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The Year When the Cheapest Mac was the Best

Apple's M1 Ushered in High End Performance for Average Users

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 1:15 PM

Since its introduction, no one has ever mistaken the Macintosh as the cheap option for computers. Nor would anyone who watched Apple’s launch of its insanely fast M1 Pro and Max chips on Monday argue that the new MacBook Pros are cheap. However, when the dust settles, the previous reigning top Apple Chip — the M1 — will still be the one that created a year when the cheapest Mac was the best Mac and one of the best computers, period.

Sure, there are plenty of times one can argue that the overall Mac experience makes it good value (I’ve argued that a lot) and times that even in raw spec-for-spec comparisons a given Mac might be competitively priced, but this past year was different. When Apple introduced the world to the first “house made” silicon — the M1 — the cheapest Mac, the Mac Mini, suddenly offered outrageously good performance for a $699 computer.

How outrageously good? So good that no Mac — not even a $60,000 loaded up Mac Pro — could beat it on the “single thread” performance that influences how fast a computer “feels” when you go check your e-mail or browse the web.

It was so good that nothing Apple had ever sold for under $5,000 is faster, period. And, even as Apple unveiled its new line aimed at genuine pros — professional graphic designers, video editors, developers and the like — starting at $1,999 and with more powerful chips, the M1 appears to be every bit the equal of its “Pro” siblings on the simple, everyday tasks most users want to do on their computers.

Even those pro workflows are ones that the M1 has quite capably proven its ability to handle. I’ve put an M1 Mac Mini up against the fastest and best laptop Apple had ever made previously, a 16” MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i9-9980HK processor. The MacBook Pro is no slouch and is powered by an Intel processor that remains a high end offering from Apple’s former chip partner. Despite that, the M1 Mac Mini and the other M1-based Macs are in most cases faster, more responsive when chugging away at demanding projects and ever-so-much-more-quiet.

(That last point is one that won’t show up on benchmarks but will affect your quality of life. Do you realize how nice it is not to hear a computer fan whirl?)

Ignoring the unreachable-and-not-really-intended-for-mere-morals $6k-as-a-starting-point Mac Pro and nearly-as-much-so (and discontinued) iMac Pro, the computer you could nab for $699 (and upgrade to a nearly perfect spot for $200-$300 more) was the best Mac you could buy for almost a year.

The slightly more expensive 13” MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and 24” iMac all were variations on the same theme. Much as the cheapest iPhone 13 (the Mini) is essentially the equal of the fully loaded iPhone 13 Pro Max when it comes to processing power, so too the M1 Macs have been about a choice of form factor, not quality of experience.

The new 14” and 16” MacBook Pros are in a different class, sporting eye-popping performance when pushed in ways the average user never pushes a computer, but before we rush on to those, can we just stop and think for a moment how amazing it is that Apple made one of the fastest and quietest ranges of general consumer computers available (Mac or not) and did so for an entire year with that special sauce exclusively in its low-end?

When rumors came out that the M1 would first launch on the low end, pundits speculated that was because it was such a dog performance wise. “Not so fast,” Apple said. “We’re so confident we can ratchet up the performance on our new processors, the previous ceiling of performance reserved for our most expensive systems will be the floor.”

To be sure, a low-end Mac is a mid-range PC in price but being able to get the sort of performance the diminutive M1 Mac Mini offers for $699 (and on sale for less) is a special moment in computer history. Both its processor and GPU outclass systems of similar price and, in many cases, much more expensive ones.

There have been times I’ve spent more than I’d want to admit on a computer, but this little guy might be my favorite computer I’ve ever owned.

I drive computers hard with graphics, video, audio and development work. At every point, it handles the tasks I’d throw at a much more expensive MacBook Pro with aplomb. I know someone will say, “but Windows…” I’ll broaden my assertion: there isn’t anything at the M1 Mac Mini’s price point that would so capably handle the work I frequently do.

