There’s a clip that plays in my mind when I think about the new era of the Mac. It’s from the original iPhone introduction keynote, when Jobs boldly proclaimed the iPhone was “a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.” While the gravity of that statement might not be as heavy, being that these new Macs aren’t a truly new product, I think the sentiment is the same. The new M1-based Mac lineup has just effectively left all other PC manufacturers in the dust.
Rumors of Apple developing their own chips for the Mac lineup have been floating around the web for years, it wasn’t a matter of “if” but ”when”. Back in June, when Apple announced they were officially putting their silicon in the Mac, the hype had become so unbearably overwhelming that the announcement felt like I could finally let go of my held breath. I cheered. This was a long-time coming, and I was ready. Apple’s own silicon inside iOS devices have become the industry leader in performance, with the iPad Pro often destroying its own desktop-class computers in benchmarks. That engineering prowess has finally been brought to its oldest, and my favorite product, the Mac. My Mac continues to be my most beloved and coveted item that I own — I’ve often said I would rather give up cameras and photography than live my life without a Mac. I’m thrilled to see Apple’s focus return to its foundational product that started the computer revolution in the early days of personal computers. On Monday night, I drove to Best Buy to snag the last MacBook Air they had in stock & rushed home to experience the new chip architecture in all its glory.
This is my configuration:
- M1 MacBook Air, Silver
- 512 GB SSD
- 8 GB of RAM
- 8-core CPU & GPU
The Setup Process
Opening my new Mac out of the box was the quintessential Apple experience. I was greeted with the friendly & familiar look of the MacBook Air design we’ve seen for the last decade. Sure, the design might be slightly dated, but it’s a timeless look. If anything, the only change I would really like to see in the future is the adoption of an edge-to-edge display to reflect that of the current iPhone & iPad. I was most happy to see the return of the Magic Keyboard. The old butterfly mechanism was trash — good riddance. Give me the mushy, deep key travel that my fingers deserve.
The setup process for most Apple devices continues to be a solid 10 minutes of clicking “Yes” on prompts & waiting for iCloud to verify your account. I decided to set up my Mac from scratch which, if you’re like me, chances are your entire first day with a new Mac consists of nothing but installing software, changing preferences & shortcuts, and getting the Mac to feel like home. Of course, you can always use the Migration Assistant to transfer data from your old Mac or restore a Time Machine backup; however, being there’s a lot of software that’s not yet native for Apple Silicon, I wanted to experience the installation process as a brand-new Mac.
If you put the new M1 MacBooks side-by-side with their old Intel counterparts you’ll see no difference, aside from the Air’s new dedicated function row keys — there’s now a dedicated Spotlight, Dictation, and Do Not Disturb key that replaces the Launchpad and keyboard brightness controls. While I was hoping for a fresh redesign, the familiar look feels natural and comforting. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Coming from a 15” MacBook Pro, I realized just how much I missed the lightweight & portability of a MacBook Air; shaving off nearly 2 pounds and slimming down to a 13” display makes a tremendous difference when carrying it in my backpack along with camera gear or just using it in bed. With a couple of tweaks in a custom EQ, the sound of the built-in speakers is well-balanced and can do a decent job at filling a room. Being limited to only two Thunderbolt ports was a pain I knew I was going to have to endure. I’ve perfected my workflow to keep my current project files stored on my main drive, but I’ve already felt the burden of the lack of ports when needing to be plugged in for power, an external hard drive, and importing photos from my USB-C card reader. I’m going to be investing in a hub or adapter soon.
Let’s talk about the keyboard. It is perfect. I typed this review without having to take constant breaks to ease my fingers like I have with the previous butterfly mechanism. The key travel is deep, smooth, and perfectly pleasant. I opted for the Air because it has the dedicated function row instead of the TouchBar, which I rarely used even when I programmed custom buttons & shortcuts with BetterTouchTool. When I buy a new external display to pair with this Air, I’m going to have a hard time finding a keyboard to use that’s as good as the built-in one.
Battery Life and Performance
I cannot get this thing to die. About 4 hours into writing this review, I was putting it through its paces with lots of tests in different apps: exporting photos and videos, browsing dozens of tabs in multiple browsers, transcoding media, all while listening to music in Spotify and my battery went down to only 73%. During the times I was editing, exporting, and transcoding media one thing was extremely noticeable — my Mac never got hot. The only experience I had where my it got a little warm was during the initial setup phase when I was installing tons of different apps, syncing my entire Dropbox, indexing Spotlight, etc. No more sweaty palms, and even better: no. fan. noise. Joanna Stern has a great video about this.
