Should I buy an M1 or intel mac book pro
April 8, 2021 9:15 PM   Subscribe

My work will buy me a new laptop this month. I've used mac book pros and had good luck with them for the last 12 years (using them typically for about 6 years, though less for this current one). Given the longer battery life, faster speed, etc., and that the wrinkles with the new chip should be fixed soon, I think that I should go with one of the new apple silicone chips (discussed at length here). However, my IT department is pushing me to get a machine with an intel chip. Advice?

Their reasoning is similar to this from that big thread. Namely, that applications I want now won't work on it.

I use matlab (including running a couple of fortran and python programs), office applications, slack, zotero, inkscape, latex, vnc viewer, and a VPN. I used to also run some esoteric unix based scientific software that haven't worked well since I updated this matching to Big Sur, but have mostly replaced with cloud-based versions of the same. I run computationally intensive stuff in matlab, but nothing big enough that I would, for example, be motivated to rewrite it in a faster language.

My plan is to take my current mac book pro, which is currently barely functional because of a weird bug introduced when Big Sur updated (it won't charge while in use, but the genius bar confirmed it to be a software, not a hardware, problem), wipe it, and reinstall Catalina. So, I'll have a second machine for any legacy software I really need to run. But, most of that stuff I'm finding good workaround for.

The weird bug when Big Sur updated part of my life is making me think tried and true might be better. However, I would really enjoy longer battery life and faster processing.

Finally, should I really be considering the mac book air? I haven't found how much the machine is throttled relative to the pro.

My kids play Minecraft, but I don't otherwise play video games.
posted by lab.beetle to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I work in IT- we don't want you to keep your old laptop when we deploy a new one. that just creates twice the hassle for us.

please just get the intel chip and let apple sort out whatever g1 chip issues there are and all the software packages get rewritten.
posted by noloveforned at 9:23 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should perhaps add that I do 95% of the IT support for my machines. I don't think the IT people support anything but office and some backup software (I'm an academic). The weird battery problem was dealt with basically entirely by me (they suggested some way to reset things that didn't work). So, it's really me doing the extra work.
posted by lab.beetle at 9:34 PM on April 8

If you get a new Mac you are getting big sur either way. For matlab this forum question is relevant to the M1 MacBooks. From what I’ve read Rosetta emulation does a great job of ensuring most programs just work. Not sure about FORTRAN so you may want to check the compilers have been updated. If you are keeping this macbook for 5 years I would get the M1 but if it is only a couple of years you could go either way. Another consideration is the MacBook Pro 13 M1 is currently limited to 16gb ram so if you are hitting matlab pretty hard this might be a limitation
posted by piyushnz at 9:48 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]

Because you use things like Python, Fortran, and Tex that use installed programs, it is often convenient to be able to use pre-existing binaries (especially if you need to grab e.g. a new python package). I would make sure that binaries exist for whatever you want to use or resign yourself to emulation or compiling from source.

Here's a blog post detailing a setup process including Numpy and other packages. I assume this will improve soon in the next year as support rolls out. MATLAB took a while to fully update for Retina displays so you may be looking at over a year on native support there.

If I were in your spot (I also use a hodgepodge of Matlab, Python, and other languages), I would either try and hold off for 6-12 months until support improves or, if I had to get a new machine now, stick with Intel.
posted by Maecenas at 10:21 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]

Another consideration is the MacBook Pro 13 M1 is currently limited to 16gb ram so if you are hitting matlab pretty hard this might be a limitation

It might, but all the reports on the M1s suggest that it deals with traditional RAM-eaters remarkably well. But that's by the bye.

I think the correct answer here is to get your work to buy whatever the BOFHs want you to have and make them work for their money by owning a lot more of the support instead of handling it yourself.

A long-term commitment to an Intel Mac will start to look stupid in a couple of years: this is mostly not "chip issues" but the longer slog of waiting for big messy software to get into in a comfortable place with the new architecture. Once that's done, the rationale goes away. And if you have the money, buy yourself an M1 MacBook Air for fun and/or non-tricky stuff like work email and put the Intel Mac under the sofa when you're off the clock.
posted by holgate at 11:48 PM on April 8 [3 favorites]

The M1 pro as it exists today is a MacBook Air with a fan and slightly brighter screen. If I were in the market for a pro I’d wait until the real pros are released later this year. I haven’t run into any compatibility issues yet on my M1 Air and it’s far faster than my 16” pro.

I’m looking forward to the real pros, they should scream. I’ll be replacing my pro as soon as they come out.

