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Leaving Intel Behind Was Inevitable

November 18, 2020

I remember getting my first Mac clearly: I was about to go to college, and I needed a relatively high-spec MacBook Pro for the programming & design courses I would be attending. To do so, I got a 15-inch MacBook Pro in 2011.

During my college years, I really pushed that machine to the brink: not just due to intensive pro app workloads, but also virtualisation and gaming via Boot Camp. All of this absolutely killed the machine in 2013, only two years into the lifespan of this particular machine.

The cause? A common issue with the GPU would eventually kill every Mac sporting discrete graphics due to the motherboard overheating. My motherboard was dead.

There are various workarounds for this problem, but in the end we later found out that this MacBook Pro was a device that was going to fail again, eventually. While the machine was in for service, I needed a replacement machine and my parents were kind enough to get me a brand new MacBook Pro, provided I would sell the existing one once it was repaired.

So, undeterred by the previous MacBook’s hardware failure, I still got a new MacBook Pro. Upon receiving it, I was stunned by the screen, the SSD’s performance (it was so fast for resuming virtual machines!) and the overall responsiveness of the machine. You have to remember, this was the second generation retina display, and almost no other laptop had a HiDPI screen like this. I was like a kid in a candy store: it was the best.

I sold the old MacBook Pro once it came back from repair, a few weeks later.

This retina MacBook Pro (from 2013) has been serviced twice by Apple: once for screen coating damage, and once for a swollen battery. I worked on the screen myself once the coating started wearing off on the replacement display after my extended warranty had expired. I was out of luck and the screen was turning bad quick. After removing the coating layer, the screen looks pristine, but it’s definitely much more reflective than before. (Well, that was the purpose of the coating, to be anti-reflective.)

Honestly, this device is probably at the end of its useful life for me, but still a totally viable machine for those that don’t need a state-of-the-art Mac, especially since the battery is relatively new and has less than 20 cycles on it. Since a battery replacement also replaced the bottom chassis, trackpad and keyboard, it also feels very new.

Last year my employer ensured I have up-to-date equipment, so this MacBook is not being used much lately. Instead, I’m going to be giving this MacBook Pro to someone who can make better use of it than me.

Seven years of service is a pretty good record for a machine like this, and it’s not out for the count yet: it also got an update to the latest version of macOS (Big Sur) so I can’t complain much about the longevity of this thing, nor about the support from Apple. Getting software updates for a seven year old MacBook is pretty good. It is probably the last year that this device is supported, since it is classified as a vintage product.

That brings me to today.

I got one of the new Macs yesterday, I bought the base model Mac mini. It was the most affordable and the most reasonable for me at this time. Especially now that I don’t travel much, but I do like having bleeding edge tech. One should never spend too much money on a first-generation product, regardless.

It’s hilarious how much of a beast this device is — and yes, while these new Macs aren’t ready for all of the heavy-duty work just yet, we’re just waiting for software updates, for the most part. The software that is ready, is damn impressive on these new Macs. And honestly, I haven’t run into many issues — and this is day one. Goodness gracious!

Not only do the MacBooks have seriously impressive battery life, but their performance (and remember, this is the baseline Mac experience from now on) is better than all of the Macs that came before, with only the top-tier 10+ core Intel Macs being the exception. Those actually outperform these new, first-generation products, but only in multi-core workloads and are literally three times as expensive (3000+ dollars). That’s WILD. My new Mac mini is responsive in ways I have never seen before on a Mac.

Laptop reviewers are still reeling from this massive shift, and I expect the laptop landscape to change quite dramatically now that laptops like these exist. Apple laptops were interesting to look at for the last few years. Yes, they were relatively solid, but the battery life wasn’t great, and performance-wise they weren’t leading the pack either.

Now? They’re pretty much the best on the market in both of these categories at this time… unless you need discrete graphics; for the product category that they fit in (like thin and small laptops) they are currently unrivalled. And it’s not even close.

Being able to work for days on a laptop without having to charge the device is absolutely remarkable. Windows laptops will be compared to this, and I doubt any vendor has a current offering that comes even close. On PC, it’s not trivial to do a processor transition like Apple just did.

Food for thought.

Now for the tagline of this post: once we started seeing the insane performance in iPhone come close to Intel’s performance in synthetic benchmarks such as Geekbench, the writing was on the wall.

There are various reasons why Intel has been a pain in the butt for Apple, but the main problem for consumers with these Intel Macs was two-fold: 1) they ran hot, and 2) the battery also ran out quickly once the fans started spinning. Not so great when you’re making a video call and you’re on a laptop.

On Intel Macs, you could lower the CPU clock-speed to get the temperatures down, by turning off Turbo Boost, for example. If you’ve ever used a recent iPad though, you know they’re plenty fast, and they never get hot, unless you’re placing a serious load on them for a sustained period of time. iPads are passively cooled, too, and even under sustained load they most certainly don’t get hot, they get a little warm. No biggie.

On my MacBook Pro, I feel like I would able to cook an egg on its chassis; and this has been the case for years. (Disclaimer: Don’t try it at home, folks.)

So, the A-series chips in iPads are quite remarkable in that regard: they’re cool — and they’re fast. Nice. Now, with the first-generation Apple Silicon chip, M1, Apple has delivered the equivalent of the A14 chip, but on the Mac.

The only caveat with the new M1 SoC is that apps need to be recompiled to run at full speed due to the new processor architecture — Apple have also supplied a translation layer (Rosetta 2.0) but it is a stopgap measure, and not great for performance in certain scenarios where real-time interpretation is required.

Migrating your codebase to Apple Silicon is not as big an issue as it seems; Apple forced many developers to keep their build processes up-to-date after dropping 32-bit support last year, and that has probably simplified the current transition for many developers. (At the very least, those who use Xcode to make Mac apps will find it’s incredibly easy to make the transition. Just check a box. I did it for my app.)

Another issue was the GPU; the integrated graphics with Intel chips were quite underwhelming, especially so on the Mac. This problem has also been remedied by Apple’s solution: their SoC is now way faster than integrated graphics that were available before. Sure, discrete graphics are still faster, but the battery life on any laptop with discrete graphics just doesn’t compare.

So, it’s a bit of a gambit: require developers to recompile their apps, optimise the platform and get improved power consumption, plus a more powerful chip. As a result, we now have very powerful Macs that are affordable and have astonishing battery life, especially so compared to the models that were available before, and also… the competition.

Sure, those who bought this first-generation product may be considered early adopters, but this is a damn good attempt at a first-generation product; it’s a revolution in all of the right ways, unless you have a very specific software requirement that won’t run well on these new Macs. And even that might just be a matter of time. (I’m sorry if you require Windows virtualisation!)

In a way, what Apple did was predictable, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy for the folks at Cupertino. I can’t wait to see what Apple pulls off next when they release a chip variant for their more expensive machines, but I’m sure that’ll take a bit of time — at least six months or so.

If you’re a developer who needs something like Docker or such, you should probably wait a few months before jumping in. In the meantime, I don’t think regular folks should hold off from buying a new MacBook; these new machines are great; so if you need a new small laptop, the new MacBooks seem to be an excellent choice.

If you need a desktop instead, the Mac mini also seems to be nice, although you’re missing out on a trackpad, screen, fingerprint scanner and such. But that isn’t too bad, to be honest.