It slowly became clear that one day Apple’s processors would come for Intel.
As Apple’s skill in building chips for the iPhone and iPad became increasingly apparent, Intel struggled. Doubts about Apple’s mobile chips being powerful enough for a traditional computer like the Mac eroded with each new generation. New Intel chips were often delayed and offered only small improvements over previous generations.
In October 2018, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before Apple made the move. The company announced a new iPad Pro, powered by Apple’s eight-core A12X processor, and made the claim that it was “faster than 92 percent of all portable PCs sold between June 2017 and June 2018.” Apple was now directly comparing its chips to Intel’s, and declaring itself the victor.
Two years later, it’s finally happened. Apple has released the first three Mac models that are powered by an Apple-designed system on a chip. The decision to abandon Intel, seemingly risky when we all first contemplated it a few years ago, has become blindingly obvious in hindsight.
These new relatively low-end Mac models, all powered by the M1 chip, are faster than all but the very highest-end Intel Macs. The laptops offer a huge leap in battery life over their predecessors. By almost every measure, the move to Apple silicon is the biggest leap forward in Mac hardware in at least a decade.
It’s a nigh-unanswerable question, because it begs for qualifiers. The best one ever made up to now? The one that lasted the longest? The one that towered the furthest above the other Macs that existed when it was released? The one you loved the most?
There’s a reason this series ranks its Macs in order of notability, because it’s very hard to pick a “best” Mac that isn’t one of the current generation, thanks to the relentless advance of technology. What would I rather do my work on today, a Mac from 2020 or one from 1990? Nostalgia is great, but I’ll take today’s wireless networking, fast processors, massive storage, and on and on.
But if you leave the march of technology out of it and try to equalize the playing field, as you might if you were in the business of comparing baseball players from different eras, you might well end up deciding that the best Mac ever was released in 1989. And while it looked like every other unassuming compact Mac of the era, the Macintosh SE/30 was much more than that.
Gatekeeper performs online checks to verify if an app contains known malware and whether the developer’s signing certificate is revoked. We have never combined data from these checks with information about Apple users or their devices. We do not use data from these checks to learn what individual users are launching or running on their devices.
The outage in question, which saw some users unable to launch apps or experience interruptions to their work, spawned a few different concerns, such as the existence of a single point of failure for Macs, as well as privacy concerns over what information was being transmitted back to Apple as part of the system. In the document, Apple says Apple IDs and device IDs were never logged as part of Gatekeeper, but that IP addresses were; going forward, the company will no longer log IP addresses and will remove any that it has collected in the past.
Apple’s also promising new features to further enhance the privacy of Gatekeeper, including replacing the certificate check with a new encrypted system, better server resilience, and a preference that lets users turn off these protections.
The last is particularly notable, given the company’s touting of privacy as one of its central tenets in recent years. If Apple is giving users the option to keep this data private at the expense of security, it certainly indicates a seriousness about privacy that backs up the claims the company makes.
Last week marked two major shifts in Apple’s personal computing platform: the introduction of Macs built around Apple’s own custom silicon, and the launch of Big Sur, the latest update to the venerable macOS operating system.
And of course, while we want to enjoy the here and now of these latest changes—and, probably, carp a little bit about the things that we don’t like—it’s also worth it to look at the path forward from here: the reverse trail of breadcrumbs laid out and leading, not back to where we came from, but on to the future.
Back in my earliest days of using networked computers1 I quickly learned the glories of connecting to other computers, whether it was via telnet, gopher, or eventually a web browser like lynx.
While I still spend plenty of time using the command line for these tasks, macOS has some powerful networking capabilities built right into the Finder that I also end up using quite a bit. I speak, of course, of that old workhorse: Connect to Server.
Hidden away in the Go menu, Connect to Server is actually an impressively versatile command, since it accepts a wide variety of URLs that you can plug into it. While I frequently use it to make file-sharing connections with other devices on my network—in olden days, via Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) and, in more recent times, SMB (Server Message Block)—Connect to Server goes far beyond those meager capabilities.
