Should I buy a new M1 Macbook?

Should I buy a new M1 Macbook?

in: Reviews, Gear
Jason Fleming
Jason Fleming

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First off, let’s get one thing out of the way right now. Are you a professional creative?

If the answer is no, then your path to a decision is easy. Sure, go ahead and get one. It is completely amazing and will blow your socks clean off with how fast it is, and the battery life is simply shocking. Apple can really throw down some hype, but these little beasts live up to it.

Now … what if you actually use your laptop for a living … and for more than opening spreadsheets and poking around in Google Docs? Here is where things get interesting.

Before we get any further, a note about me. I am a professional creative who spends literally every work day in Adobe products, Davinci Resolve, code tools, you name it. I absolutely rely on my laptop for my entire living, so anything that doesn’t work flawlessly is immediately obvious.

The Good

Is the new M1 MacBook faster than my old 16”?

Yes. Full stop. I don’t care what kind of a monster you were lugging around in your laptop bag, these new ARM chips simply leave old Intel-based machines in the dust. This has been proven in many kinds of benchmarking, and I can concur that after using one since the first of January for daily professional creative work, this thing is legit.

Is a 13” Screen going to be big enough?

This one surprised me – yes, that little screen is, in fact, big enough.

I am have been a die-hard big laptop aficionado for years. They had to pry my old 17 MacBook out of my hands when they wanted to “upgrade” me down to a 15-incher back in the day.

The fact is, time has passed and pixel densities have improved quite a lot. These days, if you are comfortable turning your resolution to the max, a 13” M1 is going to give you enough to get by on. It may be a little cozy, but if you are like me, you have a big, hulking 4K monitor waiting for you at the office for when you really need it.

Truth be told, I have had to make a set of new workspace presets in my Adobe products to accommodate the little screen, but I can still do everything I need to do in a pinch. Honestly, I never believed I would say this, but I don’t really miss the old 15” screen.

Mind you, I could see if you were editing photos or video full time or you were writing code from the road and didn’t have a bigger monitor to rely on, things would get annoying. That said, there are now plenty of whacky USB-C monitors to throw in your bag, including this 4K 15” external (yes, you read that right) that I picked up a while ago.

Is it powerful enough?

I bought the M1 MacBook Pro rather than the Air to avoid the one potential downside … CPU throttling to avoid overheating. Call me a traditionalist, but I wanted that fan.

They said this new fan, as always, was engineered to be wonderfully silent. Four months later, I am shocked to report that I don’t know if this is true. I haven’t been able to piss this thing off enough for it to even spool up the fan once. Not in image editing, video rendering or running any code tools. It just sits there, dead silent.

I suspect I will find a way to make this little beast angry soon, but so far, it has far, far outpaced the old MBP it replaced, and without even so much as a whirr of the fans to prove that I am giving its 16GB of shared memory a run for their money.

Do my Adobe Apps Work?

Note: This is published in March of 2021, so new Adobe updates will affect this section. Yes, you Adobe apps work. Mostly. Things have come a long way even since January when matters were a bit less favorable. At first, Photoshop couldn’t even save files, Illustrator would fall over at the drop of a hat and InDesign was basically a non-starter.

These days, things are pretty smooth. It is a testament to the heavy lift Apple did to make sure M1s would be sufficiently backwards compatible, and a testament to how powerful these new chips are that even running through the Rosetta 2 translation layer, Adobe apps work pretty seamlessly now. After the latest round of product updates from Adobe, everything has been smooth sailing.

The Bad

My M1 Still Crashes About Once a Day.

Yep. You read that right. I am not a pro at reading crash logs, but what seems to be a kernel panic is a common problem. I am thankful that Adobe’s auto-save has gotten better than in the old, dicy days of early CS version, but I get a near-daily involuntary work break when my little Mac will freeze, flash a delicious magenta for an instant and then go black.

Thankfully, reboots are relatively quick, but it is an ominous and troubling disturbance. For a while, there was also a strange sort of crash that seemed to be related to running an external monitor. There were times I could catch my computer slowing and feeling chunky; an early symptom of what I have learned leads to a crash. Unplugging the monitor worked like a fist up-side an old TV, smacking things back in order for a while. Eventually the aforementioned crash would usually still happen, but it was an interesting variant.

Not All Your Software and Plugins Are Coming With You

Like it or not, upgrading is going to cost you money. This is just the price we all pay, and I can’t honestly be mad that the version of Office 2011 I was still limping along (no joke) isn’t going to work on this new box. This is just part of the cost of doing business we all expect every now and again, and hopefully you have been budgeting for it.

