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The Real Thing

In high school I spent a lot of time around football, but not because I was a football player, or even that big of a football fan. No, I was a band nerd, a badge I have always worn with pride. Early in my high school marching band career, football was entirely foreign to me, but over the course of the next few years I started to enjoy it more and more.

I’m a native Clevelander, another badge I wear with pride, and on the topic of football I have been a long-time Cleveland Browns fan. Until recently, I attended most home games with family, but COVID had different plans. And while 2020 has been a terrible year in almost every sense, it has not been without a few bright moments. For me, many of those bright moments came in the form of Browns wins, and they are now knocking on the door of the post season for the second time since 2002.

So what? Well, for the last 10 years at least, I’ve been waiting for the right combination of offense, defense and special teams to come together. Every new iteration of the Cleveland Browns typically has pieces of excitement, but it never fully came together to be something substantial. And while on the outside the team this year looks the same, its internals are making all the difference.

This is a parallel, at least in some ways, to the 2020 Mac Mini from Apple sporting its M1 chip. And for the first time in a long, long time—I think it is finally safe to say, this might just be the real thing.

Yeah, but….snore.

If you’ve purchased a Mac Mini since 2010, you are already fully aware of how the 2020 Mac Mini is designed. It is exactly the same as it has been for the last decade, with alterations to the port selection.

The Mac Mini with Apple’s M1 silicon has just two USB-C ports instead of 4 on the Intel version, which is a bit of a downer. It also sports dual USB-A ports, HDMI 2.0, a headphone jack and a gigabit Ethernet port (downgraded from 10 gigabit in the non-M1 model).

The persistence of a decade-old design is fascinating to me. I think that the design would have benefited overall from an even smaller form factor, but the Mac Mini continues to be a very small form factor desktop that is very easy to hide. The extra space inside undoubtedly helps with thermal performance as well.

How fast is the M1?

Apple silicon has been a long time coming, and is a very exciting development for 2020. The Mac Mini that I purchased has 16 GB RAM and 1 TB of internal storage. While I waited for my Mac Mini to arrive, I spent plenty of time reading and watching reviews to see just how good the performance was, and the consensus is “shockingly good.”

I’ve talked before about first generation devices, and how exciting they can be. But, they also have to be measured with a different set of standards specifically because they are first generation devices. This is just as true with the M1 Mac Mini, but not for the same reason. Instead, it seems that Apple has found a way to drastically outperform its previous Intel machines by a substantial margin; they do this using their own silicon, which creates a sort of conundrum when it comes to traditional benchmarking.

Apple created a group of tech enthusiasts who don’t know how to classify the performance, other than saying it’s really good, without being able to provide much objectivity. This is game-changing in the sense that Apple no longer needs to provide much by way of objective data during its announcements because the performance gains (at least for this ‘first generation’ device) are so substantial that traditional benchmarking can’t adequately tell the whole story.

What does “objectively good performance” mean, anyway?

Benchmarks give us something that we can’t always quantify about our experiences. Knowing those benchmarks, it’s easy to point to our experiences and correlate them, but the approach always assumes you know both pieces of information. And without benchmarks, all we have left is our experience.

This M1 Mac Mini is my fourth Mac computer and my first Mac Mini. I am now on my third MacBook Pro, the base model 16” that was released in 2020. I’m familiar with macOS, and while this review is not about software, the operating system cannot be discounted when it comes to product experience. Optimization is everything, and that has become even more evident with Apple now owning every single aspect of the hardware and software manufacturing and design.

My MacBook Pro was being used as my primary computer, both for work and for play; it spent most days connected to a 32” 4K monitor which delivered power to it, and would follow me around the house as necessary after work. During work, I am accustomed to fan noise during periods of heavier lifting, and I find that (among other things) Microsoft Teams seemed to be the hoggiest of resource hogs when it comes to applications.

How did the M1 Mac Mini fare in the same position? It is silent. And it stays cool to the touch. Frankly, I’ve had zero notable performance issues with the M1 Mac Mini at all aside from a few application quirks that I’m sure will get worked out.

Rainbows and Unicorns

Application performance has been almost entirely predictable, with some minor exceptions. Early on, I found that Google Chrome was more unstable on the M1 Mac Mini than it has ever been on any other Mac I’ve used. It’s worth noting that Chrome has always been an average performer (at best) for me, but on more than a few occasions I had repeated crashes of the browser that forced me to stop using it as my primary browser. I will say, however, that Safari continues to be a great experience…

…until it’s not. For the first two weeks, Safari was great, but more recently I’m seeing performance quirks there as well. Typically, restarting the application addresses these issues quickly, but I’m looking forward to being able to use any browser I like without dealing with minor annoyances. I’ll also add, Firefox has been flawless and I’ve used that from day 1 as well.

The ability to run iOS apps is at this juncture a bit of a novelty for me. I’ve done it on a few occasions just to check it out, but don’t think I’ll use it much.

Adobe Lightroom is not yet optimized for Apple silicon, and I can definitely feel it…transitions between pictures and albums are laggy, and certain editing tools are seemingly more taxing on the hardware. I’m looking forward to a fresh version of this software in 2021.

The most significant compatibility issue I’ve encountered on the M1 Mac Mini is, interestingly enough, with Parallels. The application will both install and run, but I am unable to boot any VMs. Attempting to do so results in a warning message that Parallels is not yet optimized for Apple silicon, and the VM errors out. Parallels is working on a new version that works with Apple silicon, and I’m looking forward to giving that a try.

What does it mean?

I usually advise those who don’t self-identify as tech enthusiasts to steer clear of first generation devices. For the first time I can remember, that’s not the warning that comes with the M1 Mac Mini. There are implications and sacrifices that have to be made, but usability and performance are not among those. I absolutely love this computer.

The Mac Mini is a bit of a niche product, so it’s only going to be the right thing for a small subset of people. I was looking to make my home office machine a bit more stationary, and the Mac Mini allows me to accomplish this without dealing with a docked laptop taking up space on the surface of my desk. It is also a solid performer, and has some additional RAM and storage which sets it up well as the ‘home base’ of my Apple products. This configuration set me back $1300, but because Apple does such a great job with optimization, the value here (even compared to Apple’s Intel products of the past) is incredible. In almost every scenario I’ve encountered, this M1 Mac Mini outperforms my 2020 16” i7 MacBook Pro at nearly half the price.

Reviews on the other M1 Macs—the 13” MacBook Pro and the 13” Mac Mini—are similar in spirit to this one: great performance, minimal noise and heat; they also add great battery life. There is already information and leaks about the next iteration of the M1 chip, but this “first generation” product is one that I think is going to hold its own for the next few years at least.

There are also always going to be debates about ‘repairability’ and right-to-repair. Apple silicon running all Macs in the future gives Apple a firm grasp of all aspects of the user experience, and limits (actually, almost entirely eliminates) a user’s ability to repair or upgrade their own equipment. But, there’s a price to be paid for what seems to objectively be a huge leap in computing performance within Apple’s ecosystem, and at least for the time being, I’m fine paying that price.

Go Browns.

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