Apple MAC MINI 2020

Mac Mini (Late 2020) review: Apple’s most affordable M1 Mac offers excellent value for money

PROS

  • Affordable price
  • M1 processor delivers a very big performance boost
  • Ultra-compact design
  • Runs cool and quiet

CONS

  • RAM and storage purchase-time upgrades are expensive
  • No user-installable RAM or storage upgrades
  • No discrete or external GPU options”

It often appeared, over the years, that Apple didn’t really know what to do with the Mac Mini. Apple has made cautious attempts in recent years to reposition the Mac Mini as a kind of entry-level server and more recently, as a portable workstation for creative users after having outlived its utility as a ‘low-cost Mac’ in the Steve Jobs era.

But just as the home-grown M1 system-on-chip (SoC) from Apple gave the ultra-portable MacBook Air a shot in the arm, the new Apple Silicon processor allows the Mac Mini as an inexpensive desktop Mac to return to its roots. And the new Mac Mini could well find an audience of business users who need a lightweight and inexpensive computer to operate from home with a price drop of about £ 100/$100 for this new model.

A lightweight 197 mm (7.7 in.) square by 36 mm (1.4 in.) wide is measured by the M1-based Mac Mini and begins at £ 699 (inc. VAT) or $ 699. As these are not included in the price, you’ll need to supply a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Design & features

The new Mac Mini sticks to a familiar style, including its M1 stablemates, the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. To be fair, however the lightweight nature of the Mini, which has had a strong impact on small-form-factor (SFF) competitors such as HP’s EliteDesk 705 G5, is difficult to improve. The color may have shifted to a lighter shade of silver-grey from the dark grey of recent years, but the impressively streamlined system still measures only 197 mm square and 36 mm wide. It seems, however, to have lost a little weight, dropping from 1.3kg to 1.2kg.

 

There were some changes, however, and for this update, a quick look around the back of the late-2020 Mini confirms its return to ‘affordable’ status. To support several screens and other devices, the 2018 version of the Mac Mini had workstation aspirations and had four Thunderbolt 3 ports. The latest M1 version of the Mac Mini, by comparison, now only has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, along with two USB 3.1, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI and and 3.5mm audio ports.

However the Mac Mini is also very flexible, with Apple reporting that two displays at the same time can be supported by the M1’s integrated GPU, including a 6K display via Thunderbolt and an additional 4K display via HDMI. But of course, along with a mouse and keyboard, you’ll need to supply the display(s) yourself, as these components are not included in the Mac Mini price.

Two Thunderbolt 3/USB4 ports are included in the M1 Mac Mini (top) with Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 2 and 2x USB 3.1. There are four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports in the Intel Core i5-based model that is still on sale (above).

Price & possibilities

Apple seldom lowers its costs, so it is interesting that the M1 Mac Mini now starts at only £ 699 (inc. VAT; £ 582.50 ex. VAT) or $ 699. Instead of seeking to be a ‘pro’ machine for innovative users like its 2018 predecessor, it also reveals that the Mac Mini is going back to basics as Apple’s ‘affordable Mac’.

The starting price includes the eight-core M1 processor operating at 3.2 GHz, and we were pleased to see that the Mac Mini entry-level configuration would use all eight cores of the built-in GPU instead of being limited to seven cores, such as the MacBook Air entry-level configuration. This price also includes 8GB of RAM built into the M1 SoC itself in a ‘unified memory’ architecture, along with 256GB of solid-state storage.

As always the storage upgrades from Apple are costly: you are going to pay £/$200 extra for a 512GB SSD, £/$400 extra for 1TB, and £/$800 extra for a maximum of 2TB.

The Mac Mini only allows you to specify up to 16 GB of RAM, like the other first-generation M1 Macs, and you can’t do the upgrade yourself, so you’ll have to bite the bullet and spend a whopping £/$200 extra to get 16 GB at the time of purchase.

One Mac Mini from 2018 based on Intel remains on sale. This costs £1,099 (incl. VAT; £915.83 ex. VAT) or $1,099 with a 3.0GHz (4.1GHz with TurboBoost) 6-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. This Intel model offers a much wider range of improvements to Processor, RAM and storage — and, crucially, it also ensures compatibility with high-end creative applications that may not yet be available for the M1 Macs as a Universal app, and that may run slower if you need to depend on the Rosetta 2 emulation/translation technology from Apple.

Performance

The M1 processor used in the 2020 version of the Mac Mini is significantly more powerful than its predecessor from 2018. The entry-level configuration from 2018 was based on a quad-core Intel Core i3 processor running at 3.6GHz, and achieved Geekbench 5 scores of 896 for single-core performance and 3,199 for multi-core performance.

The latest M1 model, scoring 1,752 (single core) and 7,7133, is in another league (multi core). In fact, the M1 still beats not only its entry-level predecessor, but also the Core i5 and i7 versions, with scores of 1,340 (single core) and 6,05050, even when running Geekbench 5 in Intel mode using Apple’s Rosetta 2 technology (multi core).

Data: ZDNet & Geekbench / Chart: ZDNet
Data: ZDNet & Geekbench / Chart: ZDNet

As stated, the M1 Mac Mini can depend on all eight of its GPU cores, while the new MacBook Air’s entry-level configuration only has seven GPU cores available. This makes the graphics output a modest but significant difference, with the Mac Mini reaching 90fps compared to 85fps for the MacBook Air while running the Intel-based Cinebench R15 tests. For gaming and 3D graphics, this also makes a difference, with the Mac Mini reaching 25fps at its maximum graphics setting while running Rise Of The Tomb Raider, while the MacBook Air was marginally slower at 21fps. Even after several successive runs with the Tomb Raider benchmarks, the Mac Mini still ran cool and quiet at all times.

The new Mac Mini can no longer claim to be a workstation, but compared to previous generations of Intel processors, the M1 processor’s integrated GPU does seem to be in a different league. It runs business applications like MS Office without any issues, even with the use of Rosetta 2, and is more than capable of handling a spot of photo- or video-editing work for presentations or vlogging.

For enterprise users who may be eyeing Windows alternatives, the Mac Mini also provides good value. The recently reviewed AMD Ryzen 5 PRO-based HP EliteDesk 705 G5 has a similar compact design and price, but only achieved modest scores of 878 and 2,828 in Geekbench 5 for single core and multi core performance. The EliteDesk 705’s Cinebench R15 output is also lower, at just 40fps. The only oddity here is that we were unable to run the Intel-based Unigine Valley graphics benchmarks, as with the MacBook Air, implying that Rosetta 2 is not yet 100% compliant with current Intel applications. But as we have said for users who might need the guaranteed compatibility, there is still one Intel-based Mac Mini configuration available.

Findings

It’s nice to see Apple return the Mac Mini as an inexpensive and portable desktop Mac to its roots.

The new lower price also makes it an enticing choice for Windows users, recalling the original goal of the Mini to draw ‘switchers’ from the world of PCs.

Once again the M1 chip from Apple shows its value, helping to offer a blend of efficiency and cost that makes the late-2020 Mac Mini excellent value for office use or working from home.