For example, if you’ve ever wanted to quickly initiate screen sharing via the Finder, you might be tempted to navigate to the Locations section of a Finder window sidebar, click on the computer you want to view, then find the Share Screen button.…
Speaking to The Independent, Apple’s Craig Federighi (alongside Greg Joswiak and John Ternus) dismisses the idea that Big Sur’s UI changes point to a touch interface for the Mac:
“I gotta tell you when we released Big Sur, and these articles started coming out saying, ‘Oh my God, look, Apple is preparing for touch’. I was thinking like, ‘Whoa, why?’
“We we had designed and evolved the look for macOS in a way that felt most comfortable and natural to us, not remotely considering something about touch.
Granted, this is Apple we’re talking about, and there’s always wiggle room in how it discusses its products. But the sentiment seems clear that a touch interface on the Mac isn’t coming anytime soon.
There are some other interesting tidbits in the interview, such as some thoughts on why the form factors remain largely unchanged with this transition and laying out a vague path for where Apple silicon Macs go from here.
Mac OS X was no less than a rebirth of the Mac, 16 years after it first appeared on the scene. The code it originated with, and many of the software managers and programmers who built it, came to Apple in the same transaction that brought Steve Jobs back to the company. We remember the G3 iMac and the iPod and ultimately the iPhone as the products that brought Apple from the edge of failure to being one of the biggest companies in the world, but it wouldn’t have happened without Mac OS X.
But here we are, at the end. Mac OS X, having been rebranded twice and reconstituted to run on Intel processors over its two-decade run, is shucking off its cocoon and emerging as something new. It’s macOS 11.0 Big Sur, which takes the familiar OS X and transforms it by importing a bunch of features from its long-lost relatives, iOS and iPadOS, including support for Apple-designed processors.
Last year’s macOS Catalina felt like a release designed to settle old scores and clear the field for future advancement. It broke a lot of old software, frustrated a lot of users, and generally had the worst reputation of any macOS update since Mac OS X Lion in 2011. Did Apple use Catalina as a patsy so that Big Sur wouldn’t be blamed for all the changes required for the transition to Apple silicon? That’s probably a conspiracy theory too far, but I will say this: Good Cop macOS Big Sur fills me with excitement about the future of the Mac in a way Bad Cop Catalina never did.
The OS X era is over. Now here’s macOS Big Sur, getting ready to ring in the dawn of the third age of Mac.
Gui Rambo’s $10 Mac utility AirBuddy has been updated to version 2 today. I love AirBuddy because it’s very much the sort of AirPods integration that should be baked into macOS, but for some reason isn’t.
AirBuddy will show you AirPods or Beats headsets when they’re near your Mac, just like iOS does. You can connect with a click, change listening mode of AirPods Pro with a trackpad swipe, and even set up custom connection modes for different devices, so a pair of AirPods can be set to always come up in Transparency mode with the microphone set as an input, while a set of Beats can always come up with noise cancellation on.
If you use AirPods on your Mac, AirBuddy can be a solid enhancement to the experience. Check it out.
It’s important to remember that Apple didn’t reveal its entire strategy during its event on Tuesday. This is just the first step in a two-year transition for the entire Mac product line. And it started where you might expect: at the low end of the company’s product line.
When smoke blew into my region from some nearby forest fires, I needed to pay attention to local air quality in order to decide when I could go outside safely.
Geof Crowl’s helpful Air Lookout app, which just got an update to version 2, is an iOS app that lets you quickly check local air quality. This new version’s got support for widgets and, in addition to EPA-managed air quality data, also optionally reads data from hyperlocal PurpleAir stations.
A version for macOS 11 is also about to be released.
5G won’t be transformative for most people or purposes. Its advantages primarily accrue to cellular carriers, even more so than 3G or 4G, which offered significant boosts in throughput and allowed higher rates over broader areas. 5G will let carriers charge more for service in some cases, handle more customers simultaneously, break into new markets that require higher throughput or low latency, and equip more kinds of devices with ubiquitous high-speed cellular data connections.
This gets it exactly right. 5G really will transform wireless communication over time, and it is important. But it’s not something most consumers need to care about today. Or even tomorrow. Just someday.
