Apple hasn’t seen changes to its lineup like this since the move from PowerPC to Intel, or when iPods turned into iPhones. This single move from Intel to Apple’s own ARM chip is going to change everything for Apple. This shift will unify iOS and MacOS for all intents and purposes. That being said, the change isn’t without its complications.
If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t on the fence about using a Mac or not; you want to know whether the new M1 Macs are worth the jump. The M1 is a new architecture with new challenges, but also with new advantages. This isn’t about whether the new M1 Macs are worth jumping to in general, but whether you should stick with what you have now or jump to the new architecture for better and for worse.
M1 is a new processor based on the ARM architecture designed by Apple to replace Intel processors in their lineup. Microsoft tried a similar move and failed for all intents and purposes. Apple will succeed where Microsoft failed due to a difference in philosophy behind their products and different markets. We’ll get into all of that later though. Let’s take a look at what makes the M1 so formidable in general first.
M1 and ARM
The M1 processor has the best of ARM with the ability to compete ith Intel for raw power and performance all done as the first 5nm personal computer processor. ARM architecture allows a combination of higher performance and higher efficiency processors together as seen with their big.LITTLE packages. The M1 uses four high-performance “Firestorm” cores and four high-efficiency “Icestorm” cores to do roughly the same thing.
The “E-Cluster” (power-efficient) has four cores running between 0.6–2.064 GHz with a TDP of 1.294 W. Performance is where this shines, and the “P-Cluster” (performance) has four cores running between 0.6–3.204 GHz with a TDP of 13.749 W ( source). You also get between 8–16 GB of DDR4 RAM. It also packs in graphics and neural-network hardware (more specs).
The raw specs are great, especially for ARM. It can go toe-to-toe with contemporary Intel offerings without losing a beat. The comparison isn’t as good as marketing materials would lead you to believe, but it’s not bad by any stretch. It’s much better with other benchmarks, but that’s bound to happen with any “chip war”. Different architectures have different abilities and advantages.
If you look at only the specs for the chip, you’re getting an improvement over a traditional Intel-based Mac. If you compare the M1 to similar classes of chips across the board, you’re still doing great. If you use your Mac on the go, the M1 architecture means better battery life. The new architecture also allows for passive cooling, so no moving parts at all. This upgrade is an all around improvement over previous Macs, you get more processing, more speed, and more efficiency. The biggest thing which impacts whether the M1 is going to be right for you or not is how compatible it is with software and hardware.
The Curse of Compatibility
There isn’t really a “right answer” to a computing architecture. Context sets the stage for what optimizations will benefit the platform. x86 (and its extension AMD64) won because of their backwards compatibility rather than raw technical power (IA64 was arguably better than AMD64, but it broke compatibility). They’ve kept up on raw performance, but there’s only so much makeup you can put on a pig to mask the flaws. x86–64 isn’t necessarily the best at everything even though it’s almost always been the best for performance. Once ARM started tackling the performance curve, they grew in a way x86–64 just hadn’t and couldn’t in decades. The limitations of the architecture have started to show, and arguably will continue to be an issue barring a technological and engineering breakthrough.
Windows RT and similar ARM based platforms failed because they didn’t work like users expected them to rather than as a limitation of ARM. Users bought Windows RT machines expecting them to run anything Windows could, but it’s a different architecture and a different OS. Apple has continued to change things up and devices eventually become stagnant and become obsolete for most purposes. If you’re even a little technical, you buy an Apple device expecting about 3–5 years of support (when new), then nothing.
Apple doesn’t care as much about compatibility and they try to get their users to do the same, but sometimes you just have to use older hardware or an older program. I worked in a studio which is still using MacOS 10.6 to this day due to the hardware and software. I’ve kept my own MacBooks back to avoid having to re-purchase software.
Apple does a much better job marketing than most other brands and dropping the headphone jack was (and still is) seen as a move forward while Samsung doing the same was a fiasco. People just want Windows to work or they’ll keep using older versions until they can’t. Apple, however, are generally considered as innovators to their audience so the change is usually accepted. This presents a sticky situation where if you move to the newest platform, you might lose features and workflows you previously had.
Looking at Compatibility
Whenever you’re considering an update for a Mac, you need to consider what hardware and software you need. It doesn’t happen every version, but there are plenty of major jumps where your old software, hardware, and peripherals are rendered unusable. Most class-compliant devices are safe, but what about certain printers or audio equipment?
Hardware compatibility has gotten rarer, but an architecture change means a huge difference for software (and drivers). The move from PowerPC to x86 meant a huge reduction in compatible software despite universal binaries. People tend to forget that the company making the software needs to update it in order to have a universal binary.
Rosetta could do a lot, but the programs you needed most tended to be the ones which just didn’t work in emulation. Rosetta 2 can help with a lot of apps, but there are plenty of applications which need to be on the right hardware to work well.
Audio engineering software like DAWs might technically work, but other integral pieces for the setup just won’t. It doesn’t matter if you can record if the keyboard can’t make the right sounds because a plugin doesn’t work. You also have the risk of certain things just not working right with the transition, even if there is an updated application. Complex workflows have more complex considerations for compatibility.
How exactly are you looking to use your system and how does each and every piece work with the M1 architecture? Is there an alternative with iOS which can be loaded with the right tricks? What do you need, what does it depend on, and what just makes things nicer? The answers to all of these questions will determine whether moving to a new M1 Mac is right or not. I have too many deal breakers to even consider moving, but I’m also in the minority. If you just use your Mac to browse the internet and stick to built-in applications, you are probably safe to move with any version.
Macs for Work
Enterprise usage is where things get more complicated however. You need to take into account what you need for the job, but what the job needs from the machine as well. If your company uses an MDM, this can be a deal breaker for the M1 architecture. Not every MDM is up to speed for the first few months with a new platform.
Your software and hardware might all work, but what about things like VPNs, antivirus, or other work utilities you don’t typically think about? Some are obvious, but some aren’t thought about until after an update, even by the IT department. This song and dance happens with virtually every major MacOS update, and it will happen at an unprecedented scale with an architectural change.
Smaller companies or more creative shops can probably afford to jump without any hiccups, but more structured or enterprise environments require more research and will need to wait. Most newer products will continue to work, but older products may not have any active development. Apple’s Rosetta 2 and new universal binaries will make it easier for software to be ported between architectures, but there’s more to migrating from x86–64 to ARM than just hitting “recompile”.
The M1 architecture is amazing from a technical standpoint and will enhance the Apple ecosystem for years to come. The biggest limitation is in the initial jump, but that’s pretty much standard with any major change with Apple. Whether the jump is right for you depends on what you use your Mac for. A student will probably be fine, but a professional will need to look deeper into their workflow to see what might break and if it can be replaced.
As is standard with every move with Apple, time will sort out the majority of workflows as developers port their software over, but anything grandfathered in will be left to the wayside. This may not matter to most users, but it can and will for many power users. The more complex your workflow, the more likely there is to be that “one tool” in your toolbox which keeps things running. If it doesn’t work, neither can you.
That being said, if everything looks good, the M1 based Macs are great updates for MacBooks and even the Mac Mini. You don’t even have to make the standard choice with ARM devices on whether you want performance or efficiency; you get both. M1 allows for better performance, with lower power requirements and more efficiency which means a quieter machine.
Originally published at https://somedudesays.com on November 30, 2020.