I guess my answer is wait if you can.
posted by mikesch at 11:51 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]

If your daily driver is an older MBP that you're content with, that tells you that as cool as the M1 is, you could comfortably enjoy a few more years of intel. I've got a 2014 MBP that does everything I need it do on a reasonable timeline. I can imagine wanting the M1 for the battery life, but I can also imagine wanting to continue to use a few pieces of software that are now in the legacy category as of Catalina for a while longer (RIP Fireworks). If I have to (or want to) replace my machine in the window where Mojave is still receiving updates but I haven't learned to use replacement software effectively, I'm very likely to buy a used/refurb 2019 16" Intel MBP.
posted by weston at 12:27 AM on April 9

How often does your employer buy new machines? If it's likely they'd get you a new one in 2-3 years (or if you're not likely to still be there 2-3 years from now) then for now get the machine they want you to get with maxed-out specs.
posted by trig at 1:17 AM on April 9

I have had the M1 Air and Pro. I liked the Pro quite a bit better as it had about 30% better battery life. It will also run about 25% faster after several minutes of steady performance core usage (e.g., a long build.)

If you have special binaries you’ll have better results copying them over from an Intel machine and let Rosetta translate them, rather than building new ones on M1.

Consider also peripherals and screen use; M1 can only drive one external. There is supposedly some weirdness around USB-C hubs to extend the two ports (haven’t personally tried powered hubs.)

As to the choice I’d say to delay if possible; if not, get M1 if your choice is between that and a lower specced Intel 13”, and get Intel if they are offering you a newer 16” Pro with i7 or i9.
posted by michaelh at 3:17 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

The MacRumors buyers' guide is I think the canonical reference for where Mac products are in their life cycle, and notes that between those products approaching the end of their usual lifecycles and Apple's WWDC coming up in early June, it's probably better to wait a few weeks if you can and see what new options appear.
posted by mhoye at 5:58 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

I recently got an M1 mac mini to supplement a crumbling 2017 intel MBP (I guess they've made improvements, but I'm not at all excited to buy another laptop based on this same fundamental generation because of the really awful way this device has aged). I'm also an academic who does some "data science" stuff (not matlab though, just python and R), as well as latex, etc. My evaluation was that current gen MBPs weren't quite ready (relative to what is rumored for the next iteration when they upgrade the higher tier to apple silicon), but both the mac minis and the airs looked extremely strong for what they are. So far I don't regret it though I haven't switched over entirely. Rosetta is seamless and I haven't yet had issues installing or running things regardless of porting status (e.g. disappointed that sublime text is not native, but it hasn't really been noticeable). The computer is extremely fast and I haven't been able to make the fan turn on. MacTeX install was easy, so was macports. Though I have to admit that while I have installed anaconda just fine, I haven't gotten yet to things like numpy/tensorflow/sklearn that I need for some analyses, and I'm slightly worried about them -- it doesn't seem like there's yet a native fortran compiler which underlies a lot of this. But I'm also not highly confident on what the current state of things is like; all my searching was swamped by results from ~5 months ago (including the link that someone above posted), so I might even be wrong about the current state of fortran etc. Perhaps I'll try to get some of my notebooks up and running later today and report back.

Overall, so far I think this is extremely doable, the device is great and rosetta 2 is an incredibly impressive piece of compatibility software. I personally would consider the air if you want a laptop, because from everything that is expected to be in them, I think the upper tier MBPs, when upgraded to ARM, will be a big step above both current apple intels and current lower-tier M1 MBPs, whereas the airs seem to be in an extremely strong place relative to their form factor. But I guess, also be aware that there are more rumors of even greater supply chain delays for these hypothetical MBPs over the last few days.

For people telling the poster to listen to their IT people: IMO the academic context means that they really, really shouldn't bother, academic IT provides 0.0 help towards the things that are most important for academic researchers, not intended as a slight to them but this just isn't even in their remit. They support basic infrastructure like email, VPNs, and the normal environment is one where people have all sorts of devices and IT has no real power to tell them otherwise. I can totally see my IT people giving this advice but it would just be basic IT conservativity where they aren't eager to deal with the one 75 year old semi-retired difficult and non-tech-savvy professor whose brand new M1 device that IT has never dealt with can't connect to the exchange server. (So the one caveat to the OP, you might see if anyone you know has gotten your VPN to work on an M1.)
posted by advil at 6:00 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

I'm personally holding on to my (personal) old dying '17 MBP until the next gen M1s comes out. The Buyers Guide says to wait until later this fall, so I'm going to try and wait it out. I personally am super wary of anything first gen from Apple (although this M1 seems to be doing better than other first gen things!) and because I live & breathe developer tools I just dont want the hassle of something not working if i can help it. But at the same time, i'm a geek at heart and love the new tech, so waiting is a tiny bit painful.