Let’s talk about just how fast this machine is. We’re talking lightning fast. I’ve never owned a Mac Pro, but I have owned my fair share of pro laptops & desktops, and this tiny, fan-less, entry-level machine feels faster in every single way than anything I’ve used previously. Firing up the computer cold took 30 seconds. Impressive, sure, but what’s even more impressive is the time from me entering my password to being ready to go: 15 seconds, which includes starting up the dozen menu bar applications & the numerous background processes that happen as I’m booting up, including the all-resources-consuming Dropbox app. App launches are faster than ever. Waking from sleep is instantaneous, just as advertised. (It’s very cool indeed, Craig). It’s truly astounding just how fast this machine is, all while being the entry-level offering. I’m very, very excited to see the power of the M1 inside a desktop.
Over the Summer I installed Big Sur on an APFS volume for beta-testing, and by late September was using Big Sur full-time. Just to be clear: Big Sur is full of bugs. Despite its bugginess and frustrations, it’s very smooth and speedy in its foundation. My decision to use Big Sur every day was based on two things:
- I’m impatient
- It’s pretty (well, most of it)
Being already familiar with Big Sur has its advantages. I’ve explored the OS enough to know its quirks while becoming familiar with all its design and usability changes. For those who are buying a new M1 Mac or aren’t as invested in Apple’s yearly updates to its operating systems, there might be a slight learning curve to get adjusted to Big Sur.
Control Center & Notifications
Gone is the familiar icons in the menu bar that have been replaced by the new Control Center, which houses quick access to things like display brightness, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi (there is an option to have some functions appear in the menu bar inside System Preferences). I welcome the addition of the Control Center to the Mac, being that I’m one to have most of my menu bar items hidden away anyway. It’s clean, tidy, efficient, and borrows familiar interaction elements from iOS. Unfortunately, there’s no way to remove some options in Control Center that I wouldn’t find as useful like the Now Playing or Screen Mirroring widgets.
Notifications in Big Sur are a mess. Design-wise, they look as though they’re meant to be swiped away to dismiss, but you can only get rid of them by clicking a tiny X icon that only appears when you hover over the notification. Not very intuitive. The widgets are a bit less functional compared to the new widgets in iOS 14 and are pretty limited in app compatibility.
Big Sur’s new rounded-rectangle design language feels more friendly and soft in its nature, and it shines brightest in the Dock. I normally keep my Dock hidden, so I’m not always looking at the new design, but it’s a nice change. The recent applications feature is something I turn off; I find it takes up unnecessary space. I tend to keep only the essentials in the Dock for quick-use.
Apple Silicon & Rosetta 2
If you own a Mac and use a lot of Apple’s native apps like Safari, Keynote, or Final Cut Pro then you’ll quickly notice the benefits of the new M1 chip. All of Apple’s software was re-written to take full advantage of the new processor, which of course allows for the best performance. For apps that aren’t natively compiled, Apple has enabled a way to run software that was written for Intel systems called Rosetta 2. Rosetta 2 is an emulator that translates the codebase for software written for Intel processors to run on Apple Silicon. The benefit being apps can run on day one out of the box, but with some minor caveats. Obviously, apps that are built to run on Apple Silicon will perform much better than their Rosetta 2 counterparts, but recent tests are showing that in many cases the apps are running better than on native Intel computers! Let’s pause to think about that for a second — software that was built to run on Intel processors, which is around 64% of the market of all computers, runs faster on this new MacBook than the computers in which the software was intended to run on. Boom.
I use a variety of software every day for editing photos, videos, and a suite of productivity & Mac-hack applications that can be demanding. Here’s a list of my thoughts and experiences with each.
Photoshop & Lightroom
Both run in Rosetta 2, yet run substantially better than my old 15” MacBook Pro. The library & develop modules in Lightroom are snappier, and editing 2+GB files in Photoshop is a breeze (even with only 8 GB of RAM). I’ve been editing files from the Leica M10-R, which are about 50mb/each and average a dimension of 5200×7864 pixels. I ran some test on these files.
- Exporting 15 full-size JPEGs took 1 minute, 53 seconds.
- Building 1:1 previews took only 1 minute, 41 seconds
Final Cut Pro
This is where Apple’s new chip really shines. I took some old footage from my Sony a7iii and edited 4k footage with zero lag, even when applying effects and color grading. Export times were blazing fast. A 1 minute, 15-second video took a whole 20 seconds to export at full resolution. Unfortunately, a lot of my plugins that I use aren’t yet compatible with Apple Silicon, so keep that in mind.
