The M1 Mac mini has been the most affordable Mac computer with Apple Silicon since its release in 2020, but in early 2023, Apple released the M2 Mac mini.
Which one should you buy? And if you already have an M1 Mac mini, should you upgrade to the M2 Mac mini?
Let’s take a look at what the differences are between the two machines to find out.
First, let’s talk about what is (mostly) the same. The designs of both machines are identical, and the base models come with:
- 8GB of unified memory – with faster 100GB/s memory bandwidth on the M2 vs. 66.67GB/s on the M1
- 256GB SSD storage – again, with a speed difference I’ll talk about in a bit
- Two Thunderbolt (USB-C; up to 40Gb/s) — but not entirely the same; more on this later
- Two USB-A ports (up to 5Gb/s)
- HDMI 2.0
- Gigabit Ethernet
- 3.5mm headphone jack
One important thing to point out here is that the HDMI port on the M2 Mac mini is still the same HDMI 2.0 port that the M1 Mac mini had. This is important because the M2 Pro Mac mini that also launched alongside the M2 version has an upgraded HDMI 2.1 port that can support 4K resolution at up to 240Hz, while the HDMI 2.0 port means the M2 Mac mini can only support up to 4K @ 60Hz.
The other major thing to note is that there is a hidden difference in the 256GB SSD for storage. On the M2 MacBook Air, it was discovered that the SSD uses only a single flash storage chip instead of two as found in the M1 model, and the same is true for the M2 Mac mini. Two modules allows for double the bandwidth, meaning faster read and write speeds.
Will this affect everyday use for the majority of people? Probably not, that goes for the faster unified memory bandwidth as well. But it is something to be aware of. This single-chip setup only applies to the base model, and if you upgrade the storage size to 512GB or higher, you will get faster speeds, especially going up to 1TB. However, for most uses, the primary consideration for upgrading storage should be if you need the additional space, rather than the speed.
Speaking of upgrades, let’s take a look at what the upgrade options are for the M1 and M2 Mac minis.
Apple no longer sells the M1 Mac mini build-to-order on its website, so you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want one that is configured differently from the base and standard upgrade configurations. The costs of each upgrade option has remained the same between M1 and M2 models.
The main things you can configure are the following:
- Memory: upgrade to 16GB (for both M1/M2 models) or 24GB (only in M2 Mac mini)
- Storage: Both M1 and M2 Mac mini models can be configured up to 2TB of storage.
- Ethernet: Both M1 and M2 Mac mini models can be configured with 10 Gigabit Ethernet.
CPU and GPU
Alright, let’s get to the differences between the M1 and M2 Mac minis, starting with the biggest one: the chip at the heart of the machine.
|Apple M1 chip
|Apple M2 Chip
|8-core CPU (4 performance / 4 efficiency cores)
|8-core CPU (4 performance / 4 efficiency cores)
|16-core Neural Engine
|16-core Neural Engine
|Accelerated H.264 and HEVC encode/decode
|Media Engine with accelerated H.264, HEVC, ProRes, and ProRes RAW encode/decode
So the main differences in spec here are the 2 additional GPU cores in the M2, along with the media engine that was only found in the M1 Pro or higher chips previously.
Of course, CPU and GPU specifications don’t tell the full story. Although both M1 and M2 chips have the same number of CPU cores, M2 is faster on a per-core basis as well by about 13%, due partially to the faster clock speed. In multi-core, the difference is about 18%, and the GPU performance is about 36% higher, which is mostly due to having 25% more GPU cores at 10 for the M2 vs 8 for the M1.
Keep in mind that these are benchmarks, which means real-world performance may or may not see much advantage.
The media engine in the M2 chip means faster encoding and decoding of certain video formats, especially ProRes. The M1 can accelerate H.264 and HEVC formats, but Apple doesn’t want call it a media engine on the tech specs.
One difference in the tech specs for M1 and M2 Mac minis is the display support. Both Mac minis can only support up to 2 external displays. However, while the M1 Mac mini says it supports “One display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz connected via Thunderbolt and one display with up to 4K resolution at 60Hz connected via HDMI“, the M2 Mac mini says it can support “One display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz over Thunderbolt and one display with up to 5K resolution at 60Hz over Thunderbolt or 4K resolution at 60Hz over HDMI“.
