Monday, November 23, 2020

MacBook Air M1 - great but not totally plain sailing

As a developer, I wanted to make sure that my software runs well on the new Apple Silicon so I ordered a MacBook Air with the M1 chip as soon as they were announced.

Overall, I'm extremely happy with the battery life and performance of Apple's CPUs, but as an early adopter of both the new Big Sur operating system and the new hardware, I have run in to a few issues which I want to share.

Migration Assistant

Out of the box I tried to use migration assistant to copy over the configuration from my existing MacBook Pro. Because my existing Mac is on macOS 11.0.1 and the new machine came with the slightly older macOS 11.0, Migration Assistant said it couldn't migrate until the machine was updated. Consequently I had to complete a clean setup and do the upgrade.

Upgrade stalled

The software upgrade from 11.0 to 11.0.1 stalled about three quarters of the way through the progress bar. I left it for several hours with the mouse pointing at the progress but there was no movement. I had to long press the TouchID power button to force a reboot. On restart it seemed to finish ok but I'm a little concerned that some part of the install might not have been completed.

I fared better than some who ended up with an un-bootable machine. Apple has a support note on how to recover from this situation by making a bootable recovery disk on another machine.

External Samsung T5 SSD problems

A Samsung T5 SSD which works perfectly on other machines fails to mount or work reliably on the Air M1. I'm not alone in finding this. Heavier USB-C cables seem to help and upgrading the drive's firmware has improved, but not totally fixed the issue.

The Samsung software is terrible by the way. There is a theory that the M1 Macs are not providing enough power for some external drives but older, larger, drives are working for me so I'm not convinced that's the root cause.

Good things

The initial tasks to be done on a fresh macOS install sometimes bring a machine to its knees for a day or two. Spotlight indexing, iCloud syncing, photo analysis and (in my case), installing Xcode, are all heavy tasks. The M1 Air handled all this and stayed cool while sipping battery.

The keyboard is a big improvement over the one in my current MacBook Pro which has one of the much maligned low profile keyboards.

TouchID on a Mac is a new experience for me and is wonderful. I wish they'd do FaceID.

This MacBook Air is Apple's entry level machine and it out performs most of the current Intel based range. 24 hours in, the 8 CPU cores are mostly idle.

I can't wait to see what they do with the higher end machines.

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