Apple Mac mini (2020) M1 full review

In a way, the Mac mini is the most interesting of the three M1 Macs that launched in November 2020. Because it is a constantly connected desktop computer, the power consumption of the M1 and the record breaking battery life, is no longer a selling point. Sure, energy efficiency is always good, for the environment and the economy, but it does not affect the daily experience. Instead, with the M1 Mac mini, our full focus will be on performance.

In the Mac mini, the M1 has the chance to show off its best side. With a larger chassis and more space for fan cooling, it is in theory possible to squeeze a little extra out of the silicone. It seems that this is exactly what Apple has done.

Benchmarks

The M1 is available in four configurations, with a seven- or eight-core graphics processor, and with 8GB or 16GB of integrated RAM. In the Mac mini we tested there were eight graphics cores, and 8GB of memory. This is the same configuration as the 13in MacBook Pro we tested, but in our benchmark tests, the Mac mini consistently managed to perform better, both in terms of CPU and graphics performance.

However, the difference is not so big that you woud notice. We are talking 2-4 percent higher scores, and a similar rendering time for a video project, unpacking a compressed file, and so on. But this difference is so constant during repeated measurements that we can state that it is not down to margins of error.

Our benchmarks (below) show that there is a greater jump between the fan-free MacBook Air, which is completely passively cooled, and the other M1 Macs, which benefit from fan cooling. Cinebench R23 runs maxed out processor load in a ten minute loop, so that is where the cooling becomes of extra interest.

In both cases, these are versions of the benchmark apps that are optimized for the M1, and it gives an indication of what the computer can do with apps developed directly for the architecture. Geekbench can also be run in an Intel mode that allows it to use x86 instructions and runs via the Rosetta 2 translation layer. This results in a noticeable performance reduction, between 20 and 30 percent, in older applications compared to M1-optimized apps. But since the M1 is a boost compared to previous Intel circuits in these Macs, it will not be a deterioration.

Graphics

But CPU is not everything - graphics performance is the main reason to switch from the Core processor, whose UHD Graphics were pretty mediocre. Here we are talking about a quadrupling of performance.

Does this mean that the Mac mini is a good choice for gaming? This is not a computer meant to play games on, and the slightly more demanding titles we tested show that Apple has a bit of an uphill journey in that respect. When we ran Subnautica, with its GPU-intensive light and power management, we could at best push it to just under 30 fps, and that with all settings set to a minimum on a 1080p screen. The CPU-intensive Cities Skylines also struggled to keep up the frame rate.

However, these games are coded for PC hardware, so the emulation is an extra obstacle. In the future, these games can certainly be streamlined and optimized for M1 and the Mac.

It is mainly as a boost to productive programs that the M1 graphics come into their own and there it means a huge boost for all the new Macs, not least for the Mac mini, which with its older Intel processor, was lagging behind.

With low resolution and minimized graphics settings, it is possible to play games. But without eGPU support (which is not offered by any M1 Mac), you currently have to count out the new Mac mini as a real gaming Mac.

Mac mini power

Other components

It’s not only the CPU and GPU that make a difference for this generation of Mac mini. The M1 circuit's fast integrated memory management should deliver a faster experience in many contexts, plus is has one of the faster SSDs right now. It's hard to say exactly how much these different factors affect different situations, but on the whole you can count on M1-ready apps getting a significant boost, and that Intel-adapted apps will work as well, or maybe a little better, than before.

For the Mac mini, which has not been upgraded since 2018 and remained on slightly older generation eight of the Intel Core processor, this is a real leap in performance. The M1 offers a roughly 40% boost for single-core operations compared to the Mac mini with the best Intel Core processor, but not as big a jump up for multi-core jobs. We assume that this may have to do with the Intel equivalent having six cores that all work at full blast, while M1 is a so-called BIG.little architecture, where four cores are lower clocked and intended to relieve the maxed cores during multitasking.

Cooling

The cooling in the Mac mini makes it the most efficient of the M1 Macs, but if no one had told us that it had fan cooling, we would hardly have noticed. Most of the time it is completely silent, and even when we run power hungry games and stress tests for long periods, it gives off a slight hiss at most.

This makes the Mac mini attractive as a desktop computer for audio production, as a podcast computer, or even at a video conferencing facility. We even had it standing close to a sensitive table microphone and barely got a trace of fan sound.

M1 vs Intel

Is there any reason to stick with an old Intel-based Mac mini, or to buy one of them instead of one with M1? Yes actually. The new Mac mini does comes with some downgrades. The first, which is a problem shared by the M1 MacBooks, is that the M1 does not support external graphics cards via the Thunderbolt port. So you can not complement your Mac mini with a graphics box for a more complete professional setup. You are also limited to just two external displays with the M1 Macs, while the Intel Mac mini offers support for three displays. Part of the problem is the fact that Apple has reduced the number of ports at the back so you only get two Thunderbolt ports on the M1 Mac mini compared to four on the 2018 model.

We compare the M1 and Intel Mac mini separately here: Mac mini (M1) vs Mac mini (Intel).

Mac mini old and new

Software

Many of the problems reported in the early days were due to software that was not ready for Big Sur and the M1. This picture has changed over the months, with more and more developers now offering M1-optimized versions of their applications (read: which apps work on 1 Macs?), but even where they aren’t available you will find running apps via Rosetta 2 is excellent… for the most part.

Before you buy it is worth talking a look to see whether the apps you need to use are verified as ready for M1 and / or Big Sur before you take the step.

Verdict

Apple's M1 processor has impressed. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both saw a huge leap in performance when compared not only to the previous generation but to Intel options in what would once have been faster machines. Now the turn has come for the Mac mini. It is a little overshadowed by the two portable Macs that stole the spotlight, but it really deserves attention.

Specs

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