The M1 MacBook Pro (and other computers I have loved)

The 13″ M1 MacBook Pro is the first perfect laptop I’ve used in years, and it’s actually changing how I think about personal computers.

On his site SixColors, Jason Snell is doing a great series called 20 Macs for 2020. I’ve been loving it, as someone who’s been a fan of Macs since I was a teenager, long before I had one. I used to buy issues of MacUser1Instead of Macworld, sorry Mr Snell. and look at the one-bit screenshots of dialog boxes and menus, hoping for the day I’d be able to actually use a Mac.

I’ve got my own list of notable computers over the years. There’s the Mac Plus my parents got me as a high school graduation present, which was constantly swapping floppy disks and frequently crashing at random and which was my favorite computer. The Amiga 500 I used through most of college, which was the first machine I played LucasArts games on. The Commodore 64 I had in high school, where I learned BASIC and 6502 Assembly. The cheese-grater Mac Pro that was impeccably well-designed but absurdly impractical for what I needed, but still made me feel like I’d somehow leveled up as a computer programmer.

Least remarkable but probably most impactful: the Aluminum PowerBook G4 I got when I was working at Maxis. The year before, I’d been using this plasticky Dell Inspiron behemoth as a “desktop replacement,” which I regretted within weeks after buying it. Too heavy to be portable, but too much of a laptop to be expandable, it was the worst of all possible worlds. I decided that since I was a grown-up now, I could afford to pay the “Apple tax” and get a grown-up computer. After a decade hiatus from Macs, I decided I’d try to get a good computer instead of a cheap computer.

And as it turned out, that PowerBook was very, very good. It just got everything right. To be honest, I don’t remember much about it, since there was nothing bad to make it stand out in my mind. For a few years, each new Mac I got was the best computer I’d ever owned.

I mention all that because it’s a feeling that the M1 MacBook Pro has finally brought back. I got the basic 13” model with a 512 GB hard drive, and I’ve been using it for a month now. And it just does everything right. I even like the Touch Bar now, since the fingerprint sensor and Escape key have been separated out, and since it no longer feels like touching a curling iron to put my finger near that part of the computer.

To get this one, I traded in a 13” MBP from October 2019, which I had bought as an “interim” laptop to try and quickly finish a side project. In other words, I paid way too much for the laptop I’m using now. There’s no way to argue otherwise — believe me, I’ve tried — but I probably ended up paying 1.5x what I should have for this machine. And the thing is that I just can’t get too upset about that, it’s so good.

This size is perfect for me, after years of thinking I needed a 15” laptop at minimum. The keyboard is excellent (completely unlike the last MacBook), and I’d actually prefer to use it than anything else. I never think about the battery level. The build hasn’t changed because it didn’t need to; it’s just solid. Even the speakers are pretty great.

This is the basic model of the “Pro,”2For the record, I got the “Pro” over the Air just because I’m superstitious. I owned a MacBook Air a few years ago and had so many problems with it overheating, that I’m over-paranoid about not getting one with a fan, even though literally no one has complained about heating on the M1 model. but it’s still such a nice computer that I almost feel like I don’t deserve to be using it.

That shows just how much Apple laptops have been going through a rough patch over the past several years, in that it went from an impeccably-designed computer to one that had tons of compromises I just grew to take for granted. I mean of course the battery’s not going to last very long, and naturally the fan is going to get super loud; that just shows that you’re using it like a Pro. And the fact that half of the keyboard gets so hot that you can’t touch it comfortably, and the entire bottom makes it impossible to use in your lap? That’s the price of power!

Possibly most surprising to me about the M1 MacBook Pro is how much my expectations and needs from a computer have changed in the past several years. A few things I’ve realized:

  • Computer reviews have become largely irrelevant to me. YouTube channels need to either make it into “M1 DESTROYS every other computer!!!!!” clickbait, or they make a comically insular take that’s only about how well it runs FinalCut or Premiere for making YouTube videos. The gadget-oriented sites still focus on stats and numbers, no matter how much they insist they don’t, that no longer have that big an impact on the practical experience.
  • The stuff that matters the most to me is not at all what I expected — temperature, battery efficiency, comfort, and screen. I haven’t noticed that it’s screaming fast and blows away the competition! because I’m not doing anything that pushes this computer in that way. I just want it to run everything I need and do it comfortably.
  • Numbers that used to be important just don’t seem that important anymore. I worried that getting 8GB of RAM instead of 16GB would be a disaster, but it hasn’t been so far at least.
  • This machine might actually be dockable? I’ve always liked the idea of having a laptop that I can plug in and use as my desktop computer, but it’s just never been practical. Apple’s made a pretty bold move by using the same chipset for its entry level laptops and desktop, seemingly asserting that the only meaningful difference is the form factor. As much as I like the iMac line, I like the idea of being able to get some room back on my desk, and of not having the feeling of excessiveness that comes from having two only slightly distinguishable Macs in the works at the same time.

That last point is most interesting to me, because it suggests that the future of personal computing Apple was predicting with the launch of the iPad has finally become the present of personal computing. Apple’s definitely not the only company pushing computers as consumer electronics more than general-purpose devices — and also, I’m fully aware I shouldn’t base too much on my own weird case of having multiple special-purpose computers — but it does feel like it’s finally practical to have niche form factors for specific purposes.

For years, I had my desktop Mac and my laptop Mac. (And a Windows machine, essential for someone working in games). The desktop was for 99% of what I needed a computer for, and the laptop was for traveling and for having a personal machine available at work — for paying bills, sending and receiving emails, etc.

When Apple put out the keyboard case for the iPad, the iPad finally hit a point where it could do everything I needed from the laptop, and it was so much lighter and so much more convenient. The subtle thing that happened there was the iPad suddenly felt to me like a Personal Computer. My laptop fell into disuse. Anything work-related was on the main machine, and the iPad was for entertainment and personal stuff. Maybe this is what a “computer” was destined to be in the 21st century?

I don’t know how the iPad and laptops will converge — will MacBooks have a touch screen some day? — but I don’t know if it’s in terms of features, but in applications. Right now the only thing distinguishing a laptop/desktop Mac from an iPad is that I can do development on the Mac but I can’t on the iPad. As the machines get more advanced, that distinction seems increasingly arbitrary.

I’m still in the camp that says “let iPads be iPads,” and Apple’s made the right call by avoiding the Surface Pro laptop approach, trying to force them to be the same device. I think the best opportunity for convergence is desktop + laptop, not laptop + tablet. I don’t think “I can compile code on this device” is a good determinant of what should separate Mac from iPad. It’s getting gradually clearer where that division is, but we’re not quite there yet. Until then, I’d be happy to have this M1 laptop replace my aging iMac and be my new favorite Mac.