicit element of the architecture, so there are no memory slots on the system board for a M1 Mac. This approach's upside is higher performance; the downside is you must choose what level of memory you desire at time of purchase, and there is no post-sale upgrade opportunity.
I won't jump into the online melee over whether the 16GB maximum memory is a real disadvantage from a performance standpoint, given that most Intel-based PCs routinely have 32GB, 64GB or even higher amounts of memory. However, I have to report that my overall day-to-day experience with my 16GB M1 Mac mini has been quite good. Despite running multiple applications simultaneously, I haven't been able to slow the machine down—something that routinely occurred on my old 64GB 2017-vintage iMac. I can’t speak to the battery power advantages as the Mac mini is a desktop computer, but positive news reports of great battery life (approaching 20 hours) with M1-based Macbooks have been widespread— consistent with the benefits that “system-on-chip” architectures can offer.
Getting ready to accept dongle mania
The big concession you'll need to make if you choose to purchase an M1 Mac mini (or MacBook Air or Pro with an M1 processor) is the computer’s limited ports. The Mac mini is actually in somewhat better shape than its MacBook laptop siblings. Still, with only two Thunderbolt (USB 4), two USB-A, HDMI, a 3.5 mm headphone jack and an Ethernet port, the Mac mini has less ports than many Intel-based models.
While it's not a deal-breaker, chances are you'll have to invest in a dongle for additional USB ports or an SD card slot if you have multiple peripherals that want to hang off the system. To avoid a messy desktop area in my home office, I've been delighted with Linedock's external all-in-one storage solutions, which provide additional interface ports storage in a convenient thin form factor that sits easily under the Mac mini.
You should be aware of one other bit of annoyance: the new M1 Mac mini (and all M1 MacBook iterations) does NOT support external graphic processor solutions. Before the arrival of the M1, one of the ways you could overcome the limitation of the embedded graphics architecture in an iMac, Mac mini or Macbook was by purchasing an external graphics processor unit (EGPU). Sold by vendors like Sonnet, these EGPUs allowed you to get more value out of your Mac purchase. Sadly, this approach is not supported in current M1-based Mac models, though there is some evidence that Apple may support EGPUs in the future. The good news is that the M1 embedded graphics architecture is no slouch in the performance department according to many reputable benchmarks.
My first twelve hours with the M1 Mac mini was not precisely the most remarkable customer experience I'd had with Apple products. Typically, Time Machine easily migrates your data, programs and settings from an older Mac to a new model. Time Machine moved the image from my older iMac to the new Mac mini without issue; however, all connectivity (both wired and wireless) ceased to function on the new Mac mini. After doing a considerable bit of Web research, I discovered that many M1 users were suffering from the same problem, and I had to download a relatively arcane tool from Apple's support site to re-flash the firmware in the system and restore the operating system to factory state. All in all, it was an irritating process that took me nearly twelve hours.
Putting that less-than-delightful experience aside, I've been pleased with the new M1 Mac mini's overall performance. I haven't experienced any significant application compatibility issues, which was my chief consideration before deciding to buy one. My Moor Insights & Strategy colleague Patrick Moorhead wrote an insightful and widely read column on M1 compatibility underscoring a few problematic issues he experienced with his M1 MacBook Pro 13" laptop back in December. It's worth double-checking for compatibility issues with the developer if there's a particular macOS app that you frequently use. For its part, Apple has done an excellent job with its Rosetta 2 translator software that seamlessly allows users to run apps that contain X86 code on Apple Silicon. It’s a fairly breathtaking achievement given that M1-based Mac models have only been in the market for about 90 days.
My final verdict
It any event, it boils down to this: legacy Apple Mac users will, in all probability, be elated with the performance of any M1-based Mac model. The dearth of Thunderbolt (USB-C) ports is bothersome but shouldn't be a showstopper for most users. Moreover, the lack of an after-purchase upgrade path for memory, storage, and graphics enhancements capability may turn some users off who can get more flexibility (and more affordability) with PCs from Dell, HP and other well-known brands. The lack of an after-purchase upgrade path may force you to spend more than you want to on a beefier system, but that's Apple being Apple. Those considerations aside, it will be fascinating to see how Apple's initial foray into using its own silicon plays out in the coming years. Steve Jobs was indeed right: tight system integration between hardware and software does deliver the best-optimized user experience… if you can afford it.