What that means is that you could only use one display over Thunderbolt with the M1 Mac mini, needing to resort to HDMI for the second display. However, with the M2 Mac mini, you can choose to use two displays, both over Thunderbolt, or one over Thunderbolt and one over HDMI as before. Going dual-Thunderbolt means the resolution of the second display can be higher (5K vs. 4K), which means you could potentially go dual Apple Studio Display with the M2 Mac mini, if you didn’t care about money. But then, you probably wouldn’t be going for the M2 Mac mini anyway.
Thunderbolt 3 vs 4
The reason for this difference in supported displays seems to lie in the difference between Thunderbolt 3 and 4. The M2 Mac mini has Thunderbolt 4 ports, while the M1 Mac mini has Thunderbolt 3. There is actually no bandwidth improvement for these ports, as both support up to 40Gbps transfer speeds. However, the minimum requirement for Thunderbolt 3 is to only support only a single 4K display, while the minimum requirement for Thunderbolt 4 certification is to support two 4K displays. So this may be an example of a standard forcing Apple’s hand to the benefit of consumers.
Wireless and Bluetooth
Another area of difference between the M1 and M2 Mac minis is wireless and Bluetooth support. The M1 Mac mini only supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0, while the M2 Mac mini supports Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3.
Wi-Fi 6E (E stands for Extended) is a newer wireless standard that supports the 6 GHz band in addition to the commonly used 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. This could result in less network congestion and faster speeds, but you will need wireless access points and routers that support Wi-Fi 6E in order to make use of it. As with any newer technology, things can get expensive quickly.
The most relevant Bluetooth improvement between versions 5.0 and 5.3 is probably the Low Energy Audio introduced with Bluetooth 5.2, which focused on sound-related enhancements. It’s nice to have the latest Bluetooth version, but probably not a critical reason to upgrade by itself unless you have a special application for some Bluetooth devices that requires something not found in Bluetooth 5.0.
At launch, the M2 Mac mini starts at $599 USD, which is $100 less than when the M1 Mac mini debuted. However, now that the M2 is here, that means the M1 should get a price cut as well, so the starting price 2 or 3 years ago doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is what you get if you spend the extra money on the M2 Mac mini, and hopefully this analysis has helped you.
Should you buy the M1 or M2 Mac mini?
If you don’t currently have a Mac mini, should you buy the M1 or M2 Mac mini?
If you are trying to get the best bang for your buck, and you can get a base model M1 Mac mini at 20% less cost than the M2 Mac mini, then go for the M1.
If the price difference is not that great or it’s within your budget, then I’d recommend the M2 Mac mini. You’ll get a newer generation machine, with performance improvements, media engine, and upgraded wireless and Bluetooth, which means it can last longer.
And if you need anything more than the base model, such as a custom configuration, it might become harder to find an M1 Mac mini priced at a significant discount from the M2 model. So if you want a build-to-order machine, the M2 Mac mini is the way to go.
Should you upgrade from M1 to M2?
If you already have an M1 Mac mini, should you upgrade to the M2 Mac mini? Generally, no. Unless you happen to be running into specific limitations caused by not having a properly spec’d M1 Mac mini. For example:
- You have an M1 Mac mini with only 8GB of unified memory and have been running into performance issues while multi-tasking or using memory heavy programs. In this case, upgrade to the M2 Mac mini with 16GB of unified memory.
- You often do video creation and find the speed of the M1 a bit slow, or use the Mac mini as a server or for transferring large files all the time and Gigabit Ethernet is not enough. If it’s a case where the M2 Mac mini’s faster CPU/GPU and media engine can help, or an upgrade to 10GB Ethernet, then get the M2 Mac mini with the necessary upgrades.
In short, if the M1 Mac mini already mostly suits your needs but there are some specific limitations that it can’t handle, but could be addressed with a small upgrade, then its better to get that upgrade with a M2 Mac mini at the same time. The M2 machine is newer, and you can still get one built-to-order.
However, if you really are running into limitations offered by the M1 Mac mini, you might be better served upgrading to an M2 Pro Mac mini instead, so do consider that first.