What is more troubling is the pain points you will run into for services and software that is now living under different rules. I had been pulling a desktop version of SketchUp along since just after it got spat back out of Google. What royally sucks is that this software, which I thankfully don’t use too often, is no longer available as a desktop option unless you pay some serious coin.

The same was true of the NIK Photoshop extensions and Topaz DeNoise. I had outright paid for the perpetual license for these back in the day, and had been dutifully porting the plugin files from one Photoshop version to the next. Well, my luck has run out there too, as the M1 demands new plugins, and for those I am going to have to pay.

This part is a little disturbing to me. People should be paid to develop and maintain software (I have done it, so I should know), but as a creative who relies on these products every day, forking out $80-100 for each plugin pack and utility can add up quickly, especially if you are trying to make a living in an increasingly competitive market filled with part-timers running a side-hustle who don’t really have to think about overhead. (I am not throwing shade here … I did that for years.)

F-ing Dongles

This may be old news to some of you, but yes, dongles are for idiots. It is plainly stupid for Apple to make a computer that forces you to buy a secondary piece of hardware just to connect the devices you already own. Let's not even talk about how environmetally irresponsible it is to incetivize people to get rid of old hard drives and other tools that are still perfectly functional just becuase the connector changed.

Yeah, sure, eventually everything may all be USB-C, but that day isn’t today. Literally every hard drive, camera, monitor and SD card I owned as of January … all of it … has to go through a goofy little brick I have to remember to carry with me everywhere I go. This is simply asinine.

No MagSafe Adapter

Lest you think this is about mere convenience … it is also about product durability and longevity. Apple getting rid of the MagSafe port is absolutely inexcusable. Any creative professional who works outside of a cloistered office has had the horrible moment when, laptop balanced precariously on a tiny coffee shop table, someone catches a foot on the cord. I have had many of those heart-stopping moments end without incident thanks to the wonder of that little magnetic connection.

Again, this one may be old news to a lot of you, but it is simply idiotic that I had to spend another $25 to buy an after-market magnetic power connector to do what the MacBook used to do on its own.

That Dumb TouchBar

Ok. There are some applications of this that I have seen were third-party software designers are starting to use the TouchBar in some cool ways. The problem? They are making the best of a bad situation. Why, you ask? Let me tell you.

Just as the case in cars, screens can be bad for some things. The lack of haptic feedback from your fingers finding the right key by touch and muscle memory means you need to take your eyes off the screen … especially when the digital soft-key may not be in the context you think, and might not be presenting the options you expect. This is similar to the danger of having to take your eyes off the road to find the radio controls rather than being able to feel the buttons and dials with your fingers.

Self-driving cars will eventually make this a moot point in cars, but in computing, this isn’t going to be the case. Every time I need to take my keys off what is happening on the screen to figure out what is happening on the TouchBar, my work slows down.

Oh, and also, you now almost double the number of interactions necessary for controlling volume and playback of media.

And (last on, I promise) let’s not forget; if you are like 90% of the professional, day-in, day-out creatives I know, your laptop spends most of its day in a stand where the Touch Bar is out of reach.

Just give me my damn F keys back.

The Bottom Line on the New M1 MacBook

So, should you get it? Probably. Should you do your homework first? Without question. If you are looking to upgrade to the new M1 MacBook, you are not likely to be disappointed. The speed, power and battery life are unbelieveable. This generation is a quantum leap beyond the old Intel boxes, and this is just the beginning.

All in, I am incredibly happy with my new MacBook, and the upgrade has been just that. This thing is an absolutely ferocious little beast, and despite my crotchety objections about F keys and power ports, my hat is off to the whole team at Apple for making what is an absolutely extraordinary, even miraculous piece of technology.

If you are going to use one of these professionally, you won’t be disappointed. My only advice is to take the time to do a very thorough review of every single plugin, add-on, library and extension pack you use for all of your software. I thought I had, but there were still some that slipped through, and it turns out replacing them is going to be more expensive than I thought. All in, I am going to be out almost double the price I expected to buy new versions of software I already owned on my old machine.

The Final Word

Once you have gotten your hit list together and decided that it is time to make the jump, get ready for a little frustration, and then a tidal wave of awe. It may be annoying to replace or re-buy some components, but the day you realize you have been working hard and haven't even plugged in your laptop for two days, all the rest will be light and momentary troubles.