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M1-Based Macs Have New Startup Modes: Here’s What You Need to Know

For many years, Macs have relied on sets of keys held at startup to enable specific modes. Most notably, pressing Option displays the Startup Manager and lets you pick a boot drive, Command-R starts up from macOS Recovery, Command-Option-P-R resets the NVRAM, Shift starts up in Safe mode, D opens Apple Diagnostics to check the hardware, and T starts up in Target Disk Mode. Needless to say, obscure key combinations aren’t the friendliest way to help someone who may already be stressed out about their Mac not working, so Apple improved things for the new M1-based Macs.

The most important part is that you no longer have to press a key combination during startup. Instead, press and hold the power button until the screen shows “Loading startup options…” and displays the Startup Manager.

Unfortunately, Apple is still a little fast and loose with terms, so we’ve tried to list all of the ones you might see.

Startup Manager / Startup Disk

If you have multiple boot drives and wish to switch among them, you’ll want to use Startup Manager. Immediately after you see “Loading startup options…,” the Mac displays the new Startup Manager, which shows icons for all the bootable drives, along with buttons for Options, Shut Down, and Restart. To boot from a particular drive, select it and click Continue under it.

If you work your way into macOS Recovery but then want to back out in order to select a startup drive, look in the Apple menu for a Startup Disk command, which provides similar functionality with a slightly different look.

Startup Manager (but not Startup Disk) also lets you start up in Safe mode and set a drive as the default to use for booting. First, select a drive. Then, for Safe mode, press the Shift key and click the Continue in Safe Mode button below it. To set a selected drive as the default, press the Control or Option key and click the Always Use button underneath it.

Note that M1-based Macs can’t boot from just any external drive. We’re all still learning about the new platform, but it seems that you need a Thunderbolt 3 SSD that has been freshly formatted with APFS and set up with a new installation of macOS 11.1 Big Sur. See Howard Oakley’s writeup for details.

macOS Recovery / Recovery

When you need to reinstall macOS or restore from a Time Machine backup, head to macOS Recovery. From the Startup Manager screen, select Options and click Continue underneath it. After you choose a language, an initial macOS Recovery screen appears. Note that you have access to the Apple menu, which lets you choose Startup Disk, Restart, or Shut Down, and to the Recovery Assistant menu, which includes a potentially useful Erase Mac command.

macOS Recovery presents you with a list of users. Select one for which you know the login password, click Next, and enter the password when prompted. Now, in the Recovery app, you can restore from Time Machine, reinstall Big Sur, launch Safari to browse the Web and get online help from Apple, and open Disk Utility to manage drives.

The Recovery app has a full set of menus, and notice Utilities in particular. It lets you launch the Startup Security Utility, to reduce the macOS security level, or Terminal, if you want to run command-line tools before startup. (The old macOS single-user mode accessible by holding down S at startup has disappeared.) To return to the Recovery app from any other app, quit the current app. Finally, note that the Recovery app’s Window menu has an option for Recovery Log. As is often the case with logs, it may be inscrutable to all but high-level support experts.

Oddly, once you’re in macOS Recovery, there’s no way to return to the Startup Manager.

Target Disk Mode / Share Disk

If you ever want to access one Mac’s drives from another, you can connect the two Macs via a USB or Thunderbolt cable and use Target Disk Mode. On M1-based Macs, you initiate Target Disk Mode using a command in the Recovery app’s Utilities menu: Share Disk.

Choose Utilities > Share Disk to start sharing one of the M1-based Mac’s drives via Target Disk Mode. Select the drive and click Start Sharing. When you’re done using it, click Stop Sharing before disconnecting the cable.

Apple Diagnostics / Diagnostics Loader

If you’re worried that your M1-based Mac is suffering from a hardware failure, running Apple Diagnostics may shed some light on the problem. Oddly, getting to Apple Diagnostics still requires a hidden keystroke.

Once you’re in the Startup Manager screen, press and hold Command-D to reboot the Mac into the Diagnostics Loader app. You can choose to run the diagnostics offline or to share the information with Apple.

After you pick one, the diagnostics run right away and report back when they’re done. If you have an M1-based MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, make sure to plug it in first, or you’ll get an error telling you that the power adapter couldn’t be found.

The troubleshooting approaches that no longer seem to be available in any way are to reset the NVRAM (Non-Volatile RAM) or the SMC (System Management Controller). Apparently, the NVRAM tests itself at startup and resets automatically if necessary. M1-based Macs reportedly don’t have an SMC in the same way as Intel-based Macs, so there’s no option to reset it.

