Apple Mac Mini (M1): The Morning After

Apple’s new M1-based Mac Mini has held up well in early testing, with excellent software and hardware compatibility and performance. Well, with one exception.

We’ll get to that.

Despite it being the first full workday after the holidays, I had two long back-to-back meetings on Monday afternoon, which cut into my Mac setup time. But I did get it done, though there was one rough patch in the early going: Because the Mac Mini only has two USB-A ports and I have three USB-A peripherals that need to be plugged in at all time, I decided to add a USB dock and attach everything to that. But macOS Setup was having none of it: It informed me, cryptically, that I needed to power on my mouse and/or keyboard before it would proceed.

The issue was that my Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse set uses a USB dongle for connectivity, and that USB dock wasn’t detected on the first boot. (I tried it later and it seems to work fine now.) So for the first boot, I just plugged the Microsoft dongle directly into one of the Mac’s USB ports, and that worked.

I won’t belabor how tedious the Mac Setup process is since it’s not unique to the M1-based Macs, but it’s a wizard-based affair with far too many steps. After getting through that, I checked for updates, found that there was one—for macOS Big Sur 11.1—so I got that started while I worked on a few other things.

First, I decided to see how well my other hardware worked. The most obvious was the display, which seemed to be working fine. But that was confirmed by a quick visit to the Displays interface in System Preferences, which correctly identified the display as an HP Z27n G2 and configured it for the right resolution. (I bumped up the scaling manually.)

My USB dock, as noted, also worked fine once I had booted into macOS, so I left that on the second USB-A port and connected my Focusrite audio interface (which connects my podcast microphone to USB) and Logitech Brio webcam to that. To quickly test these products, I then downloaded Microsoft Skype from the web and set that up. Both hardware devices were detected correctly and worked just fine.

After that, I set about downloading and installing the productivity applications I rely on every day. This included Microsoft Edge—and, yes, I grabbed the Canary version from the Edge Insider website since there’s a native M1 port available—Microsoft Word, Microsoft OneNote, Paint S (a Microsoft Paint-like application), and Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018 from the Mac App Store, and then Microsoft Teams and Microsoft OneDrive from the web (I assume both are Intel-type x64 apps).

My performance and compatibility experience thus far has been excellent, with one exception.

Native M1-based apps generally load with the promised alacrity, which is quite pleasant. But I was more interested in seeing how translated x64-based apps ran. This was mostly good news as well.

The first time you run an x64-based application, macOS prompts you to install Rosetta, a process that takes just several seconds. Then, the first time you run any x64 application, you need to wait for several seconds for it to launch. After that, x64 applications launch normally, at least so far, with no obvious issues. Big apps like Microsoft Teams and Photoshop Elements still take some several seconds to launch. But Skype comes up in 2-3 seconds, which seems about normal to me.

The only problem I’ve run into so far, and it’s admittedly a concerning one, is OneDrive. This application isn’t available natively for M1 yet, and it has to integrate with the Finder to work properly with Files on Demand, and the performance has been miserable so far, with lots of slow-moving beachballs. (Mac users will understand.) I can’t get it to work right yet.

As far as general system performance goes, there’s nothing really special about it, other than the fact that it working normally is kind of special, frankly. By comparison, Windows 10 on ARM seems to do everything at a leisurely pace or worse.

The Mac Mini itself appears to be silent, despite the presence of a fan system that I assume will kick in if I try to render video, play a 3D video game, or similar. My NUC, by comparison, offers an audible fan noise regularly.

At some point, I did install that Big Sur update. That took a while, but again, that’s par for the course on the Mac: Unlike with Windows, Mac software updates, even minor ones, take a long time and require the computer to be offline for the duration. (To be clear, this is not M1-related.)

It’s already clear that what Apple has done here is impressive. By comparison, Windows 10 on ARM offers slow performance and has major compatibility issues, though the advent of x64 app emulation sometime in 2021 should help with that latter issue. Apple’s M1-based Macs, however, offer excellent performance with native apps, good to great performance with translated x64 apps, and what appears to be—yes, it’s early yet—excellent compatibility with both hardware peripherals and legacy software applications. The one major issue I’ve experienced so far, with OneDrive, is Microsoft’s fault, not Apple’s, and it will obviously be fixed sometime soon.

Looking ahead, I’ll test virtualization with Parallels and maybe even try a few light games. You never know.

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