First off: Apple will be introducing macOS Big Sur next week, and it will bring with it some significant changes. Your Mac may ask you to upgrade, but we recommend you not do so until some of its inevitable problems shake out. We'll advise when we know more. (If you are not yet on macOS Catalina, feel free to upgrade if you know you have a current backup and understand that you may need to obtain newer, possibly paid, versions of your software. Ask us if you have questions.)
Apple introduced several new Macs yesterday which replace some of the lower-priced models. They look, on the outside, exactly the same as their previous versions. On the inside, they represent the most significant change to Mac computers in 15 years, because their processor -- that is, the part of the computer that does the computation -- is now designed and made by Apple, rather than purchased from Intel. This change brings the Mac much closer to their iPhone and iPad relatives. (In fact, iPhone and iPad apps will run on the new Macs, though we don't yet know how well.)
These new models of MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (two-port version), and Mac Mini are all based on Apple's homegrown processor, which they have dubbed "M1." We're pretty excited about these new machines, which start shipping next week, but we'd recommend holding off buying one until they've been reviewed and out in the world for a bit. No one has ever used Macs like these before!
The key things to know are:
- Apple claims these machines perform significantly faster than their predecessors, offer significantly longer battery life, and wake up instantaneously from sleep, like iPhones and iPads do.
- Non-Apple software developers will need to introduce updated versions of their applications to reap those performance gains. Until they do, their software is likely to run more slowly than it did on the earlier models based on Intel processors. A few programs may even run poorly, or not at all, until they are updated. It may take several months, or longer, for some applications to be updated, and some may never be, if their developer has lost interest.
- Running any kind of Windows application via a product like Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion is not going to be possible at all for an unknown period of time, and when it does become possible, that Windows program is likely to perform more slowly than it did on Macs with Intel chips. Boot Camp will probably never be available, either.
- In the short term, Intel-based Macs (which are still for sale) may be a better choice for some, while the new "Apple silicon" Macs may be better for others, depending on how you use your computer. But I'd expect the next six months, at minimum, to be a bumpy time for this new generation, as Apple transitions their product lineup and developers update their software.
So, what's on offer? We have:
MacBook Air: This looks to be an unqualified improvement over the previous MacBook Air, Apple's general-purpose laptop, with the above caveats about non-Apple software possibly not performing as well in the near term. The best thing about the new M1-based model, in my opinion, is that its battery should last at least 50% longer, if Apple's claims prove true. The second best thing is that it is silent; it has no fan. That is great; I hate fans. It starts at $999.
MacBook Pro 13" (two-port): Since 2016, the confusing MacBook Pro line has really been three products: a 13" lower-performing two-port model, a 13" high-performing four-port model, and a 15"/16" top-performing four-port model. Only the first of these three models has received the new Apple M1 processor, while the latter two higher-priced Intel-based models remain as they were. Since the MacBook Pro and Air are nearly the same size and weight, and now share the same processor, what you're paying for with the Pro is the touch bar, which is of dubious utility, and a cooling fan, which permits faster speeds by drawing heat off the processor, though we'll need to see some independent tests to know just how much difference that really makes. Battery life is also claimed to be a bit longer than the Air. The two-port Pro starts at $1299.
(Editorial: Since its introduction, I have thought of the two-port Pro as a kind of MacBook Air, rather than a true MacBook Pro, and I haven't actually understood why it still exists after the revamped MacBook Air was introduced two years ago. I see a simple choice: you want affordable and general purpose, get an Air; if you want power, get a four-port Pro. But, I guess, if you want to split the difference, the two-port Pro lies somewhere in between.)
Mac mini: This often overlooked but nifty, tiny desktop computer, a flat square, is intended for you to bring your own keyboard, mouse, and monitor (or buy them separately). It starts at $699, and is a nice (and less expensive) improvement over the entry model. Unlike that one, though, there is no expanding the memory after purchase. The more flexible, more expensive, Space Grey colored Intel-based model remains available as well, though it may actually be a lesser performer when running Apple software, or non-Apple software that has been updated for the M1 processor.
If you're in the market for a Mac, it's a confusing moment. If you primarily use Apple-made software -- Mail, Safari, Photos, Pages, etc -- the new Mac models may be nice upgrades for you, especially if you have an older machine. If you use non-Apple software regularly, such as Microsoft Word or Google Chrome, the Intel-based Mac models may work better for you in the near term, and are a surer bet for software compatibility for the next few years, though they may become obsolete beyond that.
If you do want one of these new models, but can hold off for three months, we'd recommend it, just so we can first see how well this next generation of Mac operates in the real world; if you can hold off for a year, you'll likely have options for Apple silicon processors on the higher-end products too, like iMacs and 4-port MacBook Pros.
And, as always, if you have any questions we can help answer, we are here for you!