(Featured image by Apple)


Social Media: Apple’s M1-based Macs change how you switch drives and access troubleshooting tools at startup. Read on to learn the new techniques.

So, Are Apple’s New M1-Based Macs Any Good?

In November, Apple unveiled its new M1 chip and three new Macs that use it: the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. The M1-based MacBook Air replaces the previous Intel-based MacBook Air, but with the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac mini, Apple continues to sell some Intel-based models with beefier specs—most notably a higher memory ceiling.

Even though Apple makes impressive performance claims for the new Macs, the community was still somewhat skeptical. Were these new Macs as fast as Apple said? Would they be limited in some other way? And the biggest question of all, should we be buying untested M1-based Macs or tried-and-true Intel-based models? Now that these new Macs are shipping and people have had a chance to try them, let’s address these and other questions so you can plan your future Mac purchases appropriately.

Are these new Macs fast?

It’s hard to overstate just how astonishing the performance benchmarks for these new Macs are. In single-core GeekBench 5 tests, the M1-based Macs beat every existing Mac by a lot: the most recent 27-inch iMac clocked in at a benchmark score of 1250, whereas the M1 Macs hovered around 1700. (The Mac Pro and iMac Pro are tweaked for faster multi-core performance instead, so they fare even worse on the GeekBench 5 single-core benchmarks.) For many everyday apps, single-core performance is what you’ll notice.

Of course, the top-of-the-line 28-core Mac Pro and its siblings outperform the 8-core M1-based Macs in the GeekBench 5 multi-core benchmarks, but if you focus on the new M1 Macs in the multi-core rankings below, you can see that they’re just behind the fastest 27-inch iMacs and low-end Pro models. That’s doubly impressive when you remember that the Mac Pro in the screenshot below costs $6000, compared to $700 for the Mac mini.

Benchmarks don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story. These new Macs feel fast. Apps launch with only a bounce or two of the icon on the Dock. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro wake from sleep and unlock with an Apple Watch so quickly that they’re ready to use by the time you’ve finished opening the screen. We can’t promise you’ll never see the spinning beachball wait cursor, but we haven’t so far. In some ways, using these new Macs feels more like using a fast iPad or iPhone, where everything happens nearly instantly.

Finally, note that only apps that have been rewritten to support the M1 chip receive the full speed boost. Older apps must be “translated” by Apple’s Rosetta 2, which converts apps from Intel instructions to the Arm instructions needed by the M1. That happens at launch, after which macOS launches the translated app. The first launch might be slow, but subsequent launches are faster. Although emulation environments are generally quite slow, early tests show apps translated by Rosetta 2 as running at about 80% of native speed. The upshot of that is that even translated apps might run faster than the equivalent app running on an Intel-based Mac.

What’s the deal with the new M1-based Macs having only 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM?

With the new M1-based Macs, you can choose between 8 GB and 16 GB of RAM, and that’s it. In contrast, the current Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro lets you go up to 32 GB, and the Intel-based Mac mini can take up to 64 GB.

Although 16 GB of RAM sounds limiting, that doesn’t seem to be nearly as concerning as one might think. The reason is that the M1 chips use what Apple calls “unified memory,” which is built onto the M1 chip itself and shared by the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine. A significant performance bottleneck in modern computers is moving data around in memory. Benchmarks suggest that the memory bandwidth on the M1 chip is about 3x faster than on a 16-inch MacBook Pro. The faster that data can be moved around in memory and shared between the processing cores, the less memory is needed.

The speed of their SSDs also lets the M1-based Macs get away with less memory. When macOS uses all its physical RAM, it falls back on virtual memory, which effectively involves moving data on and off the SSD as needed. When Macs used hard drives, swapping memory to and from disk was very slow, but modern SSDs are fast enough to hide swapping delays.

To be fair, there are still memory-intensive tasks that will run better on Macs with lots of physical RAM. That’s a big reason Apple kept the Intel versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini for sale. On the very high end, you can put a whopping 1.5 TB of RAM in a Mac Pro, and if you need that kind of RAM for your work, you’ll need to stick with Intel-based Macs for now.

How will the M1-based Macs fit into a workflow?

Here’s where things get tricky. If you have an office full of Macs, there are some good reasons why you might want to stick with Intel-based Macs for a while.

