Review I was three-quarters of the way through the third rewrite of this review before I remembered I was actually at Apple's WorldWide Developer Conference in 2005 when Steve Jobs got up and said: "Yep, we're going to Intel."
I mention that memory because the last Apple chip transition was quite a long time ago now. Maybe you've blanked out some details, but I'm confident you can't say it left any permanent scars.
If we're honest, decades of continually improving silicon speeds mean the release of a faster computer shouldn't be noteworthy. Perhaps the fact that this continues to fill us with wonder should be.
So in a way, all any review of the Arm-compatible M1 MacBook Pro I played with (complete with 8GB RAM and 500GB SSD) needs to say is: "Confirmed: you can go about your business."
Yet here we are. And to be fair, it has been quite some time since CPU speed improved significantly. Most of the performance improvements in recent years came from SSDs and GPUs or adding a few more cores.
Yet the story of Apple trying, and failing, to outdo Intel's chips goes back almost the past 30 years, so the M1 is a little momentous because Apple has overtaken Chipzilla.
Actual detailed scientific benchmarking of the M1 has already been well handled by qualified professionals.
I'm here to, hopefully, add some value by quickly and qualitatively going over what I noticed using an M1 MacBook Pro for a few weeks, from my point of view as a Mac user and administrator in a video production company, and a Mac owner in a personal capacity.
I've considered the hardware, the OS, and which apps are native, aren't native or don't run at all.
Then I did some unscientific benchmarks of the compute-intensive jobs I do in my line of work, and some of my hobbies, just to see if the general figures being quoted played out for me, particularly compared to the Intel Macs at my workplace which are at least a few years old.
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It's important to note that I don't actually notice my personal five-year-Mac old laptop being slow that often. It has 8GB of memory and a 2.7GHz Core i5 processor, and it handles writing reviews, reading email, doing some CAD, some (script-kiddie) coding just fine – all of it happens pretty much instantly.
I know my current machine's limitations and if I'm really going to push it (with maybe a 3D render or a long transcode), I'll quit out of web browsers and anything from Adobe and let the lappie do its thing while I distract myself with my phone. If I really need power, I have the luxury of desktops at work (several desktops if it comes to that). But for most of the comparisons below, said five year old laptop will be the benchmark.
Noticeable differences: on the outside?
Just like the last time Apple changed Mac processor architecture, the outside of the hardware has changed very little. Compared to the 2015 MacBook Pro, the M1 unit is still superficially very similar – I can clearly remember that feeling of dorkiness you get being the only one at a meeting with the unfashionably thick previous-generation MacBook Pro, so this is good news. There's USB-C – it's still a long way from Nirvana, but it's also not a totally useless port any longer. It was cute being able to (just) power the M1 machine from my phone's charger. My old MacBook has 2-3mm travel on its keyboard. The M1 has 1mm travel and ended up making me dissatisfied with both new and old. My old keyboard now feels quite soggy, but I preferred its keycap size: they're smaller and have a bit more space between.
The M1's speakers sound better, and I never noticed mine being bad (until, ahem, now). And the battery, wow. I watched two episodes of The Expanse (just shy of two hours) and went from 100 per cent to 95 per cent.
The most obvious difference is the one that shouldn't really be there: the new unit doesn't have the dreaded "staingate" decomposition of the anti-glare coating on the screen. That's a nice upgrade.
Big Sur is new for me. As an admin, I've always at least delayed software updates until the early adopters have sorted out the bugs, but with administration getting more convoluted with each release, I now delay them as long as practical (not as long as some in, say, Hollywood, stay tuned for that story). Big Sur is a mostly pleasing face lift, spoiled slightly by a rash of not-pleasing dialogs: you get about seven for each new app you run asking for access to this and that.
Also interesting (and I don't know when this began) but I initially didn't have admin rights on the laptop, and that was less limiting than I expected. Without admin rights you can install apps from the App store, and a lot of other stand-alone apps I could run from the desktop. It was only the things that came in installers that necessitated the phone call to The Register for the admin password.
Does everything actually run? And run well?
With only a tiny number of exceptions (which were not a surprise and I didn't even try), yes, everything ran. It ran just fine. There's no "slow" in this transition, there's either "good" or there's "not there."
The whole OS, all the Apple apps and the not inconsiderable part of your day that is looking at the internet, are all M1-native already. As are Microsoft and Adobe Premiere (I didn't try these, it seems overwhelmingly likely they'll perform like everything else. In hindsight, maybe I should have tested some Adobe apps as historically they have not performed well off Wintel – Photoshop notwithstanding). But everything not native was, where it took long enough to actually time, also faster.
By way of a native app comparison, Final Cut exported a very basic cutdown of a half-hour show (remove ad breaks for upload to YouTube for Content ID) in 3:10 on the M1, versus 4:52 on a 2013 Mac Pro (I didn't even bother timing my non-M1 laptop, it seemed sadistic).
A lot of productivity software lives in a web browser now. I tried Google Docs, the 3D CAD software Onshape and CAD-for-electronics easyeda.com. All ran perfectly but, again, I rarely notice any slowness on them on my current system, so I rarely noticed these being any snappier.
Onshape makes a lot of use of the GPU and things were smoother there, but I doubt I'd suddenly be twice as productive. A website I use to get a quick approximation of GPU performance is Shadertoy, and here we do see that the M1's built-in GPU cluster was generally about five times faster than the Intel integrated one. Which means it's still well back from the 2013 Mac Pro, admittedly with dual AMD FirePro GPUs, let alone what desktop PC folks are playing with today, purely from benchmark scores.
