Are the new M1 Macs worth it?

Everything you need to know about Apple’s new products

The new Macs from Apple officially shipped this past week. These are the first devices to feature Apple’s new M1 processor, effectively severing the company’s relationship with Intel. This transition has been a long time coming, but many in the tech world have been skeptical of Apple’s ARM-based silicon.

So, after a week of testing and reviews, are the new M1 Macs worth it? Do they deliver on the lofty promises Apple made during their keynote announcement?

Let’s look at what some of the top reviewers had to say and determine if now is a good time to upgrade.

The good

Here is the good news: Apple essentially delivered on its promises. Battery life will vary depending on the apps you’re using, but the overall performance is there. In fact, every new Mac with the new M1 chip decimates the competition. We will break down each product’s strengths and weaknesses below, but just know that none of these Macs slouch in performance.

Battery life is also greatly improved, though you won’t find the 16 hours on the MacBook Air that Apple promised if you’re using apps like Google Chrome.

Thanks to Rosetta 2, Intel-based apps still work fine. That means on a user level, you shouldn’t notice anything distinctly different from one Mac to the next aside from snappier performance and improved battery life.

That’s a good thing, obviously. Microsoft’s Surface Pro X showed us the limitations of ARM and how it can undercut the potential of otherwise great devices. Apple has completely circumnavigated those pitfalls with Rosetta 2. Whereas other ARM-based computers emulate x86 apps, Rosetta 2 is a translation layer. It will eat into your battery life, but users should find no tangible difference between apps written for Intel versus ones written for the M1.

TL;DRApple has made the transition to its in-house chip nearly flawless. Battery life is affected by apps using Rosetta 2 to translate Intel apps, but the overall experience for users is a massive leap in performance and a big bump in battery life (even with Rosetta 2 draining it).

The bad

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect on the new Macs, though Apple came pretty damn close. The core experience of the M1 Macs is fantastic, though there are some periphery features that are half-baked and some longstanding issues with the Mac lineup.

For one, the webcams are still awful. Apple includes some fancy post-processing features, but it doesn’t help. If anything it makes the experience worse. The MacBooks have had terrible cameras for years now, and Apple has some serious catching up to do in this department.

The M1 Macs can also run iOS apps natively, it just doesn’t do it well. Sure, they run, but instead of making the new Macs with touchscreens, Apple opted to replace touch commands with confusing touchpad gestures. It’s not a great experience, and it only shows the limitations of the M1 Mac without a touchscreen.

The lack of a touchscreen is arguably a system-wide problem. Big Sur is the closest the design language has come between macOS and iOS. That makes certain things, like the new command center, more touch-friendly. It also makes it unintuitive for a mouse or touchpad, so the lack of a touchscreen is doubly frustrating.

For creatives, also know there isn’t a full M1 version of Photoshop yet, though there is a beta. The official launch for this and other Adobe apps won’t come until next year. You’ll do fine in the Creative Suite with Rosetta 2’s help, but it is probably best to hold off a few months until Adobe officially updates these apps.

There is a lack of upgradability on the new Macs, even the Mac Mini. That isn’t too surprising, as Apple has been doubling down on soldering components to the motherboard over the past several years. However, it is compounded by the fact that all the components are now housed in the M1 chip. So if you plan on running a lot of apps or doing any creative work, go ahead and opt for the 16GB RAM model, as it’s the best you’re going to get.

Ports are also underwhelming on the models. Both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 only have two Thunderbolt ports with USB4 for faster data speeds. This is another recurring problem with the MacBooks, so don’t throw your dongles away just yet. Even the Mac Mini has reduced I/O, though it’s significantly more flexible than the laptops.

The last big problem comes with external displays. The Mac Mini can support a single display through Thunderbolt up to 6K (such as the Pro Display XDR), and a secondary display via HDMI up to 4K. That’s the max. The Intel Mac Mini could support up to three displays (two through Thunderbolt, one through HDMI). The new Mac Mini also does not support eGPUs at this time. The new MacBooks can support precisely one external monitor through Thunderbolt.

