Apple’s M1 Macs: Think “Same but Different”

Peter Cross

Yet again, Apple has announced something of a revolution in computing. Of course, It is not a silent revolution - Apple announcements are never characterised by understatement - but it is a largely invisible one.

Noted Apple pundit, John Gruber, summed it up best. When describing the newly released range of Macintosh computers, he says,

None of these Macs look different from their Intel-based predecessors. I’ve been using an M1 13-inch MacBook Pro for the last week, and it is all but identical on the exterior to its Intel-based counterpart. Same exact size and shape … Same keyboard (it’s good), same trackpad, same aluminum color options (Silver and Space Gray). Same exact display … the most exciting new Macs from a technical perspective since 1994 don’t look new at all.

Apple has released two new laptops, an Air and a Pro, together with a new Mac mini. Previously these all ran on Intel chips but Intel has failed to keep pace with its competitors and has seemingly delayed the release of new Mac hardware on more than one occasion. So Apple created something different, the M1, a chip specifically designed for the Mac. So should we be cautious in purchasing new Macs running on something so novel? Probably not. These Macs use the same architecture which Apple has been developing and improving for several years, the ARM-based chips currently powering its iPhones and iPads, both regular and Pro.

Again, however, there is a difference. A Mac has different hardware and different requirements to those of an iPhone or iPad and the way the M1 is designed to accommodate these differences illustrates its strengths. Everything is integrated. Graphics processing and the use of RAM, for example, are handled in new, more efficient ways and the new operating system, Big Sur, says Gruber, “is Apple’s first version of MacOS ever designed hand-in-hand to run on hardware designed from the ground up by Apple”. Again this demonstrates Apple’s inherent advantage in that it is able to integrate both hardware and software in a way that other computer platforms are not. And the M1 takes this to another level again.

So what does all this mean? What will the average person notice if they replace their current Mac with one of the new ones? Paradoxically, the answer is both nothing and everything. As John Gruber noted,
“The new laptops look exactly the same as the ones that they were selling a week ago. There's no difference on the outside. The difference is entirely on the inside but it really is that seismic of a change.”

The new laptops see a drastic improvement in battery life. Joanna Stern from the Wall Street Journal describes leaving for the office with her M1 laptop at 7 am and returning home at 7 pm when, she said, “I probably still had 40% battery and I was on the computer all day at the office”. Because she had at hand Intel based counterparts to each of the M1’s, Stern says, “You could make this crazy comparison. You could run battery tests side by side and actually see eight hours difference.”

When presenting his M1 with a particularly onerous task, John Gruber found that it was not only considerably faster than its Intel counterpart but its battery went from 100% to 91% while the comparable Intel Mac went from 100% down to 24%. Gruber states, “I’ve been using this MacBook Pro almost exclusively on battery power all week, doing both all my normal work and running benchmarks and performance-stressing tasks, and I can’t come close to depleting it in a full day of work …You don’t have to turn the brightness down on your screen. You don’t have to worry about quitting apps … Just use it and it will easily last all day long.”


He was equally impressed by the ability of both the M1 Air and the M1 Pro to run cool. “It never gets hot,” he says. “In normal use, it doesn’t even get warm”. He found difficulty in making it hot or getting the fan to turn on. “I tried it all,” he says, “Up to a hundred Chrome tabs, hours and hours of gaming and video calling … I struggled to get the fan (of the MacBook Pro) to kick on at all. Finally running a game while simultaneously exporting a 4K video in Adobe Premiere and some Chrome tabs did it.”
Joanna Stern had a similar experience. “I tried so hard,” she says,” to get these things warm … everything from gaming to running a hundred Chrome tabs to video calling.” Stern was similarly struck by the relative silence of not only the fan-less M1 Air but by the M1 MacBook Pro as well. When testing the Pro she wondered, “What does it take to get the fan to go on?” So she did “tons and tons of tests” until she finally managed it, only to find that its fan was “quite quiet anyway”.


During its November 10th announcement of the M1 chip, Apple claimed that the computers running it demonstrated better performance than 98% of Windows PC laptops. Regardless of what exactly that somewhat ambiguous statement meant and whether it was strictly accurate, both John Gruber and Joanna Stern found the M1s demonstrated a marked improvement in speed over their Intel-based forebears. Their only concerns about speed involved the question of how well the new Macs would run existing software. Apple designed a translation engine, Rosetta, to handle Intel apps but “this’” according to Joanna Stern, “is not an easy thing to do”. As it transpired, however, every Intel app she tried performed admirably in Rosetta. “I had no issues”, she says, “There’s nothing that doesn’t work on here.” In fact, according to John Gruber, “apps compiled for Intel run faster in translation on the M1 than they do on actual Intel CPUs in MacBook Airs and most MacBook Pros”.

“The first time you launch an Intel app”, he says, “MacOS will ask you if you want to install Rosetta. Agree, and installation flies by in a jiff — mere seconds — and after that, you’ll just never notice whether something is compiled for Intel or native Apple Silicon … They’re using an entirely different architecture but as a user - whether you're a technical user or a just plain consumer user - your existing software just works. You don't have to do anything differently.

So the new Macs are resounding successes? In the main, yes, but nothing is ever perfect. Bootcamp no longer exists, so whether the new machines will ever be able to run Windows at optimal speed or not remains an open question. According to Apple, the ball is in Microsoft’s court. There is also the issue of the webcam. The new laptops still use a 720p device described by Stern and Gruber as “craptastic”and “craptacular”. This is a liability in a internet dependent, post-Covid world but the next generation of these laptops (with revised exterior designs) should see this problem corrected. Additionally, both the new laptops and the Mac mini are less upgradeable than ever and all are short on external ports - both issues not new to recent Macs.

And then there are the iPhone and iPad apps which we were told we would be able to successfully run on the new M1 Macs. In theory this is true but in practice very few have been re-designed to make the transition properly. In time many will, but, for the moment, according to those who’ve tested this feature, it is a long way from perfect. “They’re such a crummy experience, these iOS apps”, says Gruber. “At the very best, sub-optimal”. Still, the future of Macs based on Apple’s new chip architecture looks rosy. Higher end laptops and desktops are to follow and, if Apple’s first foray into Apple Silicone is any indicator, we should be prepared to be astounded, to “think different”, very different about what a personal computer can do.