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  • Newsletter Issue #1011

    November 26th, 2020


    You’ve heard those claims. Whenever Apple takes a significant action with a new product, it is deemed to be endangering the company’s success. Whenever the company releases a modest or incremental update of a product, it’s accused of playing it safe.

    In other words, they can’t win.

    So let’s see where the Mac universe exists now: The first group of Macs with Apple Silicon, dubbed M1, has been released. They are entry-level models, such as the $699 Mac mini and the $999 MacBook Air, plus a $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro. You can easily boost the prices substantially by customizing with more RAM and storage.

    Echoing the start of the Intel transition, they all look the same as their predecessors. This announces Apple’s marketing plan. Regardless of the components inside, a Mac will remain a Mac.

    As usual with recent Macs, the factory configuration you order is the one you’re stuck with. You cannot just replace RAM or install a larger SSD. But that’s in keeping with the original all-in-one Mac from 1984, which wasn’t designed to be upgradable; hence a personal computing appliance. Apple obviously uses the same approach for the iPhone and the iPad which are, lest we forget, small personal computers.

    Now a pundit here or there will suggest that you bypass these new models for various reasons. Some make sense, such as being a version 1.0 product, meaning there may be bugs, though anything that can be upgraded via a patch will soon be fixed. Something that requires a hardware change will present more serious problems, unless Apple agrees to a field change with existing models — an extended repair program — or will replace your unit free. But since there don’t seem to be any hardware glitches of that nature, it’s not an issue.

    But the suggestion it’s a version 1.0 product is misleading. Apple has sold hundreds of millions of gadgets using similar silicon. It essentially about bringing that hardware to a different product line, with appropriate logic board changes. Remember, too, that iOS was built off macOS, so putting iOS elements on Big Sur — plus support for ARM-based CPUs — is just returning the favor.

    The real issue is whether you’ll have problems running the apps you need, and when or if that’ll change.

    So since Apple has previously abandoned 32-bit apps, starting with macOS Catalina — Big Sur’s predecessor — if you could run that, most apps will work well with the M1 Macs.

    But there will be no Boot Camp, which allowed you to boot your Intel Mac into Windows. Windows virtual machines remain a question mark even though there will be M1-savvy versions of Parallels Desktop and other apps. I suppose it’ll be possible for them to emulate the Intel version of Windows, but Apple says it’s up to Microsoft to make it compatible. So we’ll see.

    For now, that’s a potential deal breaker, although it appears only a small minority of Mac users need worry about it.

    As to other apps, it depends. Everything I use will work either under Rosetta 2 emulation or native. The most significant app in my workflow, Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack, works fine with Big Sur on an Intel Mac, and there’s a beta version for the M1 models.

    The good news is that Rosetta 2 appears to exact a performance penalty that appears to make Intel apps run at 60-80% of the speed as the native or Universal counterparts. Since the M1 Macs run so fast, particularly with single-core functions, it won’t matter.

    Other criticisms are about the limit of 16GB RAM at a time when an Intel MacBook Pro can be had with twice that; 16-inch models can support up to 64GB. But since memory is managed differently on the new models, it may well be that this won’t matter for most of you. Stellar benchmarks with such memory-intensive apps as Final Cut Pro X for M1 Macs indicate that this limitation shouldn’t be the deal-breaker for most of you. Having only 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports, and limits on the ability to add external monitors, may also matter.

    But not for most of you.

    If it does matter, stick with the Mac you have, buy the still-available Intel models, or wait for second generation Apple Silicon hardware. Waiting, also, means that apps that aren’t working properly or at all may be ported to the new environment before long. Apple claims it shouldn’t be so difficult with their latest developer tools.

    Indeed, Adobe has already released a beta of Photoshop for M1 Macs, with the promise of ongoing improvements and the delivery or more Universal versions of their apps by next year. This is not going to be the same as earlier processor migrations, where major developers could take years to get with the program, and maybe not even then. There are too many Mac users out there nowadays, and developers already experienced on building iOS or iPadOS apps should be able to make them fully Mac savvy without horrendous amounts of work.

    Again, the M1 Macs are entry-level and represent the start of a processor transition that will take up to two years to complete. There are already credible rumors of newly designed MacBook Pros in 14-inch and 16-inch form factors by the second half of 2021. That would leave the iMac, the iMac Pro and the Mac Pro, and the latter two might not make the switch until the middle of 2022, thus two years after the initial announcement.

    By then, the original M1 Macs may have been upgraded once or twice with new designs and certainly faster CPUs.

    But the first M1 Macs blow most other Macs away in terms of measured performance, despite skepticism from some apparently uninformed critics who haven’t read the benchmarks. One article suggested they match PC hardware of a couple of years ago, which is decidedly not true. Sure there are high-end models that measure faster, but that’s not the point. These are entry-level models that provide performance that most Mac or PC users should be happy with.

    In addition, there are other indications of snappier performance, such as instant wake from sleep, same as an iPad, and speedier drive performance. That Apple could do all this for the same — or a lower — price than older models is some achievement, although a lot of this is that the Intel “tax” is far higher than the cost of building their own silicon. Indeed, Apple ought to be able to lower the price of the high-end Macs when they come out. But they probably won’t!

    So who should consider an M1 Mac?

    Well, past possible incompatibilities with Intel apps, it depends on the age of your existing hardware. So if you have a Mac that’s more than two years old, the M1 models may be more compelling purchases to consider, especially if you’ll be upgrading from older versions of the same gear.

    Or if you’re switching from Windows, in which case there are similar considerations, such as whether there are Mac counterparts of the apps you need. For most people., there are.

    For the rest of us?

    Well, I have a Late 2014 iMac, and a 2010 MacBook Pro. The latter would have been replaced long ago if I had the spare cash. But I don’t travel as much as I used to, and the apps I need to run work fine on it. Indeed, I had to set it up last year when the Fusion Drive on my iMac failed.

    The iMac actually runs quite speedily, despite the limits of a Fusion Drive. That’s because the annual performance upgrades from Intels Core CPUs hasn’t been so great. The benchmarks show its age, but they aren’t so slow as to put a crimp in my style in real world use. A new iMac is expected next year, but I only hear about a 24-inch model, assuming that a larger version, perhaps with a 30-inch display fitting a device the same size as the 27-inch version with a smaller screen bezel, will also be introduced. I would expect there will be a faster M1 to power it, or maybe an M2.

    I suppose that gives me up to a year to save up for it.

    In the meantime, I’m very encouraged by what I read about the first batch of M1 Macs, and I expect lots of good things to come. Indeed, the Macs that appear beginning in 2021 may look at least somewhat different considering some of those designs are showing their age.

    For those who want to attack Apple for making the move: They’ve done it twice before, and few complained that the Intel transition didn’t meet its promise. There will continue to be fear mongering, and every bug that presents itself will be used as ammunition that Apple rushed out this new hardware. But that’s clearly not true. Nothing forced Apple to go M1 until it was ready.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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