It has been nearly three months since I first reviewed the M1-based MacBook Pro. I was quite surprised that over 1,000,000 people read the article, but then again, I should not be, as it was different from other reviews during this time. In this review, I tested a bunch of office apps and a few of my peripherals. I also reviewed Apple's new platform from a AAA gaming point of view a month later, and you can check it out here.
Apple's new M1 platform has improved a lot on my go-to apps like Microsoft Edge and Office, and I rarely, if ever, experience crashes. Microsoft has introduced beta versions of these M1-optimized apps that have worked out much better for me. My issues with Logitech cameras has subsided, which I credit Apple with improving Rosetta2 compatibility. You can find more info on which app works/doesn't work on M1 here, and I have found this games list referenced by 9to5Mac helpful, too.
The past few months, I've used my M1-based MacBook Pro and Air, but I have also used multiple latest and greatest Intel Evo-based notebooks. Normally, HP, Dell, and Lenovo supply systems for reviews but hadn't sampled me with the latest Evo-based laptops. Intel offered me the chance, and I took them up on it. I do feel much smarter on premium laptop use cases after using the Evo-based laptops, particularly regarding alternatives to the new Apple MacBooks.
What I wish I could do with all Evo laptops that I can't
To be fair, I'm going to start with some things I appreciate about the new M1-based MacBooks that I can't yet say that these new premium, Evo-based laptops can do.
Battery life- One thing I've come to appreciate is the M1 MacBook's battery life on M1-optimized apps. Using M1-optimized Edge (Canary Channel), I can hang out for what seems like a few workdays getting down to business and doing web apps. Across a wide variety of apps, though, I’ve found the systems (Evo and M1) more similar, but when I stay in Edge Canary, I do get better battery life with the M1. In the future, I’ll be interested to see how “sleeping tabs” changes the calculus, if any.
Less fan- I've also come to appreciate the new MacBook's near-fanless operation. The MacBook Air is fanless, and the new Pro has a fan, but it rarely ever comes on. And when it does, it really isn't that loud. When I balance that against the raw performance of the M1, I think it's a real accomplishment.
Backlight implementation- The original MacBook Air was the first thin and light laptop to have a backlit keyboard. Since then, every premium, thin and light notebook has backlit keyboards. What is unique to the M1-based designs is zero, and I mean zero, light leakage. What bugs me with even the latest Evo-based laptops is that light leaks out from everywhere, slightly distracting me when I'm working.
Runs iOS apps- I also want to add that technically, the new Macs can run iOS apps. I say "technically" because it's technically possible, but first, the app must be in the App Store, and second, it needs to be easy to use. It was hard to find any of my iPhone and iPad "home page" iOS apps anywhere in the Mac App Store. I looked hard for my everyday iPhone apps like Gmail, BofA, Savant Pro, Instagram, Facebook, Apple Fitness, Apple Health, but it was not in the App Store. I did find two of my apps, HBO Max and the United Airlines app, both iPad apps. I am hopeful the situation will improve here.
No ads- Finally, I wanted to add "promotions" to the pile. One thing I know that I didn’t get on a new M1-based notebook that I surprisingly got with these new, fancy Evo-based laptops that seemed like a perpetual stream of ads for add-ons. For McAfee, for DropBox, for Express VPN, for warranties, for market research, for whatever deal the PC OEMs cut with vendors. I expect more from a $1,299 laptop. You might get ads on your iPhone, but I was never hit with an ad during any of my M1 MacBook testing.
What I wish I could do with all M1-based MacBooks that I can't
Now let’s talk about some things that I can do with these new Evo notebooks that I wish I could do with the new M1-based notebooks. Let’s start with the login.
Instant face login- Logging in is really easy on a premium Windows laptop like the Evos from Dell, HP and Razer. You look at the notebook, and it logs you in. It's as simple as that. And it’s fast. I believe it should be that simple on an M1-based MacBook, but it isn't. It’s certainly not a lack of technology as Apple has FaceID.
Open ports- This may not sound like much of a barn-burner observation about the new M1-based MacBooks, but the lack of ports is really difficult for me, mainly when I brought the new MacBooks to work. Literally, the only option was to buy an external hub. While not that expensive, it just seemed a bit odd to have to do this for a $1,299 laptop. While I'm not fond of a dongle requirement for "Microsoft Teams compliance" with headphones, it is a reality, and that it eats up your only open port. This will likely get updated the design next round as I believe it’s an I/O limitation of the M1.
Technically, the new MacBooks have two ports, one for power and one for an open port. The new Razer Book has five ports (2xUSB-C, 1xUSB-A, full HDMI, SD), and the latest HP Spectre x360 14 has four ports (4xUSB-C, 1xUSB-A, SD). Unfortunately, the latest Dell XPS 13 has three ports (2xUSB-C, SD). For the record, I don't think the Dell XPS 13 has enough USB ports for my use case, and like the latest MacBooks, it will require an external adapter for my use cases.
External displays- Related to the lack of open ports on the M1 MacBooks is that the system lacks full support to connect more than one external display. That lack of capability has been exasperated during Covid-19 for me, given the way I work. I have to have multiple displays when I work to be fully productive. In my office, I am connected to four displays- one 8K, one 4K, and two 3K displays. Yes, I have seen 100 articles (one here) on how to rig up to six displays over DisplayLink. But when I see the need to buy a docking station and a USB-A to display adapter and read some of the article, it doesn't seem like a good idea. Macworld says, "Installation is straightforward, but note that this version does not support laptops' closed-display/Clamshell mode. Other limitations include incompatibility with display rotation."
