Apple released its first Macs based on its own processors only a few weeks ago. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, citing supreme performance and battery life as compared with Intel Macs. Performance and compatibility of non-native apps like Slack, Photoshop, Office, and others has been better than expected, running at similar speeds to apps on real Intel processors. There have been some early adopter issues with Bluetooth and wireless connectivity, external peripherals and displays, and software compatibility, but on the whole these new machines seem to be delivering everything Apple promised. The reviews have been so good that I bought one for myself.
Typically I don’t purchase first-generation hardware, especially at launch, preferring to wait until initial issues are worked out and the hardware has been revised. This is why I waited an entire year to purchase my 27″ iMac in 2010 so that Apple could work out display issues and why I typically bought the “S” variant of the iPhone until a few years ago. With Apple transitioning to an entire new hardware architecture that runs many applications through translation on a point zero version of an operating system it’s a bit risky to buy an M1 Mac at this point.
But I did. And I have for a couple of reasons for my decision. The first is that I am not in dire need of an upgrade. While I’d like some better performance out of my 2016 15″ MacBook Pro, I don’t strictly need it. My Pro runs all of my software OK and will run the latest Mac OS for years to come. If I buy an M1 Mac and have a bunch of issues with it, I have a fully-functioning fallback. I may get frustrated with an issue but I won’t be prevented from doing anything that I need to get done.
The second is because this machine truly delivers. Reviews overwhelmingly laud its performance, battery life, and silent operation. A MacBook Air can match and beat the highest end 16″ MacBook Pro with Intel’s fastest mobile processor in many cases, and it can do it at 2.8 lbs without a fan. While some folks are having software issues and others have received some defective hardware, the overall feeling I get is that these machines are really, really good and can run anything I want them to right now far faster than my current Mac, even under translation. If they were 20% faster I wouldn’t bother, but they are more than twice as fast. More than twice as fast as what I have today in a smaller, lighter package, at half the price.
Why the MacBook Air?
If I want to get into the Apple Silicon game I have a few options. In order of price I’ve got the Mac mini ($899), the Air ($1,250), and the 13″ MacBook Pro ($1,499). If I want the cheapest way to play with Apple’s new platform I can go for the mini, but I probably wouldn’t use it that much since it isn’t mobile. I tend to be more of a “Pro” person so I naturally gravitate toward the MacBook Pro, but it is largely the same as the Air. The have the same exact CPU, have the exact same footprint, have the same number of ports, and have nearly the same display. The Air is lighter by a tiny bit and thinner at the front; the Pro has a brighter screen, better speakers, and a Touch Bar. Oh and the Pro has a fan which allows it to sustain performance over longer periods of time, resulting in about a 15% performance gain on the Air for longer workloads. For shorter workloads performance is the same.
That leaves the Air, and that’s fine with me. I’ve always liked the svelteness of the Air but always needed more performance and a better display. The outgoing Intel Air has the display I need, but lower performance than my current machine so it was never an option. The M1 changes that – suddenly I can get top-end MacBook Pro performance in Apple’s lightest form factor. While I do like the extra screen space on my 15″ Pro, I only upgraded to that size because I needed performance that wasn’t available in the 13″ model. I’m happy to go back to a smaller form-factor and I won’t miss the Touch Bar.
I bumped storage to 512 GB so I have room for my Lightroom library but left everything else the same. That only includes 8 GB RAM, which is half of what I have today, but according to reviews the M1 does phenomenally well with less RAM than an Intel machine. Keeping RAM down will also limit my investment into Apple’s new platform if anything goes haywire.
The total price: $1,249. To get the same performance on Intel I’d need to spend $2,799 on a 16″ MacBook Pro with a Core i9 processor and 16 GB RAM. The Air represents a significant value and also happens to match the amount of award points I have in my recognition account at work. I’ve been banking my points for years and have amassed exactly enough points to cash out $1,250 in Amazon gift cards, making my M1 experiment literally free. Thanks Liberty!
Excited for the Future
I’m very excited to see how the M1 performs over time. While fan noise isn’t really a factor in my purchase process I’m interested in using a laptop that is literally silent, and I’m very curious how that will affect performance over time. My current MacBook Pro is only silent if I’m doing light web browsing and email. As soon as Lightroom opens, the fans go nuts. The thought that I can run my entire workload significantly faster than I do today in total silence is mind blowing. I edit photos for hours at a time and eventually the Air will heat up and will have to slow down a bit to compensate. I’m curious whether that will be noticeable or not.
Battery life will also be interesting, especially under load. I always run my screen at full brightness so I never get Apple’s estimated battery life. I’m lucky to get over 2 hours when editing photos and I’m excited to see what the Air can do. Apple estimates 15 hours for wireless web. If I get 6 hours of Lightroom editing I’ll be absolutely floored.
And Now I Wait
I ordered my Air a few days ago and now I’m waiting for it to ship. Many of the higher end configurations are already pushed into January but my combination of 8 GB memory and color choice has it delivering between the 11th and the 18th. That color choice is gold, by the way. I’m generally not a gold kind of person but I decided to get it because I’m sick of silver and tired of space gray. If there was a dark graphite I’d be all over it, but alas there is not. The gold is a bit of a cross between gold and rose gold that will ensure I don’t mistake my Air for anyone else’s machine in the house.
I’m excited to have a powerful machine in a 13″ form factor again. I owned a 12″ PowerBook throughout college and a 13″ MacBook Pro several years ago and they are just so much easier to tote around than a 15″ machine. Sure, there is less screen space, but the portability makes up for it. Once it arrives I’ll have a lot of things to try out, but until then, I wait, dreaming about all that performance and battery life.