Review: Apple Mac Mini M1

Tiny computer is super fast, affordable and has more options than MacBooks

Of all the moves Apple made in 2020, two were stand-outs. The advanced cameras in the iPhone 12 Pro models? Simply stunning. Breaking new speed records and doing it on quiet machines for a new line of computers was a big wow too.

After stepping down from USA TODAY at the beginning of the year, I needed to replace the company owned MacBook Pro with a new model for myself, and the choices were few, if I wanted to get a machine with the new chips.

The computer USAT lent me, a 16-inch MacBook Pro, used the older technology, before Apple developed these new lines of super speedy “M1” “Apple Silicon,” to replace the old Intel chips.

The M1 options are just 3 models, so far: a MacBook Air ($999), MacBook Pro 13-inch (starts at $1,299) or the little Mac Mini desktop computer, which starts at $699. And all basically have the same performance specs.

I went cheap with the Mini, but cost wasn’t why. Let me fill you in.

Readers, this is my first post-USATODAY review, and it has two huge differences. First, Apple didn’t loan me a product to review. I went out and bought the Mini on my own. Secondly, we were usually given a day or two to get a product, test it, and write up our impressions. For this review, I’ve been living with the Mini for a little over 2 weeks, which seems way more appropriate.

Bottom line: Love it. Couldn’t be happier. But there are some issues to be aware of.

But let’s begin with why I choose the Mini in the first place. To replace the same 16-inch USAT model with what I need would cost $2,500 or so. And it runs on the old Intel chip. Nor did I want to buy the desktop iMac, which is more affordable, (around $1,800 for me, with the extras) with the old technology.

A 13-inch MacBook with the M1 chip? Yeah, it was either that or the Mini, but I couldn’t get over that Apple only has two measly ports on the 13-inch MacBook for accessories. And one of them is used by the power cable. I have hard drives, an audio mixer, webcam and memory card readers that need to be plugged in.

On the USAT 16-inch MacBook, I had four ports, (3 really, minus the power cord) and it was a constant struggle to find room for all my stuff, which were plugged in with accessory dongles.

The Mini has room for 4 USB inputs, plus HDMI for a monitor, ethernet for connecting directly to the Internet router and a headphone jack.

Here’s what I bought:

Mac Mini with 512 GB hard drive: $899

Add $200 for 16 GB RAM instead of 8 GB: Total: $1,099 before tax.

And finally, $69 for a dock and $200 for a 2 terabyte hard drive.

New total: $1,370

The purchase was made that much better with the $69 accessory dock from a company called AGPTEK that works great with Minis. This dock gave me 4 more traditional USB inputs and a memory card reader for both SD and microSD cards, which, for a photographer who shoots on cards, is vital.

This AGPTEK unit also lets you insert, into the unit, an internal solid state hard drive. These are the faster, more reliable drives that don’t have spinning disks. And it makes it a way more economical way to add more hard drive storage space than by buying it from Apple.

To add 2 TB of space to your Mini, Apple charges as much as $700 extra. I picked up a 2 TB drive from B&H Photo for $200, inserted it into the AGPTEK unit, and saved myself $500.

(And speaking of price, don’t forget you’ll also need to add a keyboard, mouse/or trackpad and monitor. So chalk up anywhere from $200 or higher to the final bill.)

However, in my case, I already owned the Magic Trackpad. So I just needed to buy a monitor, which cost $150 for a cheap Acer 22-inch model. Final tally: $1,520. (The bill for a 13-inch MacBook Pro with 512 HD and 16 GB RAM: $1,700.)

I could have saved $200 and not bought the new drive. I already have over 10 of them on my desk. But I loved the convenience and having another port open for me.

That’s why I went for the Mini. Ports. Lots and lots of them.

What do I think?

Speed: It’s not just that it’s faster, with fewer dreaded hourglass bottlenecks, it’s also amazingly quiet. My old MacBook sang like a rainstorm when I was doing heavy video editing. The Mini is quieter than a whisper. (Check the accompanying video for proof.)

Bluetooth: Many reviewers have noted bluetooth devices dropping in and out. That’s been a slight problem for me, specifically on a bluetooth wireless keyboard. But it’s been a minor hindrance, around 5% of the time. Readers, if you do buy a Mini, be sure to have a wired keyboard in the house. (You can pick this model up for $12.) When you set up the computer, you’ll need the wired keyboard to input the keys. You won’t be able to get to the bluetooth settings until after you register.

