Back to the Mac (and MacOS) with the 2020 Mac Mini

I’ve been a user of various Macs in the past, and always liked them (and MacOS). However, I haven’t owned a Mac since I sold my old Mac Mini in 2015. Since then, it’s been mainly Linux Mint, running on (at first) my old boat-anchor-weighing HP laptop and then (as of last year) a Lenovo IdeaPad laptop. Granted, I spent almost a year trying to make Windows at home work, which ultimately failed and sent me back to Linux. I also dipped into Chrome OS and Chromebooks, through an Acer C720 and a Toshiba.

Recently, I bought an external monitor to use with my IdeaPad, wanting a bigger and nicer screen to stare at while at home, and especially during the pandemic. Using this setup went OK at first, but soon felt a bit awkward; thus, I started to consider getting an actual desktop computer. This led to deciding to try out the Mac once again via an affordable model, a refurbished base 2020 Mac Mini (with the M1 processor). I bought the computer a week ago.

Thoughts on the M1 Mac Mini

The mini’s powered by Apple’s newest processor, their own M1 chip. So far, it’s been a very fast and smooth machine, even when ripping one of my Blu-rays (via an external drive). The Mini’s likely helped by the SSD drive inside, making it much faster than my old spinning hard drive Mini from years ago. Most of the apps I use seem to be optimized for the new processor, as far as I can tell, and run pretty snappy.

Specs-wise, it’s the base $699 model with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. It comes with two USB-A and two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports each, which is a downgrade from the number of ports the previous model came with. I still have the USB hub I bought for my laptop, so I’m also making use of that on my Mini.

As I said earlier, I bought a refurbished Mac Mini from Apple’s refurbished online store. I’m pretty impressed by what I got. The Mini comes in plain Apple packaging (versus a new model), but looks and works like a brand-new machine; I’m unable to tell the difference. I also get a full one year Apple warranty, plus the option to buy AppleCare. All for over $100 less than what a new model would cost. This is my first time buying a refurbished Mac (versus the several used ones I’ve had in the past), but I’m definitely pleased so far.

Setting up the Mac Mini

Mac Mini desktop
My Mac Mini desktop. Background from “Check Please!”; art by Ngozi Ukazu. (Screenshot by author)

Setup went quickly, aided in part by already using Apple ID and iCloud (Apple’s cloud storage service) with my iPad and iPhone. (Yes, I’m pretty much all in with Apple’s ecosystem at this point.) The Mini prompted me to enter my Apple ID and password, and then pulled in some system settings/preferences, including my iCloud storage aspects. If wondering, I’m currently reusing my old PC keyboard and mouse.

After this, I then installed system updates, which took some time. However, system updates are one area where MacOS and Linux are much less annoying than Windows’ way of handling such.

Finally, transferring documents to the new Mac involved a mix of using an old external hard drive and cloud storage. I backed up documents, videos, and music from my laptop to the external drive, then plugged said drive into the Mac and copied over the files. I also had some documents in cloud storage via Google Drive and iCloud, the latter built into MacOS.

Overall, I didn’t go quite as fast as Jason Fox (from “FoxTrot”) in setting up my Mac, but it didn’t take too long.

Favorite software installed

Finally, I installed my favorite Mac software, and set system preferences. I’m using the dark mode setting for MacOS; my wallpaper is from the hockey-centered webcomic “Check, Please!.” Amusingly (or coincidentally) enough, one of the MacOS account avatars is a hockey stick and puck.

I’m making use of some default Apple software: Mail and Calendar for email and calendar; Music and Podcasts for, well, music and podcasts; Notes for, well, notes (switching back from a several month long experiment with Joplin); and iCloud for main cloud storage. As I’m already paying for iCloud (the 50GB tier at $1/month), I may as well get more use out of it. MacOS even offers saving the documents and desktop folders to iCloud automatically, which means I can access files from my other devices (including, via a browser, on my Linux laptop).

As for installed software:

  • Bitwarden. An open source password manageer, which comes as both a browser plugin (for all major browsers) and as a desktop application.
  • Feedly. The RSS reader service.
  • Firefox and Chrome web browsers. I’m mainly using Firefox, however.
  • Handbrake and MakeMKV. The popular DVD and Blu-ray (respectively) ripping and video conversion programs. While the Mini doesn’t come with an optical drive, I do own an external Blu-ray drive.
  • LibreOffice. MacOS comes with Pages and Numbers, Apple’s own word processor and spreadsheet software; however, I still want to have LibreOffice installed.
  • LimeChat. A popular IRC client for MacOS.
  • Mozilla VPN. A VPN service run by Mozilla, the people behind Firefox.
  • Pocket. The popular cloud based website bookmark service (also run by Mozilla).
  • Seashore. A Mac-only fork of GIMP, the popular (if poorly named) open source image editing software.
  • Simple Comic. A popular digital comic viewer program, handling stand-alone comic files in CBR, CBZ, and PDF formats.
  • Spotify. The popular music streaming service.
  • Transmission. A popular BitTorrent client. Installed even though I extremely rarely use torrents (mainly for Linux ISOs).
  • TweetDeck. A stand-alone app for the popular Twitter alternative interface. Using this program, along with Feedly, Pocket, etc., also means not pinning said sites in my browser.
  • VLC. The popular open source video and audio player.

Concerns so far

So far, I’ve had few issues. The only ones have been relatively minor:

  • Trying GIMP proper, it threw up an odd error, displaying a terminal icon/code in the Dock. My fix? Deleting GIMP and finding Seashore, which has most of the same features but is better designed.
  • A few times in extended sleep mode usage (mainly overnight), pressing keys on the keyboard wouldn’t wake the Mac. I gather this was from plugging the keyboard into my USB hub, versus the Mac directly. Fixed by plugging my keyboard directly into the free USB-A port.
  • Unlike iTunes, the stand-alone Apple Podcasts app doesn’t support copying podcasts directly from it to a plugged-in MP3 player. (My job doesn’t allow using our smartphones at our desks and heavily lock down our work PCs, so I’m still using a cheap Sandisk MP3 player for work.) From a Google search, it seems this was available before Big Sur (the current MacOS version). Thus, I’m not sure if it’s a bug or a “feature,” given most podcast apps are now geared toward smartphones/specific devices, versus an open platform like an MP3 player. Either way, the only workaround I found was finding the cache folder the podcasts are stored in (from the Finder, hold the Option key and click “Go” in the menubar; go to Library > Group Containers > [a folder name containing “apple.podcasts”] > Library > Cache) and bookmarking that in the Finder sidebar.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m pleased with my Mac Mini. While it took a short while to get used to Mac keyboard commands again, I’m finding the experience pretty smooth, and a nice addition to my iPad and iPhone. Given Macs’ longevity, it should also mean I won’t need to upgrade to a newer desktop for quite awhile.

Photo of Mac Mini by Anthony Dean.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *