Mac mini 2020 Review: Apple M1 Silicon Performance Deep Dive

Apple M1 Mac mini: Apple Silicon Impresses With Great Performance-Per-Watt Metrics

system 1 apple mac mini m1
When Apple announced its new Mac lineup -- consisting of a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13, and Mac mini -- with its new M1 processor, the company was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism. Apple's performance claims were incredible. For instance, the company said that its new Apple Silicon offers upwards of 3.4 times the performance as the last-generation Mac mini with a quad-core Intel Core i3 processor. That's the sort of thing that could make a Mac lover's eyes pop. However, proclaiming things like "more than three times the performance," without substantiating those claims, will also spur its share of detractors. 

So, we did what any curious spectator would do; we bought one just to see what the hype was all about. That's right, this isn't a press preview kit you're looking at, this is a real live Mac mini straight off the shelf of a major retailer. That means we couldn't provide launch-day coverage, but it also means that this unit should be representative of any M1-powered Mac mini bought from an Apple retailer. 

At $699, Apple's cheapest Mac could actually wind up being a bargain, if its promised performance improvements were anything close to reality. Even better, we have a previous-generation Mac mini handy for comparison. It's a 2018 Mac mini with an 8th-generation Intel Core i5-8500B. It's not the base model that Apple used in its comparison with the new M1 chip. Still, the M1 has to outrun this processor to have any hope of confirming the kind of incredible gains that Apple claims should be realized. Before we go too far, though, let's meet the late 2020 Mac mini with its M1 processor...

power led apple mac mini m1

Apple Mac mini (2020, M1)
Specifications & Features
Processor Apple M1 (4 Performance Cores, 4 Efficiency Cores, 16-core Neural Network)
Memory 8 GB LPDDR4X (soldered)
Storage 256 GB NVMe (soldered)
Graphics Integrated Apple 8-Core Custom GPU
OS macOS Big Sur 
Dimensions 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches (197 x 197 x 36 millimeters)
Weight 2.6 pounds (1.2 kilograms)
Ports (Rear) 2x Thunderbolt 4 (up to 40 Gb/s bi-directional)
2x USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10 Gb/s)
1x HDMI 2.0
1x Gigabit Ethernet
1x 3.5mm headphone
Wireless Connections 802.11ax Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0
Pricing $699 base model as reviewed

A Closer Look at Apple Silicon

Before we go too far, we need to talk a bit about what we can glean about how Apple Silicon works. As everybody knows by now, the heart of the Mac mini is an Apple M1 processor. All of Apple's home-grown mobile designs currently implement the Arm64 instruction set architecture (ISA), and the M1 shares that same heritage. That means that there's no x86 compatibility at a hardware level, but macOS Big Sur has a solution that we'll talk about in a moment. Apple gave the M1 four performance-focused "Firestorm" cores and four more power-efficient "Icestorm" cores.

The company doesn't get too much into architecture in its official documentation, but one option open to us is the sysctl tool. For example, using this command: 

sysctl -a | grep cache

We can see a lot of information and pipe it into grep, filtering it down to just the cache statistics. At any rate, the high-performance cores have 320 kB of L1cache a piece and share a 12 MB L2 cache. The energy-efficient cores have 192 kB of total L1 cache a piece and a shared 4 MB L2 cache. We can somewhat get a gander at clock speeds as well, but only a single speed gets reported. Clock speeds vary, but according to Geekbench, the M1 maxes out at 3.2 GHz. Unfortunately, and unlike Intel Macs, sysctl does not display any of the hw.cpufrequency stats. 

apple m1 closeup

Apple outfits all the new M1 Macs with 8 GB to 16 GB of what it calls "unified" memory. While the company doesn't talk about the RAM type publicly, we know from iFixit's teardown of the MacBooks that Apple used SKHynix's LPDDR4X memory right on the CPU package. Because of its soldered positioning, and also due to the lack of LPDDR4X DIMMs in the wild, it is not user-upgradeable like the previous Mac mini. The same is true for the NVMe solid state storage, which is both soldered and encrypted by Apple's T2, which was a separate chip in the past, but has been baked into the M1. External storage will have to suffice if you want to expand the system. As such, be sure to order as much internal storage and RAM as reasonably possible when ordering. 