Compatibility. Apple initially said Photoshop and other Adobe apps weren’t optimized to run on M1, but that engineers were working on it. Adobe Lightroom, which I use to organize and edit photos, does work “natively.” Photoshop doesn’t and is made operable via a workaround called Rosetta. But I had no issues on Photoshop doing things like putting open eyes on a client’s photo who had shut them during a shoot, and basic retouching. On a help page, Adobe points out some of the things you can’t do in Photoshop, but they’re pretty hard core. The average user (i.e., hard working photographer) won’t miss them.

Final Cut Pro: Apple’s video app works like a charm, super speedy, but most of those plugins that I’ve bought over the years to add titles and credits in my videos don’t currently work. That’s a problem. Luckily, some plugins are still operable.

Overall, the quiet, speed and all those ports makes up for any short-term pain that will clearly be fixed in the coming months. And as far as other M1 Macs, Apple says it is transitioning its entire computer lineup to the new chips over the next 2 years. Expect the 16-inch MacBook Pro and an iMac or two later this year.

A big week for tech news

NO MORE GAS CARS IN 2035: General Motors (as in, “What’s good for GM is good for America,”) said it would stop selling gas powered cars in just 14 years, as it transitions to an all-electric fleet. How far into the future is 14 years? Let’s figure that out by going backwards. The iPhone and modern smartphone era began 14 years ago, in 2007. That’s when we moved from going “online,” to being wired all day. Remember the age of flip phones and printing out Google Maps to get around.

That’s 14 years ago. I’d love to tell you there will be no gas or service stations anymore in 14 years, but with millions and millions of cars on the road, that’s not going to happen. Still this is a huge announcement, and a great one for the fight against global warming.

APPLE BONANZA: Speaking of iPhones, Apple moved a whopping $100 billion worth of tech gear in just three months, the holiday quarter. Apple ended the year selling some 200 million iPhones, per my pal Dan Ives, the Wedbush Securities analyst. Remember this was at a time when many businesses closed, people were evicted and lost jobs, due to the pandemic, and Apple remained, as it’s always been, a premium priced product. Just 5 years ago, iPhone sales were declining. This is a remarkable turnaround.

$2,500? Really? Sony announced the most expensive smartphone ever. What makes the Xperia Pro worth $1,500 more than a top of the line $1,000 iPhone? An HDMI port. You read that right. The same port you use to connect the TV to streaming devices and the cable TV box is being added to the phone, to connect it to high end Sony cameras, for live streaming. I asked readers earlier in the week if they’d even consider paying that kind of money for a phone. You know the answer. I’m with them.

Ring, the maker of the popular video doorbell, announced its smallest and cheapest unit, at $60. But what a catch! The new unit isn’t battery powered, but instead has to connect to indoor wiring. So unless you’re handy, you’ll need to call an electrician. And you’ll be spending a lot more than the $40 you would saved by not buying the $100 Ring model.

What the Heck is That?

Many of you know I wrote the book on TV game shows. (Check the title: “Come on Down: The TV Game Show Book.”) And of course, I’ve been writing about gadgets for all these years. So it seemed like a natural fit to do a guest stint on Steve Greenberg’s wacky online game show about gadgets, “What the Heck is That?”

Check it out!

Weeping Willow

For today’s tune, ICYMI, my take on Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic, “Weeping Willow.”

Santa Fe

Over the past few weeks I’ve been interviewing some of my favorite photographers for their tips on where, when and how to get great shots on a Photowalk. I’m launching a new website to accompany the 2/19 re-launch of the Photowalks series on Amazon and these conversations will be featured there, and on various podcast platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and TuneIn.

Check out this chat with the great photographer Rick Sammon, where we talk about one of my favorite places in the world, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather return to, in a New York Minute, once we get past the pandemic. How about you? Where’s your first stop?

Closer to home, ICYMI, 3 cool beach shots from the week.

And that’s a wrap for the weekend edition of the newsletter. Thanks as always for reading, watching and listening.

Folks, I didn’t expect to start churning out this newsletter daily, but what do you expect? I come from a daily newspaper schedule. Too much? Not enough? Just right? Please let me know. Are you enjoying it?

Please click reply and let me know!

Have a great weekend.