Apple Hardware Redux

And here we are again, talking about Apple’s latest hardware releases. Another symptom of a weird year. I mean, isn’t this about the sixteenth time?

Anyway, this announcement is for the first Macs running Apple’s own CPU–with the distinctive moniker “M1”–instead of one made by Intel.

The major feature of the new CPU, at least from Apple’s perspective, is that it combines all of the silicon into one convenient package. It’s not just a CPU, in other words. It’s also the security manager, the memory, the input/output controller, the machine-learning “Neural Engine”, and sixty ‘leven other things.

That allows for smaller motherboards, lowers the cost of production, and may simplify repairs.

On the down side, it also eliminates certain upgrades. Specifically, increasing the RAM isn’t going to be possible. Apple is confident that, rather than upgrading their machines when they get older, the majority of their customers just replace them. Which is probably a safe bet, given the cost of Apple-compatible memory.

There are three new machines: a MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro, and–the biggest surprise of the day–a Mac Mini. Interestingly, while the MacBooks will be selling at the same price point as the Intel-based models they’re replacing, the Mini will be $100 cheaper. Since I’m on record as considering the previous generation of Minis to be significantly overpriced, this is definitely an improvement.

Worthy of note: the Air and the Pro are nearly identical. The only differences, as far as anyone can tell until we get our hands on the machines, is that the Pro has a cooling fan–which may allow it to run faster for longer stretches than the fanless Air*–and at least some models will have faster graphics processing.

* Now there’s an irony for you: a mobile computer named “Air” that doesn’t move air around.

Accompanying the new machines is, of course, a new Mac operating system. Big Sur will be out tomorrow for all Macs (at least all made in the last five years or so).

It’s got the usual laundry list of new features: new look and feel, new privacy features, and so on, ad infinitum. The biggie, at least if you buy Apple’s thinking, is that it can run iPhone and iPad apps.

Was anybody really asking for that?

Granted, Google’s done a nice job in allowing Android apps to run on Chromebooks; they’ve shown the idea can be done well. But Apple’s history in cross-platform app support isn’t encouraging. Let’s be blunt here: the iPad came out in 2010. And yet, the best it can do when running an iPhone-only app is to show it at double its normal size with little support for rotation. And Apple hasn’t done much to encourage developers to add iPad-functionality.

To be fair, Google has done a lousy job of convincing developers to support Android table-specific apps either. But the wide variety in Android phone capabilities forces Google’s infrastructure, and thus phone-oriented apps, to be more flexible in terms of resolution and layout than is the case in Apple’s world.

I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of people experiment with iOS apps on their MacBooks, decide the experience isn’t all that great, and give up. Developers will then say “Hey, nobody’s using apps on their computers; why should we waste time and effort on making it better?”

Bottom line: The new Macs sound good, but even with Apple’s experience in custom-designed silicon–the M1 is, after all, a variation of what’s been running iPhones and iPads for years–there are going to be teething problems.

Similarly, even if you ignore Big Sur’s need to support those new devices alongside the existing Intel devices, it’s still a major revision to the Mac OS (major enough that Apple is declaring it version 11 after seventeen years of version 10). Remember how rough the transition to Catalina was last year, when the biggest change was the move to eliminate 32-bit apps?

My advice is to wait until at least 11.0.2 to upgrade–Apple is already working on 11.0.1; odds are they won’t start building in fixes for real-world problems in the new Macs until 11.0.2 at the earliest.

And unless you’re comfortable dealing with random computer misbehavior, hold off buying an M1 Mac for at least six months to give Apple time to work out–or work around–the inevitable hardware bugs.