Once we get past the Arm64 cores, Apple has packed a lot of extra functionality into the M1. First up is a "16-core" machine learning component. If you thought 3.4 times the performance was a wild projection, Apple says the purpose-built Neural Network in the M1 is 15 times faster at machine learning tasks than the Core i3 in the base Mac mini before it. Apple says one example of new functionality this opens up is that Algoriddm's djay Pro AI can generate separate tracks for vocals and different instruments in real-time for any song recording. 

apple m1 cpu claims
Apple makes some pretty fantastical claims about CPU performance, and we'll test that out

The last big block of the M1 is dedicated to graphics. The previous Mac mini still relied on Intel's UHD 630 integrated graphics processor. As far as integrated graphics go these days, this is about as slow as it gets, while Intel's newest Iris Xe is actually pretty powerful. As a result, the bar is pretty low for Apple to clear in terms of promising improved performance. As a result, Apple's promise here is up to 5 times faster graphics than the previous Mac mini. We never quite measured a shift in performance increases that high, but -- and we don't want to spoil too much here -- we saw some pretty incredible gains in Mac games and 3D tests. All new M1 Macs include this GPU, but the base model of the MacBook Air comes with one of the eight GPU cores disabled.

Other Mac Mini Specs and Features

The base model of the Mac mini includes the aforementioned Apple M1 along with 8 GB LPDDR4x memory and 256 GB of NVMe storage. Both the RAM and the storage are soldered to the Mac mini's motherboard, so buyers should be sure to get as much of each as necessary at the time of purchase. Unfortunately, the RAM stops at just 16 GB because Apple integrated it into the M1's package. Presumably that's one of the reasons that Apple didn't introduce any Macs beyond its cheapest entrants.

stack apple mac mini m1
Top: 2020 Mac mini with Apple's M1. Bottom: 2018 Mac mini with Intel's Core i5-8500B

By default that solid state storage is the only supported boot device. Unlike Windows PCs, Macs are capable of booting the OS straight from an external drive. However, Apple configures any Mac with its T2 security hardware to boot only from internal storage. That can be changed by booting to the recovery partition and using a command from the Terminal. While we can appreciate stepped-up security, if a Mac with soldered internal storage encounters a failure, there's no backup plan except to send it back to Apple. Owners can also lock their Macs to their Apple ID and wipe and lock them remotely, just like an iPhone. Those two features can render a stolen Mac a brick. However, if you're more concerned about a failure than theft, allowing external boot devices will let the machine boot from a Thunderbolt enclosure with a speedy NVMe drive, negating one downside to soldered storage. 

The system's footprint hasn't changed by a millimeter with the move to Apple Silicon. The enclosure's unibody aluminum shell has lost the darker "Space Gray" tint of its predecessor, so it's back to the silvery color as most Macs of the last 10 to 15 years. While we didn't tear the Mac mini down ourselves, online reports indicate that Apple could have made the system much smaller than it did. Looking at detailed photos of the Mac mini, it seems that the motherboard only occupies about half the case, and that the cooler sits right on top of it. While the blower-style fan sits to the side of the heat sink, it seems that Apple could have redesigned the Mac mini to be even smaller than it is. Then again, maybe a change in CPU architecture is enough shift for one generation. 

port compare apple mac mini m1
Top: 2020 Mac mini with Apple's M1. Bottom: 2018 Mac mini with Intel's Core i5-8500B

The Mac mini's changes aren't quite all progress, though. The number of Thunderbolt ports has been slashed from the 2018 model's four down to two, but these support the new Thunderbolt 4 spec. That means, unlike the previous generation's Thunderbolt 3 ports, the 40 gigabits per second of bandwidth works in both directions simultaneously. Just like before, they support USB 3.2 and DisplayPort, as well. Unlike the Intel Macs, Apple says each Thunderbolt port gets its own dedicated bus this time around, too, so there's no bandwidth sharing. Since the Mac mini isn't a laptop, Thunderbolt ports aren't used for power delivery.

There are only two USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports on the rear, too, a pittance without an external hub. The 2018 Mac mini had an optional 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapter for a $100 upgrade, but that option did not survive the transition to Apple Silicon. HDMI 2.0 made the cut, however. Between the Thunderbolt and HDMI ports, the Mac mini can support a single 6K display over Thunderbolt and a 4K display over HDMI 2. 

