Apple’s New Mac Mini Has a Major Flaw
This week, Apple updated its Mac Mini line, featuring the company’s new in-house silicon. It even knocked $100 off the previous Mac Mini’s price, making it the cheapest way to try out the new M1 processor. At least, in the short run.
However, Apple has also removed the ability to upgrade the RAM in the Mac Mini, capping it at 16GB. That decision could severely hamper the lifespan of the Mac Mini, necessitating that users upgrade to a new device sooner than they might have with the option to add more RAM.
Upgrading hardware on any computer is an excellent way to make it last longer, save money, and reduce electronic waste. Swapping in a new CPU to make it faster, or adding extra storage, costs less money and keeps older computers out of landfills, but those kinds of upgrades are difficult on most recent Macs.
One of the few exceptions has been upgrading the RAM on certain recent versions of the Mac Mini, a lifeline for keeping those older devices in circulation.
The Mac Mini has a complicated relationship with repairability. For the version of the device released in 2014, Apple made the decision to solder the memory module directly to the logic board, making it impossible to upgrade after purchase. The maximum amount of memory customers could buy at the time of purchase was 16GB.
“Being able to add memory to a device is one of the best ways to extend its useful life”
For the 2018 refresh, however, Apple reversed course. RAM was once again user-upgradeable. Better yet, it supported up to 64GB of RAM, four times as much as the previous Mac Mini. This was a huge boon to the device’s lifespan. “Being able to add memory to a device is one of the best ways to extend its useful life,” Kevin Purdy, repair advocate at repair organization iFixit, explained to Debugger. “Each new version of Mac OS demands a little bit more of its host computer for new features and updated apps. Not being able to use the latest OS updates also means losing access to important security and bug fixes, which also limits the useful life of a computer.”
Yet now, Apple has reversed course once again. With the switch to the new Apple silicon, the various chips that usually make up a Mac (or PC) like the CPU, GPU, and yes, RAM, are now all on one chip: the M1. This chip is (once again) soldered directly to the logic board, making it impossible to upgrade after manufacturing.
The system-on-a-chip (or SoC) model is one that mobile devices have used for a long time. In general, mobile phones don’t last as long, and owners are less likely to upgrade individual parts to make them last longer (even if they should — at least when it’s possible to do so in the first place). From Apple’s perspective, this move is justified by improving performance and efficiency over having a separate memory module. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the 16GB limit.
Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, isn’t enthusiastic about the change.
“We’re excited about the performance enhancements with Apple’s new silicon. Tomorrow’s workloads are going to require more and more memory, and limiting RAM upgrades is a step backwards. Mac owners should feel confident that they will be able to upgrade and repair their systems for years to come,” Wiens told Debugger. “The ability to upgrade the RAM has made the Mac Mini really stand out, and we’re disappointed Apple is removing a critical feature.”
To make matters more complicated, not only has the new Mac Mini once again removed the ability to upgrade its RAM, but customers can only upgrade it to 16GB at time of purchase. That’s the same limit placed on the 2014 Mac Mini. Apple is quick to claim that its current Mac Mini is more powerful than past versions by an order of magnitude, but it’s limited by the same RAM restrictions it’s had for six years.
No matter how much faster Apple’s processors are, applications that run on them still need to take up space in memory, and those applications get larger over time. On devices with less RAM, that means fewer applications and files can fit in memory and thus have to be reloaded from comparatively slower storage drives instead. This results in longer load times, slower processing of large files, and general sluggishness as the computer struggles to do what the user needs at any given moment.
It also costs a whopping $200 to upgrade from 8GB to 16GB of RAM on the new Mac Mini. It costs a little over half as much to get 32GB worth of RAM for the older Mac Mini. The premium Apple charges for a meager RAM upgrade is staggering.
Placing such a low cap on the RAM while promising massive performance is striking dissonant notes. The two messages are at odds with each other. As Purdy explained, “Software expands to fill the average hardware resources available to it, like the volume of gas in a container.” 16GB might be enough for the average person doing basic day-to-day office work, but it will only be an increasing constraint on the very tasks — gaming, music creation, and digital art — that Apple is using to promote its new Mac Mini.
Today, 16GB might feel a bit tight for artists or gamers. After a few years, it will be downright stifling.
The SoC model works better in mobile devices, where engineers have to make efficient use of the space they have. In a stationary device like the Mac Mini, the benefits to this approach are less obvious. “It’s odd, too, that the Mac Mini, of all devices, should fall victim to RAM Attachment Syndrome (RAS),” Purdy explained. “Size is not much of a concern for a device likely to sit on, or under, a desk.”
The Mac Pro, for comparison, allows users to add or replace memory, expansion cards, and storage. These upgrades are explicitly endorsed with step-by-step instructions on Apple’s website. And while it makes sense for professional workstations to get regular upgrades, repairs aren’t a pro feature.
“Removing the owner’s ability to replace or upgrade memory on a Mac Mini seems like a net loss for the owner and a circular economy,” Purdy said. It increases the odds that the Mac Mini will end up in a landfill sooner, and it’s one more step toward a less repairable Mac lineup.