TL;DRThe new Macs have a host of common problems with recent MacBooks, including terrible webcams. The ability to run iOS apps feels tacked on, and the lack of a touchscreen is still perplexing. There is also no upgradability and RAM maxes out at 16GB. Lastly, external displays have been reduced from the last generation, which means some users will need to rethink workflows.

MacBook Air — The MacBook for most people

So if you want the new Macs but rely on multiple external displays, you may want to rethink your workflow or wait to see how Apple improves this in the future.

Now that we’ve looked at the broad strokes, let’s take a look at each device and their strengths and weaknesses.

The MacBook Air is the sweat spot among the three new laptops. On the outside, it is practically the same as the MacBook Air from earlier this year, though the function row now has a dedicated Spotlight key and a dictation key. Dieter Bohn notes in his review at the Verge that the dictation key actually made the feature useful to him.

In terms of performance, the MacBook Air beats its Intel-based predecessor in every metric. It can even play AAA games at close to 40 frames per second. At a glance that doesn’t seem impressive, but we are talking about a MacBook Air (hell, we’re talking about Macs in general). In fact, the M1 chips just decimate the competition in general, both in physical benchmarks and in hardware/software integration. In fact, the new MacBook Air even beats the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

MacBook Pro 13 — Bigger battery and…that’s about it

Basically, the MacBook Air is insanely fast, and it’s only $999. It’s clearly the best bang for your buck in a laptop. It also does all of this without a fan. The MacBook Air is completely silent. If you’re someone who hates fan noise but wants a lot of performance, the MacBook Air is the way to go.

As we said above, the battery life isn’t quite the 16 hours Apple promoted, but that will likely change as more apps are optimized for M1 and rely less on the Rosetta 2 translation layer.

Well, that’s probably being a little too simplistic. There are several differences between the new MacBook Pro and the Air. For one, the Pro comes with an additional GPU core, making it better for creative work and gaming. The benchmarks indicate there isn’t a significant difference in performance, but the MacBook Pro’s fan allows it to do intensive tasks for a sustained period of time.

That means creatives should jump up and buy it right? Well, no. Not yet at least. Yes, the MacBook Pro 13 performs better, and its bigger batteries directly translate to more battery life. However, if you do creative work full-time it may be worth waiting to see what Apple has in store for the 16-inch MacBook Pro or a dedicated iMac. The difference in performance here isn’t really enough to justify the cost gap.

Mac Mini — The best value

Oh, the MacBook Pro also has the TouchBar, if you’re one of the eight or nine people who actually care about that.

At $1299 for the base model, it is likely best to pass on this one unless you really need the improved battery life.

The Mac Mini is the best bang for your buck among the M1 Mac lineup, and it is the best PC you can buy in this price range and in general. The Mac Mini edges out the MacBook Pro in performance since it doesn’t rely on a battery, and it offers more flexibility with its ports.

Now, while it is only $699 for the base model, you will want to shell out some extra cash for additional storage. The Mac Mini doesn’t have an expandable storage option like the previous generation. You can also use one of the USB ports for external storage.

So…are they worth it?

Obviously, you will also have to buy all the peripherals to make the Mac Mini useable. Not a big deal if you’ve already owned a PC before, but if this is your first time purchasing one keep those costs in mind.

However, as far as it goes, the Mac Mini is the most appealing to this writer, and it’s likely the one I will purchase in the future.

At the end of the day, yes the new M1 Macs are worth it no matter what you purchase. The improved performance is jaw-dropping, even from the last generation. It’s also great if you’re an early adopter, as you get a new technology without sacrificing functionality.

The MacBook Air is the laptop option I would recommend, though if you’re looking for a dedicated setup get the Mac Mini.

If you’re a creative with a relatively new MacBook Pro, I would still wait a while for Adobe’s optimized apps and for a better Pro option to enter the market.

For more pieces like this, subscribe to Everyday Tech, a weekly newsletter about the latest in the tech world. You can also follow Caleb Clark on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally published at https://everydaytech.substack.com.

Caleb is a full-time writer that writes about fiction, tech, films, and occasionally about politics. He is also an aspiring author.

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