I tried a good few written-for-Intel apps too and at no stage did I notice any emulation overhead. I barely remember the first Rosetta, but I was there and I'm pretty sure that you did notice a PowerPC app on Intel was slower than running it on a PPC machine. For the M1 this is not the case: on paper a single-threaded task might be 70 per cent of the speed of native code, but for any app I tried where the task was not instant, the M1's eight CPU cores gave it a comfortable edge over the i5's sort-of four cores.
Ableton's Live Lite is music composition software I like to noodle with from time to time, it has no problems running, nor did a bunch of other music apps from Native Instruments. While audio is theoretically quite low bandwidth (and a lot of the heavy lifting is done by API calls in the OS which we assume are fully native), it still relies on some extremely critical timing to not sound like deafening glitches. I had quite a few tracks with filters, reverb, and delays, and it had no trouble.
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The marvellous open-source 3D app Blender is illuminating. It looks from their GitHub like they're still some way from having a universal Mac executable, so we will have to make do with emulation. As a test project, I used the latest version's splash screen, and made a short animation of it. It rendered in one sixth the time on the M1. Of course, Blender's a modern app which is doing a lot of the hard work on the GPU: so roughly half the work is immune from any emulation penalty.
Next up was Handbrake. This has sort of taken over encode duties at work because it is almost supernaturally better than commercial offerings – not just much faster, but it also produces significantly smaller files that still look better. And there's some more interest in the test because I first tried the Intel version and then downloaded the not-completely-released M1 native version. The results again are pretty spectacular: emulating Intel code, the M1 is just shy of twice as fast, native is again just shy of twice as fast again.
I was also curious to see if the emulation would produce a different file: Intel processors have hardware dedicated to H.264 compression, so I wondered how well the x86 emulation would handle that, and if it would painlessly offload the work to the video-processing acceleration in the M1. Well, I'm not enough of a forensic scientist to say anything with certainty, but the file produced under emulation on the M1 was identical to the file produced by my actual Core i5 machine (save for one byte, the chip ID metadata, and one byte difference in length.) Overall: no obvious corner cutting in evidence, and still extremely fast.
What doesn't work?
In practical terms, there are only two things right now I can't do on this machine. One is run Avid, the industry's de facto standard editing application. There's no native version and emulation is "not supported" (although I didn't try to force it work.) Avid is an extraordinary tangle of decades of legacy code – just this week it presented me a dialog with un-anti-aliased text recommending I restart the whole computer after its titler crashed.
Not changing much is pretty much Avid's selling point and I think its users will get by just fine on Apple's well-built older machines until Avid get something out the door (in 2019 a lot of Avid shops in Hollywood, including the team that made sitcom Modern Family, found their Macs unable to start up. It turned out to be Chrome's fault, but it affected only these computers because they had SIP disabled – in many cases because they were running pre-2015 macOSes that didn't have SIP. Let the record show I don't delay OS updates that long.) So this is no big deal unless it drags on for years, and obviously large numbers of people around the world edit video just fine without Avid if they need to.
The other missing thing is not coming back any time soon, and it is certainly going to be inconvenient: virtual machnes (Intel ones, that is). I don't have anything serious and permanently-on running in a VM on my laptop, but they are great for testing new user setups or software on systems that you can absolutely wreck and then just put back together with a click, and it will be a real pity I can't do that for the majority of the fleet that's still on Intel for the next few (five?) years. It can all be worked around with some screen sharing, but it's a lot less elegant.
Since Piers filed this review, The Register has been able to quickly test Parallels' native M1 desktop hypervisor. We can report that Windows-for-Arm runs without discernible lagginess on the M1.Parallels has also done a brilliant job on the installation process. Once you've downloaded Windows, Parallels just gets to work installing the OS and eventually presents a Windows desktop populated with files from the macOS desktop – Simon Sharwood
In true Apple style, I've realised one more thing, which Apple cleverly hid by killing 32-bit apps in the previous release of macOS: 80 per cent of my Steam games. I've kept a 10.13 boot partition on my i5 so I can still run those, but there's no 32-bit emulation on Apple Silicon, so there's no way to run those except on a real Intel.
There's not a lot of doubt: the Intel-to-M1 transition is better than the PowerPC-to-Intel transition, which itself was extremely painless. If the code's Intel, an M1 Macbook Pro will still beat an i5 unless the code is single-threaded. If the code's native, it will probably beat the previous Mac Pro (unless the GPUs are involved). It's faster, it's cheaper, the battery lasts for an insane amount of time.
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I'm not going to buy one tomorrow because I'm doing just fine, but when my current machine leaves the material plane, I'll move to an Apple Silicon Mac and barely notice the lack of VMs and some legacy apps.
Speaking of which, if you're patient enough, eventually someone brings back what Apple abandons. I don't think we're there yet for PowerPC or early OS X, but you can run a 68K mac in a web browser, totally hardware and platform independently. This Color Mac II booted in 5 seconds on my i5 and, of course, about half that on the M1 - in other words at least an order of magnitude faster than it did when it was "native". You can even run Windows 2000 in a browser (but I forgot to try). What better way to sign off than to leave you with a screenshot of an M1 Mac running a HyperCard stack. ®