  • Big Sur: The M1-based Macs require macOS 11 Big Sur. In general, we recommend that people hold off on upgrading to Big Sur until Apple has released maintenance updates to solidify stability and compatibility. Plus, mixing versions of operating systems and apps can lead to interoperability problems.
  • Apps: Although Rosetta 2 appears to do a good job translating older apps, there may still be quirks or performance hits, particularly for complex apps.
  • Memory: As mentioned above, there are some tasks where lots of physical RAM is essential, and there’s currently no way to go above 16 GB on an M1-based Mac.

But here’s the thing. Apple very intentionally focused its initial M1-based Mac models on the low end of the Mac product line. These Macs are ideal for students and individuals, or as auxiliary or traveling Macs for office workers, particularly given the startlingly good battery life in the laptops. They won’t be replacing a Mac Pro or even a 27-inch iMac right now, but no one would have replaced such a machine with a MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, or Mac mini before either.

In the end, we’re bullish on these new M1-based Macs. They’ve redefined what the most inexpensive Macs can do, making them compelling for those who don’t require more than 16 GB of physical RAM or need to slot them into highly specific workflows.

(Featured image by Apple)


Social Media: Apple’s new M1-based Macs are getting rave reviews for their stunning performance and battery life. Should you buy one for your next Mac or stick with a tried-and-true Intel-based Mac? We look into that question in this piece.

Apple Unveils New M1-Powered MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini

Continuing its pandemic-driven approach of short, focused announcements, Apple once again took to the Internet to stream its “One More Thing” event. On center stage this time was the Mac, or specifically, three Macs, all of which replace the longstanding Intel chip with Apple’s new M1 chip. All three Macs can be ordered now and will be available within a week or so.

What Is the M1 and Why Should You Care?

Before we talk about the Macs that are now based on Apple’s custom-designed M1 chip, let’s explain what it is and why it’s important.

First, the M1 is what’s called a “System on a Chip” or “SoC.” Instead of having a separate CPU (main processor), GPU (graphics processor), and RAM (memory, which both the CPU and GPU need), the M1 combines those components onto a single chip. The M1 also has a special 16-core processor, called the Neural Engine, that helps with machine-learning tasks, along with a custom storage controller, image signal processor, and Secure Enclave.

Within the 8-core CPU, Apple has four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. When you need maximum processing power to edit a video, for instance, macOS dynamically brings the high-performance cores into play. However, if you’re just reading email, macOS switches to the high-efficiency cores to avoid wasting power and draining laptop batteries. Another way the M1 achieves its performance gains is through “unified memory.” By putting the RAM on the chip and sharing it among the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine, those processors can access it more quickly than when it’s elsewhere on the motherboard. The downside is that the M1 chip comes with only 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM; there’s no option for more.

Second, since 2006, Macs have been powered by CPUs from Intel. Switching to its own M1 chip benefits Apple in three ways:

  • Performance: When Apple moved the Mac to Intel chips, it did so because IBM’s PowerPC chips couldn’t compete in performance per watt. That measurement is key for battery-powered laptops and has come home to roost again. With the M1, Apple has customized the design in many ways to provide up to three times the performance per watt.
  • Control: By designing its own chip, Apple can optimize performance in all sorts of small ways that integrate perfectly with macOS. Previously, Apple had to work with whatever Intel shipped, forcing Apple to make trade-offs in macOS. Plus, Intel’s roadmap and production schedule often conflicted with Apple’s.
  • Profit: Apple won’t say this, but Intel processors have high profit margins, and Apple would far prefer to keep that money rather than giving it to Intel.

In essence, the M1 will enable Apple to make Macs that are faster and cheaper, and that have better battery life. It will also allow Macs to run all iPhone and iPad apps, since the M1 is similar to the A-series chips that power those devices.

The first three Macs to take advantage of the M1 are the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. Apart from a few small exceptions, the main thing that has changed about these Macs is the M1 chip. They look the same, feel the same, and work the same, although they do all come with—and require—macOS 11 Big Sur.

MacBook Air

The new M1-based MacBook Air confidently replaces the previous Intel-based model that Apple released in March 2020. It does so thanks to massive M1-powered performance improvements: up to 3.5x faster processing, up to 5x faster graphics, and up to 9x faster machine-learning workloads. The M1’s integrated storage controller and the latest solid-state storage technology also combine for up to 2x speedier SSD performance.

Because the M1 is so much more efficient than Intel chips, the MacBook Air no longer needs a fan to keep its cool. It’s now silent. Apple significantly improved battery life as well, promising up to 15 hours of “wireless web” and up to 18 hours of video playback, up from 11 and 12 hours for the previous model. More relevant is that videoconferencing should last twice as long on a single charge.