Inside the Mac mini are a couple of antennas for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The wireless chip is a Broadcom combination 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 chip and Bluetooth 5.0 controller. There have been some rumblings online about Mac mini users in particular having Bluetooth connectivity issues, especially with Logitech's Bluetooth mice, which came up in the comments of our quick test of Windows on the Mac. The only Bluetooth mouse we have on hand is Logitech's M535, but we haven't had any issues with connectivity. That's not to discount other users' experience, though. We just haven't reproduced it for ourselves. The same is true of the Jabra Evolve 75 headset we use for Skype and FaceTime calls. 

Apple's App Ecosystem

Standard Mac applications, for the most part, just work on an M1-equipped Mac. With Big Sur, Apple brought back Universal Applications, which are "fat" binaries built for both the x86-64 and Arm64 architectures, and most new apps going forward will have native Arm code built right in. However, any hope an M1 Mac has at running x86 applications is through a translation layer, known as Rosetta 2. The original Rosetta was an emulation layer that translated native PowerPC applications to run on x86 processors like the Intel Core Duo that shipped in the first Intel-based Macs. This iteration does this same sort of thing, except that it's optimized to translate x86-64 applications for Apple's implementation of the Arm64 ISA. 

papers please
Apple's M1 Macs can run iOS apps natively

Building the Mac's processor on the same architecture as its iOS devices has its advantages. Back when Apple introduced macOS Mojave, the company unveiled Project Catalyst, which intended to port iOS APIs like UIKit to the Mac. Over the last few years, several of Apple's bundled macOS applications have adopted Catalyst, including Mail, Maps, Messages, and Calendar. With macOS Bug Sur and the new M1 Macs, the transition is seemingly complete, as these new Arm64 Macs get a whole new application library: the iOS App Store. 

So confident is Apple that iOS apps will run well on M1 Macs, developers have to opt out of allowing their iOS apps to run on the Mac. That doesn't mean that all Catalyst apps are automatically iOS apps. In fact, there are now several classes of Mac apps and each has its own set of limitations: Cocoa apps, which are built with the original Mac native APIs, Catalyst apps that share code with iOS apps but run natively on the Mac, and iOS apps. The problem with iOS apps is that by and large they don't allow resizing the app window or going full screen. If this sounds confusing, that's because it is, and it makes Microsoft's UWP for universal Windows apps look sane and simple by comparison. 

about mac mini

While we're talking about software compatibility, the Mac's native Windows boot option, Boot Camp, is no more. That means that right now M1-based Macs cannot run Windows software natively with all of the system's resources. It seems like the big virtualization vendors were caught off-guard, too. VMWare, Parallels, and even Oracle's free VirtualBox are not ready for prime time on the Mac.

However, QEMU, which is used in a variety of virtualization environments including the Android emulator used for development on Windows, Mac, and Linux, has been updated with experimental M1 support. We recently took QEMU for a spin, and it performed very well in some early benchmarks. There are some drawbacks, however, like no video or audio drivers. Browsing the web wasn't as smooth as it could be, and there was no way to get any sound out of Windows. However, these machines have only been available for a couple of weeks, so we think it's wise to just give developers time to catch up to Apple's new architecture. 

Testing The Apple M1 Mac mini 

Most universal applications allow forcing the M1-equipped Macs to use Rosetta 2 to translate the x86-64 code, which is not something that's normally all that useful. However, it gives us the ability to test Rosetta 2 performance against native application performance using Arm64 code. To force an app to use Rosetta, right-click it and choose Get Info, or select it with the mouse and then press Command-I. Much like the Chrome example below, the Application Information window has a handy checkbox to force using Rosetta.

chrome force rosetta
Even if an app natively supports Apple Silicon, it can be forced into x86 mode, which we used for testing

On most of the tests on the next page, we pitted the translated binaries against native code to see what kind of performance penalty Rosetta incurs. However, Rosetta can't translate all code, and as a result certain applications can't be forced into x86/Intel mode. For example, Final Cut Pro X and iMovie don't have the Open using Rosetta checkbox, but Garageband and Logic Pro X do. Lastly, iOS apps like 3DMark Wild Life indicate that they are built for Apple Silicon only, and won't open on the Intel Mac mini. In fact, iOS apps don't display at all in the Mac App Store on that machine. 

Now that we've gotten to know the M1 Mac mini, let's see how we can test it. Apple's claims need to be verified. Will we look on with amazement or scoff at those ludicrous claims? It's time to find out...

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