M1 MacBook Pro: Cool Runnings

That photo isn’t one of me Totally Sidetalkin’, but it’s almost as amazing. I’m holding a running MacBook Pro up to my face. Without fear of scorching my delicate skin or torching all my white hair to blackened cinders.

Today I got a 13″ MacBook Pro with the new M1 chip, and I’ve spent the last 3 hours or so using it to transfer and update files, have Safari with several tabs (including YouTube) open, play Music, edit photos with the Photos app, run Photoshop 2021 (via Rosetta), have Xcode running and updating, working on a project in Nova and a Terminal window and emulator, read RSS feeds with Reeder, and I’ve even got Steam up and running Pendragon.1I don’t have any graphically-intensive games installed on this Mac because I hardly ever play games on the Mac. And the machine just barely feels warmer than when I took it out of the package.

On every MacBook I’ve had for the past 10 years, pushing the machine even half as hard would’ve made the function keys too hot to touch, and left my thighs feeling like sizzling ham hocks. I’ve been a loyal customer, and I’ve wanted to love the MacBooks so much, because they’re such beautifully designed and built laptops. But because of the heat problems, they’ve undeniably been laptops that have been only sometimes functional as actual laptops.

There are tons and tons of reviews of the new M1 Macs out there (may I recommend the one by Jason Snell on SixColors.com?), and this is definitely not one of those. Even if I had been running the machine long enough to be able to give specifics about performance specs and benchmark scores and exhaustive battery life times, I honestly don’t care enough about those to be doing them. My main concern has always been whether I can comfortably do everything I want to do with the machine, and is it pleasurable to use?

At least from my first impression, it is across the board. I haven’t really noticed anything stunning β€” the changes in Big Sur are more noticeable than any hardware changes, since I’ve been running Catalina exclusively. But stuff does seem to load more quickly, switching between apps is seamless, and I have yet to see a wait cursor. Plus, I’ve barely seen any compatibility issues, and almost everything I’ve tried to run, whether updated for Apple Silicon or not, has run with no problems so far. The only exceptions are no surprise: the Steam UI has terrible performance, and Civilization 5 crashed after the initial cutscene. But I frankly didn’t expect them to run on a non-Intel machine at all.

It’s such an odd sensation that I’m actually, no exaggeration, having frequent cases of “phantom pain” while I’m using it. Much like the feeling of your smartphone buzzing in your pocket when it’s not actually there, I keep feeling like the tops of my legs are starting to get warmer… but when I lift up the laptop and feel underneath, it’s still room temperature. Also, I’ve noticed that my fingers are wary of lingering too long on the number keys or the Touch Bar, just out of force of habit, even though that section of the keyboard is now no warmer or cooler than the rest.

One thing I was wary about: Apple’s got a reputation for shipping Macs with too little RAM by default. I got the version of the MBP with only 8 GB installed, and I was worried that I would hit the usable limit quickly. But so far, I haven’t hit the limit β€” according to the Activity Monitor, the max I’ve used is 6.5 GB β€” and I haven’t noticed any slow down in responsiveness. Again, I’ve only been using it for a few hours, and I haven’t really been stress-testing it, and I mostly use the Apple standard apps, which I’d expect to be as optimized as possible for the hardware. But so far, it seems like it’ll be fine for the kinds of things I’ll be doing with it.2Frankly, the MacBook Air would probably have been just as fine for my limited use cases, but the last time I bought an Air, assuming it could work as a BootCamp machine for Windows development, was enough of a disappointment that it soured me on the whole brand. Also, I was extremely wary of getting a Mac laptop without a fan.

It’s funny how this machine is almost identical to the 2019 MacBook Pro I’ve been using, but is still somehow better in every possible way. The infinitely better keyboard is the most obvious. But overall, it feels like this is the machine that older one was trying to be. I got my first Mac laptop around 2003, and it was the best laptop I’d ever owned. This is already reminding me of that. I’d intended just to get everything set up and move on to something else, but I keep trying to find excuses to do stuff with it, because it’s honestly just a pleasure to use.

I was a little worried, because trading in a nearly-new computer to spend more to upgrade to a first-generation Apple product with an entirely new chipset and a new operating system felt like a whole series of foolish decisions. But even after a short time using this machine, it feels like all the risks paid off.

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