2020 Mac mini M1: First impressions

I finally made the leap to Apple M1-powered Macs!

Since the release of the M1-powered iMacs, I have been eyeing a potential upgrade from my ThinkPad W541. While I bought the W541 in November 2018, it was a few years old at that point. Shortly after, an outdated (and no longer supported, oddly) graphics driver rendered Adobe Premiere Pro (which, at the time, was a regular task for me) unusable.

To deal with that problem, I purchased a 2019 13″ MacBook Pro in March 2020. While I anticipated for the MacBook Pro to eventually replace my W541 as my true daily driver, it fell short of that goal. I would use the MacBook Pro for certain tasks tasks (writing/publishing posts, homework, graphic design, etc.) while the W541 remained my “personal” computer for browsing the web, gaming and more.

The Lenovo ThinkPad W541 has served me faithfully since November 2018. However, I’ve been eyeing a desktop replacement for it.

Without diving into a long-winded essay about my concerns with the MacBook, there were some concerns that prevented me from using it on a daily basis. The internal Butterfly keyboard was known for its reliability problems. (And while Apple have guaranteed repairs on damaged keyboards, free of charge, until 2024 — it could take weeks to have your machine repaired.) Furthermore, the thermals were another concern. During some tasks, the MacBook Pro could get fairly warm.

(Interestingly, thermals were a major deciding factor in replacing the W541, as well. When in heavy use or playing games like Minecraft — my favorite — the processor would get quite hot and the fans would often run at their highest speeds. CPU temperatures often climbed into the 90s [celsius] when in heavy use. My hands would get quite warm, as well.)

Another deciding factor was I wanted to move away from a laptop to a dedicated desktop. I have become increasingly more savvy on my phone, and because I’m no longer a student portability isn’t a must. I found my laptops would often stay in one spot (especially the W541), which isn’t good on their batteries. With a desktop I would also have better thermals and better expandability.

While I’ve been following Apple’s transition from Intel to their ARM-based M1 system-on-chip architecture from the beginning, I had planned to wait it out and wait for the MacBook to become more obsolete to justify the purchase. (And have the added benefit that I wasn’t going to be a “guinea pig.”)

Yet, I caved to the temptation. While not purchasing a M1 iMac, I did purchase its smaller sibling — the M1 Mac mini. Which actually happens to work out better for me in the end, in my opinion.

My (previous) Mac mini experiences

The leap to M1 is something big because it’s the jump from Intel to Apple’s own silicon. Apple promised better efficiency, better thermals, and all-around better performance with the M1 chip compared to Intel. The Mac mini was the first computer in the Mac lineup to receive the M1 chip, as the Mac mini platform was used for the developer test machines prior to public launch.

This Mac mini (which I’ll introduce after this section… finally) is my first M1 Mac. It’s not unique for the Mac mini to be the model to introduce me to the M1.

In fact, every “milestone” in my experience with (modern) Macs has begun with a Mac mini.

My first true experience with Macs and macOS was with a 2005 Mac mini G4 I used during an internship at a local newspaper office. It ran an earlier copy of Mac OS X, but still worked fine enough for my use case there. That was in October/November 2014.

The 2005 Mac mini G4 I used during an internship at the local newspaper in high school.

At the same time, we were dealing with computer issues at home. In October 2014, the hard drive in my then-daily driver (the original MintTin — an Asus Essential series desktop) died. Instead of replacing the drive, I persuaded my parents to switch to Mac OS X with the Mac mini. They eventually caved.

On Thanksgiving Eve 2014 (November 26, 2014), me and my parents made the 100-mile trip to Kansas City to pick the late 2014 Mac mini up from the County Club Apple Store. It was their only time in an Apple Store, and we were only there for 10-15 minutes. (Long enough to get the computer. I was looking forward to the 2-hour trip back home being over so I could get it up and running.)

Me working on a website in March 2015, using TextEdit on the late 2014 MacMini.

While that Mac had its issues (and unfortunately no longer works since 2017) it was a good enough of an experience to keep me in the Mac camp, with me eventually adding a MacBook Air to my “computer fleet.” I would eventually switch back to Windows 10 in 2017, but have been making an effort to switch back to macOS full-time.

Which brings me to the main feature… my first thoughts about the M1-powered Mac mini and how it holds up compared to my equivalent (but more expensive) 2019 MacBook Pro.

M1 first impressions: from ordering to unboxing to first power on

Ordering the Mac mini was just like ordering any other Mac. However, this time, I ordered using the “Apple Store” app on my phone.

I “maxed out” the memory in my M1 Mac mini — opting for the 16 GB model over the base 8 GB model. Since the memory in the M1 Macs is part of the SOC (as in it’s in the same package/component as the CPU itself), it definitely isn’t user-upgradable. I also have 16 GB of memory in my MacBook Pro.

For storage, I stayed at the basic 256 GB SSD model. I have a 2 TB external hard drive that will be used with the Mac mini most of the time, and I’m also working on a file server project.