There are a few other small improvements:

  • Support for P3 wide color on the 13-inch Retina display
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 ports that support the new USB 4
  • 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 networking, up from 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5
  • Better image quality on the (unchanged) 720p FaceTime HD camera, thanks to the M1’s dedicated image signal processor
  • Instant wake from sleep

Note that the MacBook Air lacks the Touch Bar of the MacBook Pro—which may be a pro or a con—but its Magic Keyboard does include traditional F-keys and a Touch ID sensor for login and authentication.

The MacBook Air comes in two configurations: a low-end model whose M1 chip has an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU, plus 8 GB of unified memory and 256 GB of storage for $999. The high-end model switches to an 8-core GPU and 512 GB of storage for $1249—that’s $50 cheaper than the previous high-end model. You can bump the RAM to 16 GB for $200, and the storage levels include 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, and 2 TB.

Frankly, it’s a great machine.

13-inch MacBook Pro

Things get a little more confusing with the M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro. Previously, there were four configurations, priced at $1299, $1499, $1799, and $1999. Apple replaced the bottom two with M1 configurations but left the top two with Intel chips. Why? Probably because the higher-end Intel models can take up to 32 GB of RAM. They also have four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 4 TB storage option.

Apple doesn’t say if or by how much the new M1 MacBook Pro is faster than the Intel models, but it does say that it’s up to 2.8x faster overall than what it replaces, has up to 5x faster graphics, and is up to 11x quicker for machine-learning tasks. It should outperform the M1 MacBook Air, even though they share the same chip, because the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a fan that lets the M1 chip run faster and thus hotter than in the MacBook Air. Nonetheless, battery life is excellent, with up to 17 hours of “wireless web” and up to 20 hours of video playback—the longest battery life ever for a Mac.

The M1 MacBook Pro shares most of the small improvements in the MacBook Air, including the two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6, better image quality from the 720p FaceTime HD camera, and instant wake. New is a “studio-quality three-mic array” that promises better audio for videoconferencing. It already supported P3 wide color, and the Retina display remains gorgeous.

The M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1299 with an M1 chip that has an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 8 GB of memory, and 256 GB of storage. Going to 16 GB of RAM costs $200, and you can upgrade the storage to 512 GB ($200), 1 TB ($400), or 2 TB ($800).

It can be hard to choose between the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Our take? Pick the MacBook Air for its lower price, fanless design, and F-keys, or go with the MacBook Pro if you’re willing to pay for more performance and a Touch Bar.

Mac mini

The third Mac model to switch to the M1 chip is the Mac mini. Like the 13-inch MacBook Pro, not all models make the jump, however. Previously, there were two Mac mini models, one starting at $799 and the other at $1099. The M1 Mac mini replaces the low-end model and drops the price to $699.

As with the other two M1-based Macs, the M1 Mac mini boasts impressive performance improvements. Apple says its CPU performance is 3x faster than the model it replaces, it has up to 6x faster graphics, and machine-learning tasks complete up to 15x faster.

Although Apple made no comparisons with the remaining Intel-based Mac mini, we suspect the M1 model will be faster, and it has the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6. So why is that Intel Mac mini sticking around?

  • The M1 Mac mini offers only 8 GB or 16 GB ($200) of RAM, whereas the Intel Mac mini is configurable to 32 GB ($600) or 64 GB ($1000) as well.
  • The Intel Mac mini can drive up to three displays, whereas the M1 Mac mini supports only two. On the plus side, the M1 Mac mini can drive Apple’s 6K Pro Display XDR at full resolution, which the Intel Mac mini can’t.
  • The M1 Mac mini has only two Thunderbolt ports, whereas the Intel Mac mini has four.
  • The Intel Mac mini has a $100 option for 10 Gigabit Ethernet, whereas the M1 Mac mini is limited to Gigabit Ethernet.

Our feeling is that, at $200 cheaper, a comparable M1 Mac mini is a better deal unless you need any of the hardware options that exist solely on the Intel Mac mini.

macOS Big Sur on November 12th

Finally, Apple said that it would release macOS 11 Big Sur on November 12th. The new Macs require it, but put bluntly, we strongly recommend that you do not upgrade any other production Macs to Big Sur yet. Along with a complete user interface overhaul, it has significant under-the-hood changes that could pose compatibility problems for many workflows in the near term. We’ll be evaluating Big Sur with common productivity apps shortly and will update our advice about when it’s safe to upgrade as we learn more.

(Featured image by Apple)


Social Media: Apple’s “One More Thing” turned out to be the company’s new M1 chip, which powers new models of the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini to new heights of performance and battery life. Learn more at: