The Apple Silicon Macs, whether in laptop or desktop form, has garnered considerable attention since its release, promising exceptional performance and a seamless transition to Apple’s ARM-based architecture. In this review, we will explore the key features and drawbacks of this powerhouse in the form of its most budget-friendly offering – the Mac mini.
Starting with its remarkable performance to certain hardware limitations and restrictions, we will delve into what makes this Mac mini an enticing option for users seeking a reliable and efficient computing experience from Apple.
The performance of the M1 Mac mini is undeniably impressive, surpassing the capabilities of previous Mac models when handling a variety of workloads. Despite having only 8 GB of RAM (in its default configuration), the M1 chip utilizes its hardware resources efficiently, allowing for smooth multitasking even with demanding workloads. While having numerous browser tabs open, resource-intensive applications like Xcode, and and 2 Linux virtual machines running concurrently, the Mac mini was able to manage the workload with ease without any significant slowdown experienced. It is a testament to the optimization achieved by Apple’s hardware and software integration.
One notable drawback lies in the hardware design of the Mac mini which is a common issue across all of Apple’s products since at least 2014 when Apple migrated away from producing Mac computers that allowed its owners to replace the hard drive or RAM. Since 2014, Apple has soldered the RAM and SSD directly into the motherboard, this decision poses concerns for potential long term use of the Mac. While the longevity of SSDs is generally robust, there are always concerns about their longevity, as I can attest to myself I upgraded my 2011 MacBook Pro with an SSD which lasted about 6-7 years before it abruptly no longer worked. It is worth noting that SSD failures appear to have become relatively more uncommon, and with proper care, the M1 Mac mini should provide reliable performance for years to come.
With regards to the RAM, users of these Macs are limited to the amount of RAM that the computer originally came with as the RAM is soldered directly on the motherboard, this can potentially restrict the device’s future usability with the release of newer software that might require more hardware resources. Unfortunately prospective Mac owners do face a challenge if they require a larger SSD or RAM as Apple does charge upwards of $250 (CAD) per extra 8 GB of RAM and per 512 GB of storage, so the final price of a customized Mac mini might be twice the price of the default model ($799 vs $1799) if they require 24 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD. It is saddening that Apple charges this amount as there are no alternative options should you require additional RAM or storage space and the charges contributes to the notion of an “Apple tax” that Apple charges for their products.
As a power user, there are a couple of noteworthy restrictions to consider when it comes to the Apple Silicon-powered Mac mini. Currently Apple limits the number of external monitors that can be connected to their Macs depending on the type of computer, for instance a MacBook Air might only allow for 1 external monitor whereas the Mac mini allows for 2 external monitors. This may be a letdown for some who require the use of multiple monitors as part of their work environment.
It seems perplexing that similarly priced custom PCs with a budget-conscious graphics card can accommodate at least four external monitors whereas the M1 Mac mini can only support two monitors1. Furthermore, the transition to ARM architecture introduces challenges for dual-booting other operating systems or even booting a version of macOS from external media. Presently, users are unable to boot from any external media containing any operating system that is designed for the ARM architecture, regardless whether the operating system is Linux or macOS - the system simply does not support it. This is in contrast to Intel-based Macs, that allowed Mac users to boot Linux as the sole operating system or within a dual boot environment where they can switch between macOS and Linux.
Currently there are projects like Asahi Linux that are showing promise in running Linux on Apple Silicon, however the current process requires some level of technical expertise to install (it requires the use of the command line) and lacks full feature implementation of certain hardware devices.
Connectivity and Ports
On a positive note, the M1 Mac mini offers a favourable range of connectivity options. With two USB-A ports and two USB-C ports, users have flexibility in connecting a variety of devices. One of the USB-C ports also doubles as a convenient port for an external monitor2, adding to the overall versatility of the device.
In conclusion, the M1 Mac mini is an impressive and capable computing solution. Its stellar performance and seamless integration with Apple’s ecosystem make it a desirable choice for many users. Potential buyers should be aware of the limitations of the Mac mini, and Apple Silicon-based computers in general, such as the inability to upgrade certain hardware components and the limitations in the number of external monitors that can be connected. In addition, some power users they may experience challenges associated with using alternative operating systems, such as Linux - they will need to use virtualization tool, such as Parallels or VMware Fusion, to create Linux virtual machines that are design for the ARM64 architecture.
Despite these drawbacks, the M1 Mac mini delivers a remarkable computing experience and serves as a testament to Apple’s commitment to innovation and performance.
There are hardware devices that use a technology called DisplayLink to allow for 1-3 more external monitors for an M1 Mac over USB-A or USB-C. There are drawbacks with regards to these devices as some video content might not play correctly without adjusting settings such as YouTube videos or Netflix. ↩︎
This will require a USB-C cable if the external monitor has a USB-C port, or if not, a USB-C to HDMI (or DisplayPort) dongle or cable will be necessary. ↩︎