This week’s Apple event was exactly what we all thought it would be — the announcement of the first batch of Macs powered by Apple Silicon. They detailed the M1 chip and introduced a new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini.
The Mac Mini was the most surprising to me. Given the power consumption of Apple’s existing chips, Mac notebooks felt like a safe bet to be included in the first group of machines. A new Mac Mini is quite the welcomed introduction, of course, but I’m not sure if anyone expected it with a good degree of confidence. Especially given it’s spotty upgrade history — Apple notably waiting four years after the introduction of the 2014 model before releasing the 2018 iteration.
I’m pretty excited about the new Mac Mini, though. As many of you may know, I’ve been considering an upgrade for quite some time. The Mac Mini that we’ve been using as our home server is from 2011. It isn’t officially supported past macOS High Sierra and it’s performance when ripping and converting Blu-ray discs leaves a lot to be desired.
I’m still waiting on actually benchmarks from reviewers before pulling the trigger, but if Apple’s numbers are to be believed, I think we’re in for a real screamer in the M1. An 8-core CPU, up to 8-core GPU, the integrated Neural Engine, and unified memory architecture seem like a massive upgrade when compared to Intel chips. Intel’s been floundering for a handful of years now, AMD recently surpassed them in performance, and now Apple’s moving to their own chips. The folks at Intel have their work cut out for them.
The Mac Mini as a whole isn’t necessarily a strict upgrade, though. The M1 model is limited to 16GB of RAM — that’s compared to the 64GB limit of the Intel-based model, which is still available for sale, to be clear. I can’t speak to specific workflows that would necessitate the additional memory and I’m not sure if changes to the memory architecture of the M1 would result in needing less memory for given tasks (more efficient usage, for example), but if you feel you need more than 16GB of memory Apple isn’t giving you the option on an M1 Mac.
And that 16GB memory limitation is across the board for all models announced by Apple at their event. These Macs are only available with 8GB or 16GB of memory.
Back to the Mac Mini, this also means the end of upgradable RAM. One of the things that appealed to me about the Mac Mini was the ability to upgrade it over time. That was hindered a great deal when they moved from 2.5-inch drives to SSDs that were soldered to the logic board, but up until these M1 Macs, you could still upgrade RAM yourself.
For thrifty buyers, that gave you the option to save a bit of money at the time of purchase and acquire less-costly aftermarket RAM, upgrading it yourself. If I purchased the 2018 Mac Mini, that’s exactly what I would have done — bought it with 8GB of RAM and then upgrade it sometime after purchase. With the M1 Mac Mini, for both internal storage and memory, you’ll need to get what you need right out of the gate.
The M1-powered Mac Mini also saw a reduction in ports when compared to the Intel-powered model. The Intel Mac Mini has four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, two USB-A ports, HDMI, audio out, and ethernet. Of the lot, the M1 model lost half of the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports.
The changing port configuration won’t have any impact in how I use the Mac Mini. My current Mac Mini has a ThunderBay 6 connected over Thunderbolt (through Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter) and occasionally has a USB-A Blu-ray drive and/or an external SSD connected over USB-A. None of that will change if I end up with the M1 Mac Mini. I’ll still be able to connect all of my accessories without issue — I’ll even be able to drop the Thunderbolt adapter.
The last change is simply cosmetic — the M1 Mac Mini is only available in silver. I was looking forward to purchasing a Mac Mini that was more similar in color to the ThunderBay 6 that it will sit on top of. It’s not that my current, silver Mac Mini is an eye sore or anything, but it would have been nice to have some uniformity on my server shelf. I hope Apple offers the Mac Mini in space gray again at some point in the future.
My wife is a school teacher and was suddenly forced to work from home earlier this year. At the time she was teaching pre-kindergarten and didn’t need much in the way of technology in order to provide her students with regular instruction. This year, though, she’s teaching fifth grade and with that comes the need to manage online teaching portals, video calls, and documents — often simultaneously.
The only computing devices she has at home are her iPhone and an iPad Air. They’re more than enough for her everyday tasks and were usable when working from home with her pre-k class, but she recently spent about a week working from home teaching fifth grade and it was usable at best.
Her school is opened up again, but there’s no telling when or if it could be closed again for some period of time. So she has her eye on acquiring a new laptop. I think this new MacBook Air would be the perfect fit. It has incredible battery life — up to 18 hours according to Apple — a fan-less design, and all of the great features of the previous MacBook Air.
I am a little surprised that there was no change in pricing for this new model. The Mac Mini’s starting price is $100 lower, after all. And while it’s easy for me to say Apple should lower the price, without much knowledge of the factors that lead them to the $999 price point, it sure seems like it would be possible now.
Given that Apple’s designing the chips in house, the MacBook Air is almost certainly their biggest seller giving them economies of scale, the M1 in the MacBook Air starts with a 7-core GPU, and the machine is available for $899 with education pricing. It just seems like this would have been a good time to lower the price a smidge.
Even still, this looks like a great machine overall. Like with the Mac Mini, I’ll wait for reviews, but I expect my wife will end up with the base model MacBook Air in gold before too long.
The new MacBook Pro has all the same features of the previous, two-port model but with the M1. When compared to the MacBook Air, it has better battery life, no 7-core GPU option, and an active cooling system.
The cooling system seems to be the real differentiator here. Like the rest of the lot, we’ll have to wait for reviews and benchmarks, but I suspect the performance differences between the Air and the Pro will come down to cooling capabilities.
The Pro’s fan should give it the ability to sustain higher clock speeds for longer than the Air can while under load. So unless there are some more inherent differences between these two machines’ M1s, this seems to be all there is to it. And if that’s the case, for short bursts, the Air and Pro (with the same number of GPU cores) should preform identical to one another. The difference wouldn’t be noticeable unless you’re performing longer, sustained tasks that tax the system.
If that theory pans out, I feel like the vast majority of users should just opt for the MacBook Air. You’ll save a little bit of money, still get incredible battery life, and much of the same performance. Unless your workload involves heavily taxing sustained tasks, I just don’t see the reason to spring for the Pro.
This initial batch of Macs powered by Apple Silicon is a huge step forward, for sure, but I’m still left wondering what the rest of the lineup is going to look like long-term. The 16-inch MacBook Pro, 21.5-inch iMac, 27-inch iMac, iMac Pro, and Mac Pro are still left unchanged.
These also happen to be the machines that are built with more desktop-class components. And there’s a lot of questions left unanswered in that regard. Is Apple going to release another chip or collection of chips for these machines? Should we be expecting an M1X? An M2? Will these other machines be available with more than 16GB of RAM?
And what about the Mac Pro? Is Apple going to release a machine powered by Apple Silicon that has the ability to install and upgrade internal components? None of this first batch of M1 Macs support external GPUs, so is this the beginning of the end for AMD or Nvidia powered graphics in Macs?
Will Apple consolidate the lineup at all? Will the 27-inch iMac and iMac Pro be merged into a single offering? Is the current Mac Pro the last Mac Pro?
We could speculate all day, but what I can say with certainty is that I haven’t been this interested and excited about the future of the Mac in a long time.