2020 M1 Mac mini: One month later

It has been more than a month since I unboxed the 2020 M1 Mac mini and set it up. Since, it has served as my daily driver — I’ve used it for everything from browsing the web, writing posts (this one included), watching videos/movies, playing Minecraft, and everything in between.

In this post, I’ll detail my thoughts on the computer after using it daily for a month.

Hardware comparison: late 2014 vs. 2020

One thing I failed to do in my original unboxing/first impressions post was compare the machine to its older brother: the late 2014 Mac mini.

It’s clear the M1 Mac mini offers a giant leap forward in terms of processing capabilities over the late 2014 model, but what about expandability, I/O, or just how the physical size has changed — or not changed.

On the outside, very little has changed since 2014 — or 2010, really. Every Mac mini dating back to the mid-2010 model (released June 15, 2010) shares the same footprint: 7.7 inches (19.7 cm) wide and deep, and 1.4 inches (3.6 cm) high. My late 2014 Mac mini also weighs exactly the same as the 2020, according to Apple, with both weighing in at 2.6 pounds (1.19 kg.)

On the front, the IR window found on the late 2014 model has been completely removed. This change came in 2018 with the introduction of the fourth generation Mac minis.

The late 2014 Mac mini (bottom) and 2020 M1 Mac mini (top) share a lot in common on the outside: both are housed in nearly identical aluminum slabs. The 2020 M1 Mac mini lacks the IR window the 2014 model has, and the power LED has been moved to the bottom.

On the rear, I/O ports are fairly different between the two. Not surprisingly, the late 2014 model has the upper hand in this category, with a larger selection of I/O: gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, two Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, line input and headphone output. However, the 2020 M1 model isn’t too shabby, especially when compared to some of the MacBook models released in recent years. (Thankfully, it appears Apple has learned customers want I/O and have departed from the “fewer is better” and “just buy a dongle and some hubs” model.) The 2020 M1 model features gigabit Ethernet (which can be upgraded to 10Gb Ethernet), two Thunderbolt 3.0/USB C ports, a single HDMI 2.0 connector, two USB A ports, and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

Unlike my 2019 13″ MacBook Pro, there are a comfortable amount of I/O ports that my USB C hub isn’t required all the time.

A look at the rear panels on the 2020 M1 Mac mini (top) and late 2014 Mac mini. The 2020 model has fewer I/O options, but still more than what was offered on many recent MacBook models.

Inside, the machines are — of course — two very different worlds. The late 2014 Mac mini features an Intel Core i5 processor with a 1.6 GHz base clock. (We purchased the $500 base model back in November 2014.) It has 4 GB of non-upgradable RAM and integrated graphics. Internal storage consists of a 500 GB mechanical hard drive, which is upgradable.

On the flip side, the 2020 M1 Mac mini’s brain is the M1 chip, Apple’s own designed silicon based on the ARM instruction set. (I’ll talk about the performance of the M1 chip later in this post.) I upgraded my Mac mini to max out the memory with 16 GB unified memory. (Unlike with the 2014 model and other Intel Macs, the M1 chip has the memory inside the processor or “system on chip.” Thus, there is absolutely no upgrading the memory in M1 Macs, at least not currently without swapping out the entire computer.) That SOC, which features the CPU/processor and RAM, also features the embedded GPU. Both the CPU and GPU are 8-core. Internal storage is a 256 GB SSD, which is the base storage configuration. (I use my 2 TB external hard drive with the Mac mini.)

Compared to previous Mac minis, the 2020 M1 Mac mini offers a leap forward in capabilities without a change in footprint. But how well has it held up after a month of daily use?

One month later…

So how well has the M1 Mac mini held up after a month of daily use?

Unsurprisingly well.

As I’ll discuss later, it’s not perfect. But it is an improvement over my 2019 13″ MacBook Pro, and a far improvement over the performance my ThinkPad W541 — which the Mac mini replaced — offered.

The biggest improvement is in the efficiency, especially in graphics- and processor-intensive tasks. I play a lot of Minecraft, which — despite being a relatively “simple” game — is fairly graphics intensive. Because playing Minecraft was a near daily task for the W541, it would really test the graphics and thermal performance of the M1 chip.

Both the W541 and 2019 MacBook Pro would ramp their fans up to max speed while I played Minecraft on default (“fancy” graphics) settings. The MacBook Pro, with its integrated (Intel) graphics seemed to struggle more with Minecraft than the W541, which had discrete Nvidia Quadro graphics. There’s a reason the fans would run at max speed: both computers would get very warm while running Minecraft and other processor/graphics-intensive tasks, such as rendering video footage. (The W541 normally stayed between 60-75 degrees Celsius, and hovering around 90 degrees C when playing Minecraft or running other intensive tasks.