Picking up where Dan left off and before I clock out for the night, here are some other quick thoughts about the day’s events.
A first step. Apple said it themselves in their video event Tuesday: The M1 is a “first step” into a “family of chips” that will power future Mac models. This really is the performance floor of the Apple silicon on Mac story. To start the transition Apple has chosen low-end models that can squeak by with a maximum of 16 GB of RAM, only two Thunderbolt ports, no support for discrete graphics or external GPUs, and any number of other features that are lacking from the M1.
The future is promised to nobody, but it seems premature to assume that just because the M1 doesn’t support your favorite higher-end Mac feature, it’s been canned. Presumably this transition story ends with an Apple silicon-based Mac Pro, so Apple is going to be ramping up. These are the baby steps.
Look for the Intel Macs. If you are about to get angry about Apple releasing a substandard, low-powered Apple silicon model of your favorite Mac, slow your roll and see if Apple’s still selling an Intel version. For instance, the new Mac mini has some limitations that the old high-end Intel Mac mini models didn’t, but that Intel Mac mini is still available. I think that’s a sign that Apple knows there’s a use case that the M1-based Macs just can’t support.
Memory isn’t what it used to be. That’s not the lament of someone who just turned 50—it’s the cold, hard fact about how Apple has built its processors. The days of separate banks of memory for RAM and video are over, at least for now. There’s a single pool of memory that the M1 allots for all uses, including its integrated graphics system. While in the olden days computer memory was something that was often swappable and upgradeable, these M1 Macs suggest we’ve entered iPhone/iPad territory—you can choose how much memory your device has, but once you’ve chosen, that’s it. Right now it’s 8GB or 16GB, so choose wisely.
Two the core. It’s going to be fascinating to use a Mac with two separate banks of processor cores. Of course, the iPhone and iPad have been doing this for a few years, but now it’s coming to the Mac. The system controller will intelligently guide tasks to the performance and efficiency cores, and users will be none the wiser. But the computer nerd side of me is almost giddy about the change, which is about as big a deal as when the Mac first supported multiprocessing and, later, multi-core processors.
Apple’s claims are strong. When Apple announced the Mac was moving to Apple-designed processors, it was obvious that the company knew the results would impress. Still, the speed and battery-life boosts Apple is claiming are extremely impressive. While Apple doesn’t cook the books, it does carefully pick the test results that put its best foot forward.
I’m excited about getting my hands on M1-based systems and getting a better sense of how they work, but if it’s anything close to what Apple is claiming, this is the kind of performance leap from one generation to the next that happens rarely, if ever. (And you know Intel has to be wincing at Apple’s slide illustrating the slow pace of Mac speed improvements over the past few years.)
Instant wake from sleep. Most memeable moment in the event: Craig Federighi’s loving look into the screen of a just-awoken MacBook. But if the claim that the Mac now wakes up instantly, like an iPad, sounds familiar, that’s because Apple has claimed this before. Steve Jobs famously complained to Mac engineers that the Mac took forever to wake up, and at various times Apple has tried to eliminate the awkward few moments where your Mac is awake, but hasn’t quite rubbed the sleep out of its eyes. Maybe this time it’ll be for real.
Fans = speed. The M1 in all of these computers is the same M1, other than the fact that low-end MacBook Air models will only have seven GPU cores rather than eight. There are no other hardware differences, and so far as I can tell, no speed differences—at least innately.
But there’s one huge speed difference that will manifest itself during extended workloads. When a chip gets too hot, it will slow itself down to keep cool. On the MacBook Air, there’s no fan to speed the cooling process—which makes for a very pleasant, silent experience, but also means that if the MacBook Air’s M1 processor is cranking away at full speed for long enough, it’ll need to slow down to cool itself.
Compare that to the MacBook Pro and Mac mini, both of which have cooling fans. They’ll be able to execute faster on those extended workloads, because they’ll crank up their fans and keep their chips from throttling down.