Macworld cited both Plugable and Caldigit, respected makers of display adapters. Macworld writes, "Plugable doesn't recommend the workaround for gaming, video editing, digital audio workstations (DAWs), and protected-content (HDCP) playback. For these workloads, users will want the full throughput of a "bare-metal" native GPU connection - such as provided by the DisplayPort or HDMI port on the dock using Alt Mode." As for Caldigit, "Caldigit actively recommends against using DisplayLink, as it finds it unreliable and there would be no synergy between the driver and the dock. Because it requires a third-party driver, users are at the mercy of Apple and the third-party developer to support later version." So yes, you can rig up more than one external display, but I cannot recommend it.
For what it's worth, I don't expect many MacBook Air buyers to want to support more than one external display, but I am confident the MacBook Pro crowd has this requirement.
Compatibility- One other thing that has been an issue for me from the start is peripheral compatibility. It's not that most of what I have tested doesn't work; it's the lack of knowledge of what works and what doesn't. I didn't expect a Brother scanner to work, but sure enough, Brother wrote a native app, and it worked flawlessly. On the other hand, a few HP commercial printers did not work, and I thought that was surprising. All of HP's consumer printers I tested worked well.
One new peripheral that I tried that didn't work on the M1-based Macs is the Samsung SSD T7 Touch drive. Full disclosure, Intel sent me the drive to test. This drive enables an extra layer of security using a fingerprint sensor on the drive. There is a Mac version of the app, but it did not work for me, and therefore could not use the fingerprint security with the new Mac. The same comment on peripheral compatibility I have on software compatibility. Many programs work, some are optimized, but there's no official Apple list. The best list I've found of software that doesn't work is optimized for M1, or compatibility unknown is here. Here's a list of games that work and don’t work.
External GPU- While external GPUs haven't caught fire yet, I believe the underlying simplicity and reliability issues that plagued them related to Thunderbolt, early on, have been fixed. I did test a Razer Book and a Razer external GPU with an NVIDIA 2080Ti and was surprised how much better performance I got versus the Evo's Iris Xe graphics. On average, in my testing, I got around a 3X performance bump from the external graphics unit. However, more importantly, this makes games like GTA V, Battlefield V, Apex Legends, and Red Dead 2 playable at 1440P and much more playable at 1080P. While external GPUs aren't for everyone, they are so much simpler than they used to be, and I believe will rise with popularity as its improved ease of use gets better understood. The new M1-based MacBooks do not support external GPUs. I'll add one log to the M1 gaming fire- the Xbox controller doesn't work with the new MacBooks. I couldn’t get a single AAA game to work with it. If you want to find my full, AAA gaming analysis, check it out here.
Display “band” and form factor- Let's talk displays. MacBooks have always had high-quality displays, and the M1-based are no different. But can we talk about that black band that goes around the display? I think this would have been fine a few years ago, but as we've seen with literally every other brand's premium notebooks (except Surface), it looks dated. It also makes the MacBooks larger than the latest Evo notebooks I evaluated. It's best illustrated by the photos below that show how much larger the M1-based MacBooks. It's not an optical illusion.
Volumetrically, the 13" Dell XPS 13 much smaller than the MacBook Air. It's up to 9% shorter, 7% shallower, and 3% narrower, equating to up to 20% (19.59%) less volume. HP, with its Spectre, managed to squeeze a 14" display and a 2:1 hinge into a 9% larger form factor as the new 13" MacBook Pro. I am certain Apple will update its designs with the second-generation of M-generation notebooks, but right now, they seem dated to me in comparison. Early on, I'm sure Apple wanted to hedge its bets with the Intel and M1 designs to manage inventory most effectively.
Touch screen- The lack of a touch-screens on the MacBooks has always been a struggle for me. I learned touch on the iPhone, fell in love with it on the iPad, and then my soul was crushed without it on the MacBook. I was incredibly open to the Touch Bar in my 2016 review, and I really like it today for things like taking screenshots. The lack of a full display touch is just one reason my daily drivers have always been a premium Windows laptop, or at least in the last ten years. I can't shake the irony of the iPad getting me addicted to touch and then the MacBook not delivering it. Will Apple add touch screen to future MacBooks? I doubt it, as I believe it would eat into iPad sales big time but increase MacBook sales. Think of how many people own a MacBook and a larger iPad who wouldn't buy an iPad if the MacBook had touch? It's probably more than you think.
Apple and its partners have improved application compatibility and performance of the M1-based MacBooks since I published my first review in November. After using the new MacBooks, I have come to appreciate the low/no fan noise and long battery life using M1-optimized applications.
For my personal use case, though, there are still things that I wish the new M1-based could do that the latest premium, competing Windows notebooks can do today. I wish the M1-based MacBooks had more open ports, natively supported more than one external display, supported more peripherals like external GPUs (and Xbox controllers) and had touch. I wish the latest MacBooks had a more modern display bar and a smaller form factor, as well.
Software compatibility has improved, but there's no definitive list of software or peripherals that work or don't work. It wouldn't be an issue if the M1 were compatible with important product like Box, Google Drive and Elgato video capture software, but these apps still don't work. I think Apple should routinely publish a list of software and hardware that are compatible with the new M1-based MacBooks. Needless to say, all major software titles and peripherals work with the new Evo-based laptops.
I'll continue this analysis over the coming months and as Apple continues to roll out new notebooks based on its homegrown architectures.