Fast, Silent, Cheap — my real-world experience of upgrading to an m1 Macbook Air

The very first Mac that I used, the original Macintosh 128k, was silent. It was silent because it didn't have a fan and it didn’t have a hard drive. It’s said that Steve Jobs insisted on the absence of both. Without fans and hard drives, the original Mac had no way to make noise. Sadly, the way that technology went for the next 32 years, meant that the Mac — and computers in general — needed fans. I think that Steve Jobs would be proud of my new m1 Macbook Air because, like the Macintosh 128k, it’s blissfully silent due to its lack of both mechanical hard drive and fan. But the big question, silence or not, is “is it good enough for me, a self-confessed power user?”

Tempted by the emergence of bargain refurbished models on Apple’s refurb store, I recently jumped at an 8/512 Macbook Air. My first silent Mac for 32 years. Here’s what I’ve found.

Are they as fast as people say?

In a word, yes. My Air is obviously faster than my 2016 macbook pro 15 inch with twice the memory. Everything really is instant. Tweetbot beachballs quite a bit on my pro, but doesn’t at all on the m1 Air. Safari loads in one bounce. If you’re waiting on something higher end because you need speed, don’t bother — the m1’s are almost certainly faster than anything you’re using today. The speed jump is obvious to the casual user. Rarely have I experienced this level of clear improvement. I don’t care about benchmarks — what matters is “does this feel fast”, and it does. In comparison, my 2016 Macbook Pro 15inch feels like an old clunker.

Is 8gb of memory enough?

Well, with 8gb I’m running affinity photo, designer, publisher, safari, mail, Tweetbot, PixelmatorPro VS Code and Xcode — all at the same time. Switching between apps is instantaneous. I can’t get the machine to falter, no what I throw at it. No doubt there are some uses that might benefit from more memory, but nothing I can find. I’m happy with 8gb. In fact, I don’t know why anyone would spend money on 16gb, other than for “future proofing”. Not over-speccing saved me £200, or 20%, of the cost.

Are the apps ready?

Absolutely. Everything runs well. Most apps I use are native m1 now. Some apps, like stuff from Adobe for example, run under Rosetta2. Unless you check, you’d never know something was using Rosetta2 — there’s no appreciable slowdown for apps using it.

If you want to check what’s native and what’s not, I found two sites that track things:

https://doesitarm.com/

https://isapplesiliconready.com

But, to the average user, native or not native doesn't matter. What matters is that all your apps work — I’ve not found anything that doesn't.

Are the dev tools ready?

Mostly.

I have Docker (a preview), iTerm, VS Code and Xcode and NGrok installed natively. Homebrew is also working natively, through which I was able to brew install node. Mac OS comes installed with Python 2.7.16 and 3.8.2. That’s an excellent start. For most of the things I do, this gets me there.

At the time of writing, NodeJS version 15.10.0 is the version that brew install node will give you. So far, the back versions of NodeJS haven’t yet all been compiled for the m1 chip, so if you have specific version needs that’s something to be aware of. I managed to get a node-12 install, but there seems to be problems with it.

As I needed to run something that has a dependency on node-12, I went the Rosetta route — ie run the x86 version and let Rosetta handle the x86-to-m1 translation. This is really simple — I just cloned iTerm, command-i and set the cloned copy to run under Rosetta. Then when going into my Rosetta version of iTerm I was able to install the x86 versions and they all worked absolutely fine. To be honest, there’s no way I would have known I wasn’t running native code if this was the default. I was able to get a big system running that had hard dependencies on Node12 and a number of Docker containers without an issue.

Note: you can also execute a terminal commend under Rosetta from a non-Rosetta terminal instance by adding arch -x86_64 to the front of your command, like so: arch -x86_64 brew install node@12.

As the m1 machines are based on an arm architecture, you might be wondering about intel docker machines. It’s not a problem, because thanks to a clever piece of emulation called qemu, docker can run both x86 and arm architecture machines. To run an intel machine, just add --platform linux/amd64 to the docker command — simple!

But some more specialised pieces of software aren’t yet ready. Notably, for me at least, Rasa doesn’t yet run. However, Rasa uses Tensorflow and Apple is working on a very exciting branch of Tensorflow that promises huge and dramatic performance increases. It’s not often we get 10x performance improvements and I can’t wait! Unfortunately, wait I will have to.

Also, Haskell isn’t yet ready natively — not that I use Haskell myself, but one thing I sometimes use is based on it.

If your dev duties are mainstream, you’re probably going to be fine. But if you’re reliant on more specialised technologies, you may need to wait. Running everything under Rosetta for dev is a very viable route — the things I tried just worked and this is probably the easiest route right now, rather than spend time fighting leading-edge installs. Either way, it would be prudent to check the status of the things you need, before making an m1 Mac your daily driver for development. Apple has a 14 day no-questions-asked exchange period — so if you buy from Apple and find things don’t work out, you can send it back.

What other benefits does the m1 bring?