Furthermore, my experience with thermals on Intel Mac minis hasn’t been great. The late 2014 Mac mini always ran warm, even at idle, which may have contributed to its short lifespan. While visiting an Apple Store in December 2019, I noticed all of the Mac minis on display — which were idling at the Finder desktop and had a Safari window open displaying the machine’s specs — were uncomfortably warm.

Thankfully, it’s a different story on the M1 Mac mini.

On the M1 Mac mini, I have yet to hear the fans ramp up at all. Even after hours of playing Minecraft on default graphics, running other apps in the background, and streaming movies, the Mac mini never gets remotely warm. Despite that, I’d say Minecraft runs smoother on the M1 Mac mini than it did on both the W541 and MacBook. It seems Apple has truly found a way to reduce thermals/increase efficiency without sacrificing performance.

Minecraft (the Java version) performs flawlessly on the M1 Mac mini, with no lagging or issues. Despite ramping up the fans considerably on my W541 and 2019 13″ MacBook Pro, the M1 Mac mini barely gets warm when playing Minecraft — even after hours of playing.

But what about Intel-native apps? Since the M1 chip is based on the ARM instruction set — different from Intel’s x86-64 instruction set — older, Intel apps that have yet to be recompiled for ARM (or legacy apps that won’t be recompiled ever) have to run in emulation. Apple, as with previous processor architecture transitions, has thought about this with the Rosetta II emulation layer.

Early reports claimed Rosetta II doesn’t sacrifice performance of Intel-based apps, despite running in emulation. In fact, some reports claimed those apps running on M1 chips in emulation ran better than they did on their native Intel-based machines. I was slightly skeptical.

However, it seems to be accurate. Another app I use frequently, Audacity, has yet to be recompiled for ARM. For the time being, it runs in Rosetta II.

It seems Audacity runs just as well (if not slightly quicker) as it did on the native Intel i5-powered MacBook Pro. Audacity runs far faster on the Mac mini than the W541, as many effects and tools process either instantly or far quicker than they did with the W541.

Audacity runs just as well on the M1 Mac mini under Rosetta II emulation as it does on my 2019 13″ MacBook Pro, despite being written for Intel’s x86-64 instruction set. There is no sacrifice in usability, reliability or performance.

The M1 chip offers better performance and better efficiency than the Intel chips of years past. Not only with processor-intensive tasks, but also graphics-intensive tasks. The M1 system on chip not only features the CPU, but also the GPU and RAM (or, as Apple calls it, “unified memory”) all on one chip. And since everything is all on the same die, latency is reduced.

Reliability concerns

After a somewhat poor experience with the late 2014 Mac mini and feeling how hot the display (Intel) Mac minis were at the Apple Store in 2019, I was somewhat worried about the reliability of the M1 Mac mini. I think the poor thermal design of previous Intel models made for high failure rates and shorter longevity. Thankfully, with the reduced thermal load caused by the M1 chip, I believe the M1 Mac mini should have fewer problems.

While my M1 Mac mini experience has been pleasant, there have been some hiccups and concerns. And not everyone has had the greatest experience, with software update bugs and other issues plaguing users — which is a risk you take when being an “early adopter” after such a huge transition.

The one issue I’ve had with the Mac mini so far is random restarts and crashes. I’ve noticed a handful of times where I’ve returned to my sleeping Mac to find it has rebooted itself “because of a problem.” I believe this issue is more software than hardware oriented, which I hope is eventually fixed.

The other issue I’ve encountered with the M1 Mac mini is a problem I had with the late 2014 Mac mini: video problems. When I go to wake my sleeping Mac mini, it will sometimes show colored static or have garbled/distorted video. It will sometimes flicker five or six times before settling and letting me login. Thankfully, the M1 Mac mini will settle after a couple times; the late 2014 Mac mini sometimes required a hard reboot to login and use the computer. I’m hoping this may just be a software bug or a simple and cheap fix. There’s also the possibility the M1 issue may be in the monitor or HDMI cable. (While I purchased the AppleCare+ extended warranty — something I recommend anybody do when purchasing a Mac or other Apple device — it’s still a ~150 mile drive to my nearest Apple Store.)

Other than those two issues, the M1 Mac mini has been a nearly flawless performer. It offers a leap in performance while improving thermals. And because the Mac mini is fairly affordable, it is a great way to upgrade from an older computer or get into the Apple ecosystem without breaking the bank.