Mac mini with M1 chip, first impressions: Intel and AMD have a very, very big problem

My colleague Pedro Aznar already offered us his first impressions of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with an M1 processor, drawing the conclusion that this M1 is a chip that is not far from being a revolution. Now it’s time to see if we have the same effect with the new Mac mini with M1 chip, computer that will replace my already retired (with honors) iMac from the end of 2012.

We have already seen the transparency and simplicity of adapting all applications in our first contact with laptops, so what difference is there with this Mac mini? We are before the first desktop with Apple Silicon chip, to which we already have to connect a monitor, speakers and other peripherals separately.

The Mac mini’s box and unboxing leave no room for doubt: As with laptops, Apple doesn’t label its switch to proprietary chips at all. In fact we don’t even have the memory and storage SSD labelsIf we want to read the details of the machine, we must look for the small print. It details that we have a Mac mini “with 8 CPUs, 8 GPUs, 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of RAM.” Nothing else.

One small downside: only two USB-C ports. The two additional ports on the Intel Mac mini models are missed, although perhaps a future model with a more powerful chip can fix that.

In my specific case, I have connected the Mac mini to the following peripherals:

  • A 27-inch 4K monitor from LG, model 27UL500-W, connected via HDMI.
  • A basic Creative Pebble two-channel speakers, powered via USB-C. Since I’ll be using this Mac to write articles and little else, my sound needs aren’t too great.
  • An Apple Magic Keyboard and a Logitech G502 USB mouse.
  • A Logitech StreamCam webcam with USB-C.

Connecting all those peripherals has not been a problem for me. The initial setup has been done surprisingly fast, taking less than five minutes from when I first turned on the Mac mini until the macOS Big Sur desktop appeared. The only possible bump that we can find with this Mac mini is that we will need a wired keyboard to be able to do the initial setup, something that I have been able to solve with my USB mechanical keyboard easily.

Default, macOS applies the retina effect to 4K resolution turning it into a 1080p monitor. Personally I have preferred to scale that resolution somewhere in between that 1080p (too big for 27 inches) and the native 4K resolution (too small): I have kept the 2560x1440p resolution with which I already worked on the 27 inches of my iMac, and Thanks to the 4K resolution I get an anti-aliasing that improves (and considerably) the general quality of the image.

More details of the first contact with the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon and its possibilities, in the SamaGame Talks

The resolution change is instantaneous, none of the waiting seconds we were used to seeing in Mac with an Intel chip, although here the warning of possible impact on the performance of the system appears if we choose an intermediate scaling. Personally I have not noticed the slightest slowdown of the system, so Apple must be covering its back to users who seek to squeeze the maximum graphics performance.

With the general use of the system I have noticed, and I say this without hesitation, a noticeable increase in the overall system. Intel applications run without us even realizing that they are emulated under the Rosetta layer, and already compiled applications for the M1 chip launch instantly, in a snap of fingers.

It does not matter which application we are talking about, whether it is Twitter or Pixelmator Pro: both start so fast that it is absurd to time it. I am not one of those who will always demand maximum power from this chip, but it is clear to me that I have taken a leap in performance as I have rarely experienced.

And in raw figures? I go on to break down the results of GeekBench, Cinebench and the three Browserbench tests done with Safari. In all cases only the application of the tests was open.

In Geekbench, a test that measures the general performance of the computer with single-core and multi-core tests, we have slightly better results than MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, probably thanks to the ventilation that the device has.

Cinebench’s single-core test ranks above even some high-performance Intel Xeons, while the multi-core has comparable performance to 12-core Intel chips. At a graphic level this machine impresses, because it is placed on the levels typical of computers that are bought for complicated functions such as video editing.

The last three tests measure the performance of loading web parts and executing javascript code in a browser, something this Mac mini exceeds with flying colors. Although Chrome is already prepared to run natively on the M1 chip, the tests done with Safari with which they jump to the eye.

I have to say that I have not heard absolutely any noise from that fan during the tests, the Mac mini has endured them without messing up. The only effect I have noticed has been that the computer has warmed slightly in its rear area, very little. During the rest of the activity, such as while writing this article, the computer has been cold as an iceberg.

Let us also take into account what our colleague Julio César has already told us: none of these classic benchmarks will accurately reflect the performance of the new chips, which are too specialized to be tested in this way. But even so, the results of these same tests already let us see that we are facing something very serious.

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In the absence of working more time with it and while we wait for those new iMac, I do not hesitate for a second to say that this Mac mini is the almost-perfect desktop for any general user who works at a table many hours a day. It has envelope power even for those who dare to edit photo and video, so we could even recommend it for the small professional.

The only question I have left is: if this Mac mini is an entry model, what does the future hold? What will Macs be like with chips that prioritize performance over efficiency? The transition to Apple Silicon has only just begun and the M1 is just a snack.