I made the transition away from Chrome at the beginning of this year, aside from any web development work, so I’ve grown accustomed to the speediness of Safari, which runs even better on Big Sur. Chrome has recently been updated to run natively on Apple Silicon and the performance is outstanding. On my MacBook Air with only 8 GB of RAM I could have about a dozen tabs open, including a YouTube video while editing my website in Webflow with zero issues: all while having incredible battery life. In about an hour I could drain the battery a whopping 3% while Chrome, Spotify, Messages, Notion, and Mail were all running in the background. Magic indeed.
- Hazel — Hazel 5 includes native support on Apple Silicon and runs flawlessly.
- Nova & Transmit — I knew Panic was going to release updates to Nova and Transmit for native support on day one, and they didn’t disappoint.
- Handbrake — Also natively supported; I took the clip I exported from Final Cut & converted it to a h.264 1080p video optimized for web which took 30 seconds.
- SoundSource — Rogue Amoeba has public betas available for their software on Apple Silicon chips. There are a couple of hoops that you have to jump through with audio-routing software, but once you’re in you’re good to go. I’ve experienced some slight hiccups where connection to my AirPods Pro has been somewhat hit-or-miss, but I expect an update will fix that soon.
- Dropbox — I hate Dropbox. It’s a memory hog and eats up the CPU even when sitting idle. But, it runs well in Rosetta 2. I’m hoping the Dropbox team can trim a lot of the fat with an update for Apple Silicon.
- Notion — Most electron apps like Notion, Discord & Slack run well through Rosetta 2
- SwitchResX — I love this app because I’m OCD about my screen resolutions when working in different applications. The most astonishing thing I’ve noticed about the new M1 chip is how fast you can change the screen resolution; where in the past when you switched screen resolutions, your screen would go dim for a moment & reappear, is now instant. I mean instant. It’s the small things that make the experience on this new machine just that much more enjoyable in everyday use.
- Keyboard Maestro — My beloved automation software runs flawlessly on the new chipset. No issues whatsoever.
- Minecraft — I don’t play many games, but Minecraft is a long-lost love that I pick up maybe once a year. I could run the game with full shaders as 60fps, no problem.
If you’re curious or want to know if the apps you use are ready for these new processors, there’s a handy little website titled “Is Apple Silicon Ready” that has an updated list.
iOS Apps on the Mac
To be quite frank, I hadn’t tried this feature at all until I began this piece. For a long time I always dreamt about having iOS apps on my Mac. This isn’t quite what I had in mind. First, many apps aren’t even available on the Mac App Store. There is a hack using iMazing to install any app that you’ve downloaded to your iPhone by extracting the IPA file, but that’s a hoop that many users aren’t willing to jump through. The touch-interaction paradigm is wonky at best, and many of the apps available aren’t optimized to be used with the Mac. If you navigate to your profile in the Mac App Store, there’s a new “iPhone and iPad Apps” section where you can download apps you’ve previously installed on your iOS devices. The thing is, as I was scrolling this (unbelievably long) list of apps, I couldn’t find more than two where I found it desirable or essential to install. I ended up downloading the Democratic Socialism Simulator game to just try it out — I ended up quitting the game within a few minutes because I’d simply rather play it on my iPhone. I installed Afterlight to try and edit a few photos, but the UI elements in the app were simply too small for comfort. Over time developers will hopefully take advantage of the ability to have their app on all of Apple’s devices the experience will become much smoother and seamless. For now, I’ll stick to using the web for everything else.
Many people have been asking if they should get a new M1 MacBook. This is a different question to answer straightforward. There're many factors and use cases for these machines vs their Intel counterparts. If you’re on the fence about whether you want to jump Intel’s burning ship and head for better waters, consider these points:
- Over time, third-party plugins and software will be optimized for Apple Silicon. It may take a full year for developers to port over their software, so patience is key. Check in every now & again with the developer’s website for an idea of their timeline. Adobe recently said Lightroom & Photoshop will be released early next year, only time will tell.
- The Mac you have now is still great. The new Mac you’ll invest your money in the future will be an even better bang for your buck. Having the updated M1 Macs be the same price as their old Intel models is basically like getting upgraded to first class for the same price as coach.
- More Macs are coming. Next year I’m sure we’ll see a 16” Pro, an updated iMac, and maybe something a little extra special from Apple. So if you’re waiting for a machine with more ports or a desktop, just be a little more patient.
- If you love having a lightweight computer or have always loved the MacBook Air: this is the perfect machine.
I'm no engineer by any means, so the majority of my understanding of why this new Mac is so much faster is because it's been explained to me in plain english by Apple and by folks who are much smarter than me. If you want to take a deep dive into the technical aspects behind the prowess of the M1 chip, I highly recommend this read on Debugger.