  1. Instant on — there’s no delay when you open the lid of your laptop.
  2. Silence. I use a 27 inch 5k display, which sends the fans on my 15inch pro into overdrive. My m1 Air is utterly silent, because it has no fans. This really is a huge deal for me — the noise of the fans really bothers me. I’m with Steve Jobs in the desire for silent computers. In this regard, the m1 Macbook Air is the spiritual successor to the original Macintosh 128k.
  3. Heat. Or, rather, lack of heat. The m1 Air barely generates any heat at all — despite not having a fan. Which is, ahem, somewhat of a contrast to my 15inch pro.
  4. Speed. You got that the m1 machines are really fast, right?
  5. Battery life. 18 hours on a single charge — that means I don’t need to carry a charger with me. No charge anxiety and less stuff to carry around.
  6. Weight. The difference in weight between the Air and my 15inch pro is significant. I’ve not bothered to weigh them — the difference is obvious. Even more so if I don’t need the charger with the Air, because it has such a great battery life.
  7. Coming from a 2016-era machine, it’s nice to have a decent keyboard again. It’s quiet — I like quiet computers. And the arrow keys are in the right configuration, so I can nudge things around by feeling my way around without needing to glance at the keyboard.
  8. You can install iPhone and iPad apps. I got my train times app installed, something that’s not possible on intel machines.
  9. The webcam may not be higher resolution, but it does use ML to create a very flattering look. The lighting in my home office isn’t always perfect and I tend to get harsh shadows on my face. However, the m1 Air’s camera fixes that magically — the difference is instantly noticeable, with always perfect lighting on my face. Personally, I think this is a better fix than a higher resolution version of a baldy lit face.

Which colour?

Haha, now we get to the really difficult one!

Space Grey is cool. Gold is blingy. And silver is classic. Silver also doesn’t show the scratches so much, because aluminium is silver.

I went with silver — I think it’s pretty, in an understated way. It’s the best choice, IMHO.

Air v Pro

I agonised a lot about this — Air v 13 inch m1 Pro. There’s about a £200 difference in price. They both have the same processor, the same memory, the same spec SSDs. Performance-wise, they are identical. Here’s the differences:

  • The pro has a slightly brighter screen. This m1 Air’s screen is plenty bright enough. It’s not worth paying for that.
  • The pro has the touchbar. Meh.
  • The pro lasts another 2 hours on battery. But I get 18 hours on the Air. I can’t see paying £200 for such a small improvement is worth it.
  • The pro gets a fan (which people say hardly ever turns on), whereas the Air has passive cooling. This is only a benefit if you plan to run sustained heavy workloads like exporting large 4k videos or training big machine learning models. In those situations the Air would throttle the CPU back to avoid heat build-up. But in my usage it never does that and doesn’t seem to ever generate heat. For the vast majority of people, the pro’s fan has no benefit.
  • The pro has slightly better microphones. “three-mic array with directional beamforming” (Air) v “studio-quality three-mic array with directional beamforming” (Pro). The Air’s mics are fine — certainly better than most other computers on a zoom call.

Apart from that, as far as I can tell, there is no difference. For me, the pro wasn’t worth another £200. The benefits are marginal. Plus, I really like the Air’s wedge shape. It’s much nicer to use than the more slab-like pro, IMHO.

What are the downsides?

If you’re a developer reliant on more specialised libraries or apps, I’d definitely pause and do some research. For most it’ll be fine, but for some it might still be a bit early. But probably only a bit — stuff is going m1 native, fast.

The Air has 2 usb ports instead of the 4 on my pro. That’s a marginal downside, as I hardly ever use more than one anyway. They are, unfortunately, both on one side of the machine. I’d prefer one on each side. But that feels very much like a first world problem.

The only real downside I can see is that my computer won’t heat my hands in the midst of winter! Apart from that it’s absolutely, hands-down, a massive upgrade.

What am I doing?

I’m going to keep my 15inch pro for a while and repurpose it as a dev server. I’ll SSH into it and use it for the things I can’t (yet) do on my Air, like train a Rasa ML model. But for everything else, I’ll use the m1 Air. Getting CPU-hogging ML workloads off my laptop will be a relief, because I won’t have the fans screaming or the workload slowing other things down. I’ll have a cool, small, fast, battery-sipping, silent machine as my main computer. Longer term, I’m not sure what I’ll do about ML training — maybe I’ll grab a mac mini at some point.

Is is worth it?

Are you kidding me?

This is without doubt the best Mac I’ve ever used.

It also happens to be the cheapest one I’ve bought in many years. My MacBook Air, 8gb/512gb on the Apple refurb store was £1059. I say refurb, but it actually looks brand new. Brand new, but with a £200 saving.

My 15inch pro was £2500 when new. 16inch intel macs go for £2039 on Apple’s refurb store. The 16inch has a bigger screen, but £2039 v £1059? You’re talking twice the price for a bigger screen. That extra £1000 will buy you a pretty great external monitor, which will be much bigger than the screen on the 16inch. The 16inch is also heavy and its fans scream when connected to an external display. My Air is plugged into my 27inch display right now and it’s both silent and generating zero heat.

Can I “make do” with the MacBook Air, Apple’s cheapest laptop?

Absolutely. Buying the cheapest laptop no longer feels like a compromise. In fact, I don’t know what I’m compromising on with the Air — the things I could upgrade are of marginal value at best. Coming from a 16gb MacBook Pro 15inch, which struggles to run my power-user setup, I’m pleasantly surprised. 8gb doesn’t seem to be a limitation and everything is much faster.

Rumours are that we’ll see m1x machines with bigger displays later this year. Are they worth waiting for? Maybe. But the Macbook Air does everything anyone could reasonably ask of a laptop and only costs a fraction over £1,000. A 14inch m1x is likely to be closer to twice that price. Again, £1000 buys you a really excellent external monitor if you want a bigger screen.

I’m firmly of the opinion that Apple’s cheapest laptop may now be the most rational choice for nearly everyone. Perhaps my little Macbook Air is the silent Mac that Steve Jobs would have wanted; it certainly feels like the spiritual successor to the original Macintosh 128k.

Eclectic tastes, amateur at most things. Learning how to build a new startup. Former CTO for IBM Watson Europe.