This review is from the perspective of a visual content creator, someone who's into digital art, graphic design, edits photos and 4K videos. There will be some comparison to the Mac Mini 2018 (6x 3.2Ghz) that I've been using prior to the upgrade to the new M1 Mac Mini.
The Mac Mini 2020 was released in November 2020. I did not buy the new Mac Mini at launch for two reasons: I wanted to wait for more apps to be re-written to run natively on the M1 processor, and I wanted to save money by buying a refurbished model (15% off retail price).
The refurbished model I bought was priced at S$1,599 (US$1,199) and comes with these specs:
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 8‑core GPU and 16‑core Neural Engine
- 16GB unified memory
- 1TB SSD storage
- Gigabit Ethernet
So I saved 15% (~S$280) with the refurbished unit compared to the retail price of S$1879 (US$1,299). That's quite a good savings. And it still comes with the standard 1-year Apple warranty with the option to purchase additional 2-years warranty coverage with AppleCare+ (S$128).
The price does not include keyboard and mouse.
By the way, if you want a good keyboard and mouse, consider the Logitech K780 wireless keyboard and Logitech M720 wireless mouse which is what I actually use. They perform flawlessly with MacOS and are worth the money. The Apple wireless keyboard and Magic Trackpad 2 shown above are just backup.
The compact design of the Mac Mini makes it easy to put this anywhere. Even my Logitech mouse is taller than the Mac Mini.
These are the ports on the Mac Mini:
- 2x USB-A (up to 5 Gbps)
- 2x Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40 Gbps)/USB 4 (up to 40 Gbps)
- Gigabit Ethernet port (configurable to 10Gb Ethernet)
- HDMI 2.0 port
- 3.5mm headphone jack
Due to the limited port options, chances are you'll need some sort of dock or adapter. I highly recommend you get a Thunderbolt dock instead of those USB-C dongle adapter which may not work consistently.
The Thunderbolt dock I'm using is the Caldigit TS3 Plus which I bought secondhand (yeah, I'm into saving money). These are the ports on the Caldigit TS3 Plus:
- 2 x Thunderbolt™ 3
- 1 x DisplayPort 1.2
- 5 x USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gb/s, 1.5A, 7.5W)
- 2 x USB-C
- 1 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gb/s, 1.5A, 7.5W) Rear
- 1 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 ( 5Gb/s, 1.5A, 7.5W) Front
- 1 x SD Card Reader (SD 4.0 UHS-II)
- 1 x Digital Optical Audio (S/PDIF)
- 1 x Gigabit Ethernet
- 1 x Analog Audio In (Stereo)
- 1 x Analog Audio Out (Stereo)
I've tried using USB-C dongle adapters but those may not detect external SSD and don't provide enough power to spin-up external hard drives. You do not want to work off your external drive and have the power cut off suddenly on those dongles. External drives losing power or being disconnected in the wrong manner may cause file or data corruption.
Why get a Mac
The main reason to get a Mac is so that you can use Mac-only software. In my case, I use Final Cut Pro extensively for video editing and that app is only available on Mac.
My main advice when it comes to buying computers and tablets is to buy based on the software you want to use.
If you don't have any Mac-specific software you want to use, you can choose either Mac or Windows. Having said that, the M1 Mac Mini is quite a good value for money considering the pricing and specs. While you can probably get Windows mini-PCs at lower prices, but I'm not sure if you'll be able to get the same smoothness in terms of operation because I've not tested Windows mini-PCs. I actually run Windows 10 on an old Macbook Pro 2015 and operation is smooth.
All the visual content creation software I use, except for Final Cut Pro, are also available on Windows. If you want free video editing software, check out Da Vinci Resolve from Black Magic Design.
The software I use
The software I use are listed below in terms of frequency of usage.
