Apple Mac Mini (M1) First Impressions

The new M1-based Mac Mini arrives in a form factor that is identical to its predecessor but with fewer expansion ports and dramatically different internals.

I wrote about my plans to assess the new M1-based Mac Mini a few weeks ago. Here, I’ll provide some early impressions of the hardware itself, but I of course have bigger plans for reviewing this computer going forward. So we’ll discuss that a bit as well.

This Mac arrived a lot earlier than originally promised, which is typical of Apple. You may recall that the original estimate was for a January 14 delivery, but I got an update last week indicating that it would come a week earlier, on January 8 (this coming Thursday). This morning, I woke up to an email telling me that it was on the UPS truck and would be delivered today. That kind of news is always appreciated.

So. The new Mac Mini.

From a form factor perspective, there’s not much new about the M1-based Mac Mini: It utilizes the same enclosure as its Intel-based predecessors. I don’t like that this computer has no ports at all on the front. Here, Apple has chosen the clean lines of its design preferences over practicality, and that was—and still is—a mistake.

On the rear, you’ll find the first—and arguably the only—external visual differences between the M1-based Mac Mini and those earlier products. Both provide a power port, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 2.0 (video-out), two USB-A ports (with speeds up to 5 Gbps), and a 3.5-mm headphone jack. But where the Intel-based Mac Mini provides four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, the M1 version provides only two.

There is one important technical difference in those USB-C ports too. Those two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports support USB4 at up to 40 Gbps on the M1 Mac Mini, where the Intel versions do not. (The ports’ other capabilities— USB 3.1 Gen 2 up to 10 Gbps, plus DisplayPort, and Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, DVI, and VGA support via adapters—are the same between both versions.)

Compared to Intel’s wonderful NUC mini-PCs, the Mac Mini is bigger: It’s much wider and deeper, though less tall. Given how much smaller the M1-based board is inside the Mac Mini, I think we can expect a much smaller and redesigned Mac Mini in the near future. I have to think it could be about half as big. (Even the packaging seems really big, especially for an Apple product.)

As with all previous generation Mac Minis—dating back, some forget, to the original Power PC-based versions—the new M1-based unit doesn’t come with any extras: There’s a power cable in the box with the Mac and that’s it.

You’re expected to provide your own keyboard, mouse, and display, so I plan to be toggling back and forth with the hardware I currently use with my NUC. This includes a Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse (accessed via a USB-A dongle) and my HP Z27n G2 (1440p) display, plus whatever other peripherals I need for podcasts.

The bottom of the Mac Mini

And that will be the first big test, right? How well—and how automatically—does the M1 Mac Mini work with the most basic hardware that I rely on every day? After that, the next potential issue, of course, is the software that I use: Can the M1 Mac Mini effectively run the applications that I use? I expected good things here, given the mainstream nature of my basic needs, which amounts to Microsoft Office, Microsoft Edge, OneDrive sync, and some graphics package (I own Adobe Photoshop Elements on the Mac). I’ll get to that today and report back.

And then there’s performance, of course. It’s early yet, but I will say that I was immediately suspicious of the over-the-top excitement about the performance that the Apple-picked wave-one reviewers gushed about. I have used many, many Macs. So we’ll see what happens there.

Properly evaluating the Mac Mini effectively will require time, of course. But so far, everything points to Apple having done a better job of handling the key areas in which WOA stumbles—performance and compatibility—though both will vary by one’s workload requirements. I look forward to finding out for myself.

More soon.

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