My experience with the Apple M1 Macbook Air
Late in the year 2020 (yes that year), Apple did something interesting. It has released it’s first computer NOT running an x86 CPU, since 2006 when they stopped using their PowerPC architecture. This is a big step, and Apple decided to use the ARM architecture, basically the same architecture they use in their phones, watches, and tablets. I am not going to dwell on the specifics, there are many articles out there covering this, written my much more informed persons than me. Also, this is not the be-all-end-all review, so take this with a pinch of salt and understanding that I am biased here ( I paid money for it ).
What I want to talk about in this post is my experience with this new Mac, how well does the ARM architecture work in 2021, and should you get one.
ARM - Quo Vadis?
So the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine - see that, a nested acronym) CPU architecture has been here for a long time. And most likely you have one or more devices running on this architecture somewhere around you (just look at your phone). But in the recent years it has also found itself onto desktop computing, with the rising popularity of Single Board Computers, like your Raspberry PIs and the like. But these SBCs were more for your schools, side projects, IoT and other fun things.
So far I was not successful in running a Raspberry PI as a full blown desktop replacement, and trust me - I’ve tried. With many different models and configurations. With active or passive cooling, with limited Linux desktops. But always it was just a worse experience than using ANY x86 CPU made in the last 10 years.
Then Apple released it’s Apple Silicon M1 Chip, based on the ARM Architecture. And it blew me away.
The last time I’ve purchased myself a new laptop was … well never. My mom got me one back in 2008, but I did not buy it myself. I usually got around buying used ones, or getting a company laptop. So this is a first for me - and yeah - let’s make it something different.
After some deliberation and consideration, I’ve decided to bite the bullet. Let’s do it, I’ll go for the cheapest portable option, how bad can it be. What I ended up buying was 2020 M1 Macbook Air with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. I will take it through it’s paces, and if it is not good - I can always return it in the first 30 days.
And is it good? Oh boy is it amazing! I think I am in love! 😍 But let me talk details, what I like about it and what I don’t like about it.
Here is, first, a list of all the things I find excellent about this laptop:
- It has no fan, and it keeps very cool
- Super snappy and responsive
- Ridiculous fast resume times
- Working with external monitors
- The battery life
Okay, let me break some of these down, first off starting with the thermals eg. the lack of any fan. This laptop is dead silent! There are no moving parts in it! It has just a simple heat sink on top of its CPU and thats about it. Now talking about that, you may thing - it must get hot then - well no! The palm rests are cold as I type this blog post, sitting in my bed with the laptop snug in my blanket. And unless I really hammer it down with video rendering or something, it never goes near warm. It is the thing I wanted in a laptop!
The thing that was most mentioned about M1 macbooks is the fact that they are fast. Like really fast. And I can truly appreciate that. Opening up applications, working in your terminal, in your browser, or even in Finder for that matter - is blazingly fast. And I am used to running Linux on a bare-bones Window Manager, and this M1 mac gets to those speeds with a proper, full blown, environment. Prior to this, my work laptop was a 2020 16" Macbook Pro (Intel i7, AMD 5300 GPU), compared to that one, the M1 is way snappier and more responsive to anything I do. Granted I do most of my stuff in my terminal, but even with that. The 16" Macbook Pro was WAY slower in the terminal than this one.
When opening up the lid of my laptop, or plugging it in to an external monitor the resume is instant. It’s just ridiculous. I know I should not be blown away by trivial things, but when you see how fast the laptop switches from a single 4K monitor to running it own screen AND the monitor - it’s wonderful.
And lastly - the battery! Typing this out, I am at 82% of battery, and I spent good few hours on this laptop working, and watching YouTube. So far the battery has impressed me a lot - even though, due to the current Working from home situation, I am never far away from a charger, but that will change in the future.
Same like with the good, let me outline things that could have been better, and explain why I think so.
- Only two USB-C ports
- Only 8GB of RAM
- Only one additional monitor.
Now, you will notice, I use the word “only” a lot. This means that it’s not a complete lack of a feature, just it’s not up to what I think it should be. So let me explain.
First off - just two USB-C ports. Come on, I carry around dongles like crazy, but an extra port or two would go a long way. I really do thing just a single additional USB-C port would do wonders for this laptop. Although this is not as bad as on my Macbook Pro 16" which requires a 100W charger, and that does not work well via a dongle.
When it comes to RAM, 8GB might seem like crazy small for 2021. But the laptop works great! I did not notice any stuttering even though it has little RAM. But the issue I can see here (and it has been talked about a lot ) is the fact that there is lot of caching of that memory on Disk. And seeing that this is a soldered on SSD, it will eventually die off due to so many terabytes of data being written to it. Now, this has not been tested in any long term way (heck the laptop has been out for a few months only), so time will tell. But I do expect issues here.
Lastly, monitors. If you are a monitor junkie (like your’s truly). You will hate the fact that only one additional screen may be connected to this laptop. This means, that you can use the built in monitor of the laptop AND one more. No more dual or triple screen setups. But that might be just an artificial limitation, and Apple may decide to lift that (please do, thanks).
Can I work with it?
Oh yes I can! I spend most of my working time in a terminal or a text editor so there is no doubt that this is an issue. However, there were some stumbling blocks as I started using it.
Namely the issue with Docker. That is the lack of support for Docker on the M1 architecture. But now (as of April 2021) that is solved, and Docker works fine. Most of the tools I use are already existing in either native binaries, or run under Rosetta. And I really do not see the difference in performance between the two.
The only snag I ran into during my use of the M1 is during streaming. I’ve attempted to stream via Firefox on StreamYard on my M1, and well it failed (as you can see in this video ).
One thing I am still to try with it is to run a full blown stream. And I will have a chance to do that some time soon, and will make sure to update this post.
All I can say here is: I wish my company used these as corporate laptops, as they are just great for work.
Is this laptop really good? Is it worth the money they ask for? It is!!! I have never been as satisfied with a laptop purchase as this one. It works great in all regards, and any of the negatives I’ve encountered are pretty much manageable (at least in my case).
If you are looking for a macbook for work, with an extremely good battery life. With excellent speed and snappiness, all while staying very cool and silent. This is the laptop for you.
(Let’s just hope I dont eat my words in a year or so)