- Final Cut Pro
- Adobe Lightroom Classic
- Affinity Photo
- Adobe Photoshop
- Microsoft OneDrive (Intel)
- Backup & Sync from Google (Intel)
- Adobe Illustrator (Intel)
- Affinity Designer
- Clip Studio Paint
- Medibang Paint Pro (Intel)
During this transition from the Intel to Apple M1 processors, older apps written for Intel processors will be translated by Rosetta 2 to run on the M1 processor. In the real world, the older apps should still run without issues. There's going to be a hit on the performance of the apps but that's offset by the better processing power of the Apple M1 vs Intel processor.
I use Microsoft OneDrive (Intel) to backup the files on my Mac and it still works fine. File syncing works. There's even Finder integration where I can right-click on files/folders to perform OneDrive file management.
Adobe Illustrator (Intel) works fine. Intel apps will take slightly longer at first launch but subsequent launches will be fast. Performance is smooth with no lag when doing work, e.g. navigating the canvas, drawing, handling text.
General performance of the M1 Mac Mini is fast and smooth.
The internal SSD speed is up to 3,100MB/s writes and 2,800MB/s reads. It's extremely fast to startup, launch apps, open and save huge files. File transfer speeds through the Thunderbolt 3 ports (theoretical 40Gb/s or 5GB/s) is basically limited by your external drive speed, not the port protocol speed.
Graphic design software such as Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator, Affinity Photo & Designer run smoothly. Editing hundreds of 16MP RAW photos is smooth with Adobe Lightroom Classic.
One area where my Mac Mini 2018 had lag was when editing RAW photos with a 4K video export in the background. With the M1 Mac Mini, I could export 4K videos and editing RAW photos with no lag. It's a noticeable improvement in this area for me. The lag with the 2018 model was not a dealbreaker, just a minor annoyance. My workaround was to edit the photos first, then while doing text related work, export the 4K video.
Unless you use 3D software or do complex video editing, the M1 processor should be able to handle any work you throw at it with ease. The fans rarely rev up, and this is great for people who need silent operation, e.g. while recording audio or doing live-streaming.
I didn't have any problems running Huion or XP-Pen drivers for their tablets and pen displays.
4K video editing
The internal drive is fast enough to handle heavy 4K footage. The downside is the base model comes with only 256GB of storage. Upgrading to the next tier 512GB cost US$200 or S$300, and it's another US$200/S$300 to 1TB. Storage upgrade prices from Apple is expensive.
The alternative is to edit off an external drive.
One option is the Samsung X5 Thunderbolt 3 external drive which is priced at US$599 for 2TB. The pricing is kinda similar to Apple's but this is external so if you upgrade your Mac in the future, you can still re-use this. Read and write speeds are around 2,200MB and 2,000MB based on the reviews. Downside is the speed may get throttled with heat but even so it's still a pretty fast drive.
If you're on budget, consider the USB 3.2 external SSD such as the Samsung T7 (don't get the more expensive one with fingerprint sensor), SanDisk Extreme PRO SSD or WD My Passport SSD. These are around half the price of the Samsung X5 Thunderbolt SSD but they are also around half the speed at 900MB/s reads and writes. Those speeds are still more than sufficient for 4K video editing. I've edited over 1,000+ 4K videos with USB 3.1 external SSDs for years (see below). Samsung and SanDisk should be more reliable. Check the reviews first.
I've edited almost all my 4K videos off external SSDs through USB and there's no problem. If you want to edit 4K videos, today I'll recommend at least USB 3.2 for your SSD speed.
4K video editing process and timeline playback is smooth.
The Mac Mini 2018 (6x 3.2Ghz + 32GB RAM) that I've used previously was also smooth when editing 4K videos on a 1440P display. I only see choppy timeline playback when I edit 4K videos on a 4K display.
I upgraded from the Mac Mini 2018 to M1 Mac Mini 2020 is so that I can have smoother timeline playback while editing 4K videos on a 4K display. The Mac Mini 2018 is still incredibly powerful with just that minor downside when editing 4K videos on 4K displays.
