Mac mini

M1 FTW

Back in December, I have written about the amazing new generation of Macintosh computers that had just been introduced. These new machines make use of Apple’s own M1 CPU, replacing the Intel chips. I have described this as a new era, not only for Apple, but for the whole industry. The M1 is an ARM design. ARM processors are being used in basically all mobile devices these days, simply because they offer more performance at way lower power consumption. Now also used in Macs, this means that these machines run much cooler, and operate longer on one battery charge. As the benchmarks show, they are also very performant. The current models are entry-level, lower-end machines, but still successfully compete with iMacs and even Mac Pros.

MacBook Pro Retiring

Which brings me to my latest purchase, a Mac mini. Last Friday, I could finally pick up mine. It replaces my 2013 MacBook Pro, which had just barely been limping along, not really anymore up to the tasks, in particular for photo editing. But there had not been a real replacement. I have described my woes with my MacBook Pro, and my reluctance to purchase a newer model, simply as I did’t trust their thermal design.

Now that I have physically replaced my MacBook Pro with the Mac mini on my desk, I have used the MacBook a few times directly, ie. without an external keyboard and a mouse, and I could feel again that the trackpad lacks travel, that is, that the battery is bloated. Le sigh. I am not sure I should even have it repaired once more. Probably not. It’s simply not made our climate here. I’d rather invest into an M1-based MacBook Pro, or even only Air, for my travelling needs. In case there’s some level of travelling coming back any time soon.

Big Sur

The M1-based Macs only run with the latest version of macOS, Big Sur. It’s ok-ish, I mean, the essentials seem to work, but does the user interface really need to make use of all that transparency, or dark grey text on light grey backgrounds, and many other areas which simply lack contrast?

It Works

Over the weekend, I have started to install all my stuff onto the Mac mini. The data is easy, just copy from the Thunderbolt-based backup disk. Thunderbolt 3 is friggin' fast!

The programs, though, need re-download and re-installation, simply to get the M1-versions – if available. Quite a few are, some are not yet. But it’s a good practice anyway to start afresh from time to time, and if the fundamental change of the CPU is not the right time for this, what else would be?!

The most taxing task for this computer is to develop photos from RAW originals. For this, I use ON1 Photo RAW. Alas, this program has not been ported to run natively on the M1 chip, but is designed and compiled for the old Intel architecture. But thanks to the Rosetta 2 technology of Big Sur, the M1 Mac mini runs it anyway. And fast! ON1 Photo RAW runs way faster on the Mac mini than on the Intel-based MacBook Pro. Now, admitted, that’s an ancient machine, but still. Pretty impressive.

On the MacBook Pro, the fans switch on immediately when running ON1 Photo RAW, even without any heavy workload. I still have to hear the Mac mini’s fan even once. Yesterday I developed a series of pictures taken at our Charity Centre market on Saturday. No audible fans at any point.

Using a non-M1-native program is completely seamless. The Rosetta thing works completely transparently, even with system-level extensions for Sync, Backblaze, and 1Password.

For writing and publishing my posts here, I use a few command-line tools, such as nginx and rsync. To keep my life easy, I use Homebrew to install and manage this kind of tool. Homebrew itself now supports the M1 architecture, and all packages that I installed yesterday are M1-native as well. Kudos to everyone who made this possible, within only a few weeks since the release of the M1 Macs.

Connectivity

The Mac mini has a real Ethernet port – no dongle, yay! –, two Thunderbolt1 and two USB ports. And an HDMI port. It’s not port heaven. My plan is to replace all external disks for backup and archiving with Thunderbolt-based SSDs, and to finally get rid of my last spinning disks.2 I have ordered the OWC Thunderbolt Dock, which will give me the ports I need for this. Even an SD card reader for my photography work.

Bottom Line

Based on my short experience, the Mac mini seems to be a solid little machine with good performance, in particular considering that it’s an entry level computer, as are all currently available M1 Macs. It runs cool and silent. I use my ancient Apple Thunderbolt monitor, which is not ideal, considering that the Mac mini could easily drive a Retina display. In this sense it’s no full replacement for an iMac, at least until Apple finally releases a stand-alone 5k display. Or I purchase a Pro Display XDR.


  1. The Thunderbolt ports also support USB 4 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 (who comes up with this naming and numbering scheme?). ↩︎

  2. The bus-powered enclosure is basically a Thunderbolt 3 to PCIe interface, and houses any M.2 NVMe SSD (size 2280). Nifty concept, and well executed. Sturdy and solid. Nice detail: check out how the cable is integrated. ↩︎