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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:

Apple Finally Updates the MacBook Air and Mac mini, and Revamps the iPad Pro

At a special event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Apple threw back the curtains on significant updates to the long-ignored MacBook Air and even longer-ignored Mac mini. Then Tim Cook and company followed up with revamped 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros, complete with an enhanced Smart Keyboard Folio and redesigned Apple Pencil. You can order all of Apple’s new gear right away, though demand may delay shipping for a week or two on some items.

MacBook Air Gains Retina Display and Touch ID

When Steve Jobs introduced the MacBook Air in 2008 by pulling it out of an envelope, it set the standard for the ultralight notebook category. But Apple has focused on the high-end MacBook Pro line of late, making this major revision extremely welcome.

Retina Display and Touch ID

Most notably, the new MacBook Air features a 13.3-inch Retina display that’s far crisper than the previous model’s screen. Although the screen is the same size as before, Apple eliminated the aluminum bezel around it, taking the screen much closer to the edge. That let the company reduce the MacBook Air’s size, making it almost an inch (2.1 cm) less wide and more than half an inch (1.5 cm) less deep. Even more important, Apple dropped the weight by almost a quarter pound (100 g). It’s noticeably smaller and lighter now.

The other major improvement in the MacBook Air is the addition of a Touch ID sensor in the upper-right corner of the keyboard. Rather than typing your password to log in, you can just place your finger on the Touch ID sensor. It also works to unlock some apps like 1Password. To support the Touch ID sensor, the MacBook Air includes Apple’s T2 security chip, which prevents the boot process from being tampered with, encrypts all data on the SSD, and enables “Hey Siri.”

Evolutionary Updates

Many of the remaining changes just bring the MacBook into the modern age. It sports two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side for charging and connecting peripherals, and a headphone jack on the right side—all the previous ports are gone. The keyboard is the same one used in the most recent update to the MacBook Pro, which isn’t universally loved—if you’re particular about keyboards, give this one a try before buying. Apple also replaced the old Multi-Touch trackpad with a larger Force Touch trackpad that’s more responsive and provides additional capabilities.

By default, the MacBook Air comes with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. You can jump to 16 GB for $200, and we generally recommend that. Similarly, you can upgrade the storage to 256 GB for $200, 512 GB for $400, or 1.5 TB for $1200.

We haven’t mentioned performance yet. Apple says only that the MacBook Air’s 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor delivers “the performance you need for everyday activities like organizing your photos, browsing the Web, creating presentations or viewing and editing videos.” Since Apple never misses the chance to say how much faster a new Mac is than the model it replaces, we have to assume that the new MacBook is no faster than the old one. Hopefully, benchmarks will appear soon.

Price

The new MacBook Air comes in silver, gold, and space gray, and pricing starts at $1199 for 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. If performance is important to you, however, you should consider the non-Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro, which costs only $100 more and is just a bit heavier. And if you’re willing to settle for older technology and a larger form factor, note that the old MacBook Air remains for sale starting at $999. Finally, the 12-inch MacBook also remains in the lineup, but at $1299, it’s overpriced and underpowered, and thus interesting only if you want the smallest possible Mac.

Mac mini Goes Pro with Massive Performance Boost

Apple updated the MacBook Air for consumers and students, but the company is aiming the revamped Mac mini at professional users. This update, the first in over 4 years, takes a cue from the similarly pro-focused iMac Pro in changing the color from silver to space gray, but otherwise it retains the same form factor—7.7 inches (19.7 cm) square and 1.4 inches (3.6 cm) high.

Speeds and Feeds

What has changed are the guts of the Mac mini, which offer huge performance gains over the previous version from 2014. Those improvements come from eighth-generation Intel Core processors: a base 3.6 GHz 4-core i3, a mid-level 3.0 GHz 6-core i5, and a top-of-the-line 3.2 GHz 6-core i7. Apple claims up to five times the performance of the previous Mac mini and up to 60% speedier graphics performance thanks to the integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630.

You won’t lack for RAM or storage either. The Mac mini comes with 8 GB of RAM, but you can upgrade to 16 GB ($200), 32 GB ($600), or 64 GB ($1400). Less expensive memory is available from other vendors. While the Mac mini’s base 128 GB of SSD storage might be adequate if all your data is stored on a NAS device, you can upgrade to 256 GB ($200), 512 GB ($400), 1 TB ($800), or 2 TB ($1600). That storage is automatically encrypted thanks to the Mac mini’s T2 security chip, which also speeds HEVC video transcoding.