Video export times of M1 vs the 6x 3.2Ghz Intel i7 Mac Mini is not too different. The M1 took 55% of the length of the video to export while the Intel took 60%. Meaning, to export a 100-minute 4K H.265 video, the M1 took 55 minutes while the Intel took 60 minutes. The export time difference in this case is almost negligible unless video export time is your bottleneck and you can use the extra time to be productive.
If you're currently using the Intel i5 or i7 Mac Mini 2018, being able to export videos slightly faster is not, to me, a compelling reason to upgrade.
External monitor support
Apple M1 processor may have issues working with external displays. These issues affect Macbook Air, Macbook Pro and Mac Mini that use the M1 processor. There's even a list of compatible monitors contributed by users on Macrumors forums which is a list I highly recommend you look through before you get the M1 Mac Mini.
My main monitor is the BenQ SW2700PT and it works fine.
When I connected my external portable 4K monitor C-Force CF015xT. The Mac Mini could only do 1080P and not 4K. The workaround is to connect the C-Force monitor first, then the BenQ. After restarts, the Mac Mini was able to recognise 4K on the external monitor.
The M1 Mac Mini can only support two displays at the time of this review. To connect two displays, you have to use HDMI and the Thunderbolt 3 port. You cannot connect two USB-C displays to the two Thunderbolt ports.
If you need three displays, consider using SideCar with iPad for wireless desktop streaming.
I use the Macbook Pro 2015 (4x 2.5Ghz) and Mac Mini 2018 (6x 3.2Ghz) for live streaming on Youtube. The two Macs are perfectly capable of live streaming without lag and drop frames but the fans will always rev to full speed and the noise can be captured by my lavalier mic.
The M1 Mac Mini is perfect for live streaming as the fans don't rev up even when the CPU usage is 200-300% (normal for live streaming). So now I'm able to get clean audio while live streaming and that's a huge improvement for my workflow.
The M1 Mac Mini 2020 is certainly a powerful computer that can handle all my graphic design, photo and 4K video editing with ease. The fans rarely rev up.
This Mac Mini at its official retail price is quite good value for money. If you don't mind refurbished, it's an even better deal.
In terms of performance, I don't think you'll be disappointed unless you have some special needs and you have to use MacOS, in which case your other option will be the Mac Pro 2019 because the MBA, MBP and iMac are all running the same M1 processor currently.
The Mac Mini is not without downsides.
The lack of ports means you'll have to get an external dock to connect to external drives, SD cards and other devices. Multiple display support is limited at two and you cannot use the two Thunderbolt ports together at the same time for displays.
RAM is limited to just 8 and 16GB options. Memory management is quite good with on the Mac so 8GB may be sufficient unless you use many demanding apps at the same time. RAM upgrade is US$200 and you can't install third party RAM because the RAM is soldered onto the chip.
This is my current RAM usage with my usual workflow, e.g. with Affinity Photo, Lightroom, Final Cut Pro and Google Chrome opened. It basically means I used around 8GB of RAM so getting the 16GB RAM model is probably the right choice for me.
Storage on the base model is just 256GB which I guess is alright because you can always get external storage, but bear in mind the limited number of ports.
If you're thinking of upgrading from the Mac Mini 2018 or from other Macs, just ask yourself if the new Mac Mini can help you save time and money or be more productive. Or maybe you want to upgrade because Intel Macs will be phased out eventually. The Mac Mini 2012 (which I have) can no longer get MacOS updates, such as MacOS 11 Big Sur. That's eight years of MacOS support. If you have the Mac Mini 2018, the last MacOS update it may get may be in 2026 (my guess).
Pros and cons at a glance
+ Affordable entry price (even more affordable if it's refurbished)
+ Good value for money
+ Thunderbolt 3
+ M1 processor is powerful and can handle multiple demanding apps with ease
+ Fans rarely rev up
+ Compact design does not take up much space
- Third party RAM cannot be used because RAM is soldered
- Limited number of ports
- Only a max of two monitors supported
- Issues with monitor compatibility (see here for compatible displays)