Don’t Buy the M1 Mac

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On November 10, 2020, Apple held an online event. At the event, Apple unveiled new Macs that are powered by the new M1 chip. The new Macs are:

Hardware-wise, these Macs are identical to the ones released in 2019 except for the replacement of the Intel CPUs with Apple’s M1 chip. Interestingly, Apple is using the same chip for all 3 Macs except for the 256GB version of the MacBook Air which has 7 GPU cores instead of 8.

To differentiate the MacBook Pro from the MacBook Air, Apple removed the cooling fan from the MacBook Air. As a result, the MacBook Pro should have better sustained performance. This means that the MacBook Pro will be more suitable for heavy workloads such as video editing and gaming. Without a cooling fan, I predict that the MacBook Air will throttle itself quite a bit but we won’t know by how much until we get our hands on the machine. There is however a silver lining for the MacBook Air. The absence of a cooling fan allows the MacBook Air to operate silently. This may not be important to you but I always found the humming sound made by cooling fans to be quite annoying. The hum degrades the computing experience especially when you don’t use headphones.

Having said that, there is also the possibility that the inclusion of a fan is not for sustained performance. Instead, it is because the M1 chip in the MacBook Pro and Mac Mini are clocked higher than the one in the MacBook Air. Because the chips are clocked higher, they produce more heat. Hence, a fan is needed to cool these chips.

Of the two theories, I would place my bets on the second one. It just makes more sense for the MacBook Pro to be significantly more powerful than the MacBook Air. It should be better in every way. Not just in sustained performance. That way, it would better suit the “Pro” moniker. That way, it would justify the higher price tag.

[Edited: Now that the Macs are available to the public it is clear that my bets were wrong. The fan is for sustained performance. This is true for both the MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini. The nice thing about Apple’s design, is that the fan doesn’t come on until it is needed to maintain peak performance of the M1 chip. Tests have shown that, the fan will kick in at around the 10-minute mark.]

Oops, I nearly forgot the Mac Mini. The Mac Mini is basically a headless MacBook Pro.

The new Macs come with 8GB of RAM and at least 256GB of storage. You can upgrade the RAM to 16GB for $200. The storage can also be upgraded to a maximum of 2TB. However, do note that you cannot upgrade the RAM or storage later on so get what you need when you order.

So, why shouldn’t you buy an M1 Mac now?

Memory Compression.

The A14 chip for the iOS devices has accelerators for memory compression. This is partly why iOS devices can compete with android devices with significantly more RAM. Although not mentioned in the keynote, I think it is reasonable to assume that the M1 chip will also have memory compression accelerators since they are based on the same architecture. This means that M1 Macs may have better memory performance compared to Intel-based Macs. As a result, you may not need as much RAM. 8GB of ram may be sufficient?

Having said that, this is pure speculation and should be taken with a grain of salt. So, wait for someone with similar workloads to test the Mac before buying one for yourself.

Software Compatibility.

According to Apple, the M1 MacBook Air is 3.5x faster at CPU-based workloads; 5x faster at GPU-based workloads; and 9x faster at ML-based workloads. It is also more power-efficient allowing you to use the Mac for longer between charges. Benefits aside, there is an elephant in the room that we shouldn’t ignore, software compatibility.

The M1 chip is based on the ARM ISA. This means older apps will run on an x86 compatibility layer called Rosetta 2. The problem here is that we don’t really know if all apps will run properly on Rosetta 2 at this point in time. There is no point in buying a new Mac if you can’t use it to run mission-critical software at an acceptable level.

Here’s how Apple describes Rosetta 2:

With the introduction of Rosetta 2, M1 and macOS Big Sur seamlessly run apps that haven’t yet transitioned to Universal versions. So without updating, you can keep working on Fusion360 projects or reach the next level in your favorite game. And thanks to Metal and M1, some of the most graphically demanding apps perform better under Rosetta 2 than they did running natively on previous Mac systems with integrated graphics.

Apps that rely heavily on the GPU will run faster on the M1 even if it running on top of Rosetta 2. That is a good thing. However, Apple didn’t mention anything about CPU bound apps. This may imply that CPU bound apps will run slower on Rosetta 2 compared to running natively on Intel-based systems. The main question is then, how much slower are CPU bound apps on M1 based systems?

So, wait until you see someone else run the apps you need before actually buying an M1 Mac for yourself.

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