I also just got a new Intel MBP from work. My IT department also does not yet support the M1s, but thats mainly because they haven't gotten all their "spying" software to work correctly yet. And yeah, the VPN support is a little flaky, and right now thats mission critical obviously. And too be honest, this brand new Intel MBP just works. I just use homebrew-installed dev things, VS Code, Jetbrain IDE products and a plethroa of online tools. It works great, I have a functioning keyboard AND battery, the perf is just fine, and I'm not upset I dont have the latest chip. I'll probably be annoyed as all heck in 3 years as im counting down the days to be eligible for a replacement though.
posted by cgg at 7:16 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

I don't use the scientific or mathematical packages you mentioned, so I can't speak to experience using Matlab or probably any of the more esoteric/specialist stuff you listed. I do use all of the other general apps and do some coding, though, and can talk a little about the general experience of going from an Intel MB Pro to an M1 Air.

tl;dr - If I could do it again, I'd probably buy an Intel Mac and pick up an M1 after Apple's had a year or two to fix issues with the M1 and/or Big Sur. If compatibility and versatility are important to you, I'd recommend sticking with Intel.

First, the good stuff. I can charge the M1 laptop at a reasonable speed using a dinky little standard iPhone charger, which is miraculous to me. The laptop is silent and barely heats up under load. The keyboard is better than the previous generation of butterfly switches. Some iPhone and iPad apps are available, and work well with trackpad gestures and other OS features, although the app selection seems limited and arbitrary. The performance seems impressive, and the Mac games that are still available play really well. All of the stuff I use through Homebrew now works natively. The entry-level M1 Air is priced really well, at least in the US.

On the other hand...I can confidently say that this M1 MacBook Air is the glitchiest Mac I've owned in the last two decades. It's been bitter realizing that with the M1, I've given up things like VMs, multiple displays, and BootCamp, and in addition have had to deal with daily system crashes, general minor app weirdness and limitations (and some paid upgrades to address the same), the inability to detach a TB3 cable without a crash, and the laptop failing to set display resolution correctly without a restart after being detached from the one external monitor I use it with. I had to reinstall the entire OS to get Bluetooth and wifi working at one point. Because of the weird crashes and resolution issues, I'm using my M1 Air completely docked as I'm tired of losing time and work when moving from the desk to the couch. I certainly don't trust it as much as my previous-gen Intel MB Pro which, while it needed two repairs during the course of its AppleCare coverage, behaved perfectly almost all of the time.

I get that those complaints are anecdotal and seemingly not shared by many other satisfied users, so take them with a grain of salt. I can't really say if the issues should be attributed to the M1 or to Big Sur, but since you can't get an M1 without Big Sur, I don't dwell on that question. I do feel that, in light of the issues above and the loss of 32-bit app support in Catalina, that at the moment the Apple walled-garden experience isn't as attractive of a tradeoff as it's been in the past.
posted by Transmissions From Vrillon at 9:39 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

Perhaps I'll try to get some of my notebooks up and running later today and report back.

Quick report back as promised: (a) if you want to run scientific computing things in rosetta it is easy and seamless, but presumably not as fast as it could be (no sense how much of a hit there might be). (b) if you want to run stuff natively it is not yet entirely simple. I can report that on the python side, things were ok, and by installing the miniforge arm64 installer I was able to get everything I needed up to and including the apple tensorflow native beta to work with effort. (There *is* a working arm64 build of gfortran in conda-forge.) I hit a complete stumbling block in getting various R packages that I need to work natively, though anything I do in R would be fine emulated.

So I think the tldr is that in April 2021 for scientific computing on apple silicon you can expect to have to decide between easy but emulated, or spending a lot of time fiddling with things to get them to work, in some cases needing to use prereleases. Hopefully this would all change soon. But I don't know that it would be entirely crazy for this sort of report to make you wary right this moment, especially if this kind of thing is a large chunk of your work.
posted by advil at 4:15 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]

between those products approaching the end of their usual lifecycles and Apple's WWDC coming up in early June, it's probably better to wait a few weeks if you can and see what new options appear.

Though there are reports (via Daring Fireball) that production may be delayed because of industry-wide component shortages.
posted by holgate at 1:23 PM on April 10

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