I tried to build out a PC to beat it for video streaming, for example, something both demanding and that has become way more necessary post-COVID. I challenge anyone to succeed without spending significantly more. Trying to eek something out with equivalent power and useful connectivity options like USB 4.0/Thunderbolt quickly sees the price go flying past the Mac Mini’s. With GPU shortages, trying to put in a decent graphics processor to match the M1’s power is astronomical.

Even if I were able to scrape together a deal using refurbished components and such on eBay that offered the equivalent for anywhere near the price, it’d be much nosier and bulkier. But such a plan is even less doable this year than last when the M1 was released. For example, Tom’s Hardware had an interesting guide on how to build a $350 “gaming PC” last year, something that would also be well suited for live streaming video like I do for my church. Even though that machine is significantly less powerful than the M1 Mac Mini, it would now cost more than a Mac Mini to build since graphics card prices have skyrocketed.

Try to build a new computer that matches the M1 system’s processor — rather than using the Tom’s Hardware guide’s decade old, notably slower system — and you will likely be looking at well over $1,000.

The M1 hasn’t even been able to fully flex its muscles yet as its faster M1 Pro and M1 Max siblings peek around the curtains this week. While most significant Mac apps have been rebuilt to directly support Apple’s new processor architecture, for much of its first year, Apple silicon systems have had to “translate” programs meant to run on Intel. Even those translated programs ran surprisingly well, but as “native” versions appear, each one gifts you with a brand-new performance boost.

Topaz Labs’ impressive AI graphics tools are just starting to be optimized for the M1, but even the non-native versions show off the M1’s prowess. Pixelmator Pro was quick to support the M1 and its ML Super Resolution runs sixteen times faster on the Mac Mini than the high-end MacBook Pro in my testing.

Going back to live streaming for a moment, OBS Studio, the open source live streaming software at the heart of many of our live streaming workflows, is still months away from supporting the M1 natively. In the interim, I’ve pushed it hard on the M1 and found it works better on Apple silicon than it does on the best generally available Intel Macs.

A few months ago, I ran a live stream for seventeen hours (not a typo) on an M1 Mac Mini. The fan never even spun up to an audible level (if it came on at all) and I was able to do other things on the system while the stream ran without hesitation. (Ask anyone about OBS Studio — it is an utter resource hog that seems to cause computers to break into a sweat merely by mentioning its name.)

I’ll confess I’d be more than a little curious to give Apple’s new M1 Pro or Max systems a spin. A processor that eats away even more of the advantage of high-end workstations like the Mac Pro or its Dell and HP equivalents (whose Intel processors sell for more than most of us pay for an entire computer) packed into a still reasonably small laptop is alluring.

Likewise, a Mac with graphics equivalent to high end PCs and gaming consoles could be — pardon the pun — a game changer. Video and graphics editing already runs incredibly smoothly on the M1, what will it be like on those insanely powerful systems? And, while I’m not much of a gamer myself, Apple’s new M1 Pro or Max systems might make it relevant in the gaming discussion for the first time in memory, which will benefit all Mac users: more users mean more Mac-friendly or Mac-only software choices.

But. But Apple showing it can even go further than the M1 takes nothing away from the M1. The M1 is still one of the most impressive technological advances I’ve seen in the 30 or so years I have been tinkering with computers. After years of urging people who sought my advice to buy as expensive of a computer as they could afford in most cases, so that it would run more smoothly and last longer for them, I spent this year telling people to buy the low-end option if they were shopping Mac and urging PC users to give the Mac another look by doing the same.

The next generation Apple Silicon will open more possibilities, but the M1 has genuinely brought some of the best computing experiences within the reach of virtually everyone. And that is just as impressive today as it was before the M1 Pro and Max were unveiled.

Editor’s Notes: The author does own a small amount of Apple stock alongside other investments. The article was updated to include an additional comparison between the the Mac Mini and a Windows PC.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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