This isn’t unique to Apple silicon, of course. Even the most recent MacBook Air model suffered from performance issues when compared to the most recent 13-inch MacBook Pro model, because it wasn’t able to cool itself effectively. But we should see that effect pretty clearly with the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro.
iOS on Mac. Mentioned in passing once again was the fact that iOS apps will run on these Macs. How is that going to work? It seems like work made to make apps functional in the iPad’s cursor mode will apply to how well the apps work on Mac, but the proof is in the pudding. How foreign will iOS apps feel on Mac? They will have a menu bar, a window, support for keyboard shortcuts, and cursor support—but that’s a checklist that won’t preclude them from feeling weird.
The second-level question: What iOS apps will work best on the Mac? Will media-player apps end up feeling natural and productivity apps weird, or vice versa? Will there be performance differences between native Mac apps and iOS apps? We just don’t know. And Apple hasn’t given us much of a look yet.
Three new Macs have arrived, and they’ve brought the Apple-designed M1 processor with them. Myke and Jason break down the new chip, the new hardware, and what it all means for the future of the Mac. And did they both buy new Macs after the event ended, or did they resist temptation?
For a 45-minute event, Apple packed a lot in. And it was all about the Mac: new versions of the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, all based on Apple’s new M1 chip. And, just like that, about half of Apple’s Mac lineup has already made the transition to Apple silicon.
A few details that are worth noting outside of the headlines:
Not all GPUs are created equally The base level MacBook Air, the one that starts at $999, is the only of the new Macs to sport a 7-core GPU, instead of the 8-core graphics processor found in every other M1 capable Mac. The consensus seems to be that these chips are ‘binned’, which is to say, are chips where one graphics core didn’t quite pass muster and thus are used for cheaper models, a fairly common practice in computing.
A slow goodbye to Intel Though Apple is maintaining many of its Intel-powered Macs, the transition has already begun in earnest. The company is no longer selling the Intel version of the MacBook Air, nor the two-port version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Both the 16-inch Pro and the Mac mini remain available in Intel variants alongside the new M1 versions.
USB4 for all All M1-powered Macs support Thunderbolt/USB4 (they’re actually just two names for the same technology: USB4 is based on Thunderbolt 3); but don’t worry, they support earlier versions of Thunderbolt and USB as well.
Wi-Fi 6 The new Wi-Fi standard (aka 802.11ax), which already debuted on the iPhone 11 series and this year’s iPads, makes its first appearance on these M1-powered Macs.1
Newish cameras No, the new Macs didn’t get 1080p FaceTime cameras, despite our new “always be videoconferencing” reality. But Apple says they will benefit from the M1’s improved image signal processor (ISP), which it claims has a number of benefits to image quality. We’ll have to wait and see just how well those claims bear out.
Updated at 9:35pm to correct information about Wi-Fi 6.
If only Apple made a Wi-Fi 6 compatible base station. 😢 ↩
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
Yesterday I took delivery of review units of the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max, and while the next couple of days are going to be all about Apple Silicon, I’m also trying to use these new phones when I can in order to gather impressions for a future review.
But my first impression is that the iPhone 12 mini is going to be the go-to phone for everyone who has been strategizing ways to use smaller iPhones whenever possible. You held on to your iPhone 5S, you bought the first-generation iPhone SE, you bought an iPhone 8 under protest but at least it was smaller than the iPhone X, and so on. For you, there is now a phone that is in the old iPhone 5 size class, even though it’s very slightly larger.
And if it’s still too big for you, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Apple will never make a smaller iPhone than this one.
I really like it. I like how comfortably it fits in my hand. I like how, due to display scaling, it’s showing me the same amount of content as an iPhone X on the screen—just a teeny bit smaller. (If you’re someone who struggles to read small text, this is not the phone for you.)
As for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it’s a gorgeous slab of technology, huge and heavy, and if you’re someone who loves that sort of thing, it’s going to be the iPhone of your dreams. (I suspect my pal Myke Hurley is going to love it.) I haven’t been able to do any close camera comparisons, but I’d imagine that if you’re planning to shoot lots of photos or make a movie on an iPhone, this is also the model for you.
I got the gold iPhone 12 Pro Max. That gold is gorgeous, but that shiny stainless steel sure collects fingerprints. It’s not for me, but some of you are going to love it.