While Apple’s notebooks have been shedding ports, the Mac mini has bucked the trend. It features four Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI 2.0 port, two USB-A ports, an audio jack, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack, with 10 Gigabit Ethernet as an option. Thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 and HDMI ports, you can connect either a 5K display and a 4K display, or three 4K displays.

Price

All this power comes at a price. The new Mac mini starts at $799 for the 3.6 GHz 4-core Intel Core i3, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage. However, build-to-order options for a faster processor, more RAM, and more storage could raise the price to a whopping $4199.

Nonetheless, the Mac mini is once again an attractive option for anyone who already has a good display, keyboard, and mouse, none of which are included. It’s also ideal for those who want to stuff a Mac into a tight space, bring it on stage for a live performance, or stack a bunch of them for rendering video.

11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro Boast New Screens and Redesigned Apple Pencil

As welcome as the MacBook Air and Mac mini updates were, Apple really knocked it out of the park with its new iPad Pro models, which are the most significant changes to the iPad line yet.

Face ID Enables Physical Redesigns

Like the iPhone X series, these new iPad Pros drop Touch ID in favor of Face ID authentication. The 7-megapixel TrueDepth camera on the front of the iPad Pro that makes Face ID possible also enables support for Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, and Animoji and Memoji.

Losing the Home button enabled Apple to bring the display closer to the edge of the iPad. With the 11-inch iPad Pro (the measurement is the diagonal screen size), that means a larger display in roughly the same form factor as the older 10.5-inch model (which remains for sale). And with the 12.9-inch iPad, Apple kept the display size the same as before but shrank the height of the case by almost an inch so it’s now the size of an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper and a little lighter.

Apple also changed the industrial design slightly, reverting to the flat edges last seen in the iPhone 5s. One of those edges sports a magnetic attachment area and wireless charging spot for the redesigned Apple Pencil.

Speaking of charging, Apple broke with tradition and dropped the Lightning connector in favor of the industry-standard USB-C for charging and connecting to peripherals. That will make it easier to connect to an external display. You may also need a $9 USB-C-to-3.5mm headphone jack adapter.

Incremental Changes

Those are the most obvious new features, but some of the more evolutionary changes will be equally as welcome. Most notable is the new A12X Bionic chip with embedded M12 coprocessor and Neural Engine. This Apple-designed chip is reportedly faster than 95% of laptops available today, and it gives the iPad Pro unparalleled performance among iOS devices.

That performance also powers the improved 12-megapixel rear camera, giving it enhanced computational photography capabilities, like Smart HDR, which takes multiple images and combines them intelligently for the best possible exposure. On-screen performance is improved, and everything will look better than ever before thanks to a new Liquid Retina display that features Apple’s True Tone and ProMotion technologies. In a classic Apple touch, the screen now features rounded corners.

Accessories

Along with the revamped iPad Pro models, Apple introduced a new Smart Keyboard Folio that improves on the previous Smart Keyboard by wrapping around to protect the back of the iPad Pro as well. It uses a redesigned Smart Connector and provides two viewing angles.

More impressive is the new Apple Pencil, which now features a flat, touch-sensitive surface that you can double-tap to change drawing modes in many apps. That flat surface also makes it easy to attach to the edge of the iPad Pro magnetically so you won’t lose it and where it charges wirelessly. The easy-to-lose cap is gone, as is the Lightning connector, so the Apple Pencil is now shorter and more pencil-like—it won’t roll off the desk anymore.

Price

How much will all this goodness cost? By the time all is said and done, you’ll be in MacBook Air range. The 11-inch iPad Pro starts at $799 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 64 GB of storage. 256 GB runs $949, 512 GB is $1149, and 1 TB will set you back $1549. Add $150 if you want cellular connectivity in any of these configurations.

For the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, add $200, so $999 for 64 GB, $1149 for $256 GB, $1349 for 512 GB, and $1749 for 1 TB. Cellular puts another $150 on the tab. Both sizes of iPad are available in either silver or space gray.

The new Apple Pencil costs $129, and the Smart Keyboard Folio is either $179 for the 11-inch model or $199 for the 12.9-inch model.

Remember, you can still get a regular iPad for as little as $329 and the original Apple Pencil is only $99, so if all you want is an iPad, you don’t need to spring for an iPad Pro. But if you’re using an iPad Pro as your primary work device and are willing to pay for the power, these new models are compelling upgrades.


Social Media: Apple has at long last updated the MacBook Air and Mac mini, and the company also released a significantly improved iPad Pro. Head over to our blog for all the details!