Once ordered, the Mac mini showed up to my door fairly quickly. While the MacBook Pro (which was shipped in the midst of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic) took quite some time to arrive, I received the Mac mini in five days. While the computer was made in Malaysia, it shipped from China.

The 2021 Apple M1 Mac mini in its box.

Unboxing the Mac mini was fairly straight forward. While unboxing, I noticed the power cord was black — a change from the white cables Apple used for decades.

The included power cord for the M1 Mac mini is different… it’s black, a departure Apple begun with their higher-performance Macs a couple years back.

After connecting the Mac mini, it was moment I had been waiting for: powering it up.

After a couple brief moments, it booted into a modernized version of the infamous “Hello” animations which greeted Mac owners before the setup process in earlier versions of Mac OS X.

Setup was quick and easy, but not without a snag: it would not connect to my WiFi network. Turns out the ‘y’ and ‘h’ keys on my Mac keyboard — an Apple Magic Keyboard I purchased back in 2015 for the late 2014 Mac mini — were not functioning. Thankfully, I had a spare (Windows/PC) keyboard I could use. (Which made my experience even more similar to the first few months of the 2014 Mac mini, where I used the keyboard from the Asus Essentio series.)

My Apple Magic Keyboard from 2015 has two dead keys. Thankfully, I was able to swap it out with the Dell keyboard I’ve been using with the MintTin II project.

The Mac mini has a fair number of ports when compared to previous generations and more so my MacBook Pro. My MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt 3 ports (one of which is used for charging) and a headphone jack; the M1 Mac mini has two USB-A ports, two USB-C ports, a HDMI video port and a headphone jack. The Mac mini also has a separate power jack since it has an internal power supply. I use my Mac mini with the “FlePow” USB-C hub I bought on Amazon with my MacBook Pro in 2020, which adds three additional USB-A ports, an additional (functional) HDMI port, and SD and TF/TransFlash card readers.

The machine booted right into macOS Monterey (12.0.1.) My MacBook is still on Big Sur.

The “About This Mac” window


While I’ve only had the M1 Mac mini for a day, I can already tell its more efficient than the Intel Mac, and definitely the W541.

The M1 chip doesn’t get as hot as the Intel chips do in operation. While playing Minecraft — a task that often ramped the fans up to max speed and heated the processor past 90 ºC — on the M1 chip, it barely got warm yet seemed to outperform the Intel chip in my MacBook. So far (including playing over an hour of Minecraft), the computer hasn’t got noticeably warm and the fans have remained quiet.

This thing is also noticeably faster than the W541 it replaces. Everything runs buttery smooth.

Over my 2019 MacBook Pro, the improvements in performance are more subtle. However, I’ve noticed a slight improvement in handling of graphics and the snappiness of the system.

A nice feature of the M1 chip — in addition to its better efficiency and thermals — is the inclusion of a 8-core GPU, all in the same package. That may explain the better graphics performance when compared to the Intel integrated graphics on the MacBook.

New Monitor: HP 24m monitor

Since the Mac mini uses HDMI to output video, I had to upgrade from my VGA-only monitor. (I could’ve used an adapter, but one wasn’t readily available and I’ve also been looking to replace my old monitor, which I received free from a friend in high school and have used since.)

The problem with the task of finding a monitor at this moment is the supply chain problems mean many monitors are out-of-stock or would take time to receive. Since the computer was expected sooner than most online retailers would ship a monitor in (without paying somewhat exorbitant shipping fees), I looked more locally.

I ended up going to Walmart to see their stock. They had four “basic” monitors to choose from — a HP 24m (24″ class), HP 27m (27″ class), an LG 27″-class monitor, and another monitor. A 27″-class monitor would’ve been too large for my current desk, so I decided to go with the HP 24m.

The HP 24m monitor in its box.

Despite my disdain for modern HP products and mixed expectations of the monitor, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this monitor is a decent value. It has a crisp image with brilliant colors, a matte display, and is larger than my previous decades-old Dell monitor. It offers both HDMI and VGA inputs, which can be switched between.

Testing out the HP 24m monitor with the MacBook Pro as an extended display.

My only concern with this monitor, so far, is there is a flickering at certain times. However, most of the time, that isn’t an issue and is very slight.

While I was hesitant to pay $175 for a basic monitor, I’m glad I did.

Three of the four generations of the Mac in one picture. From left: 2019 13″ MacBook Pro (Intel), 1988 Macintosh SE “SuperSE” (Motorola/68k, 68030), 2021 Mac mini (M1.)

So far, my experience with the M1 Mac mini has been fairly pleasant. I feel it presently delivers on the promises of better efficiency, better thermals, and better performance. Time will tell how well the M1 handles over time and more intensive tasks.

Correction: The Mac mini featured in this article is the 2020 model. No new Mac mini models were released in 2021.