Last Week on My Mac: There’s more to the M1 than speed

You can tell what type of user you are by the first things you do when your M1 Mac arrives. I’ve heard of some who couldn’t wait to start theirs up in DFU mode and hook it up to Configurator, but for most it must be running benchmarks to see just how fast they are. Those with either of the new laptops will soon be testing how long they can use them before they need to be recharged.

For me, two things I wanted to test early were migrating from a new Time Machine APFS backup, to see how well that worked, and exploring Recovery Mode. Anyone who has been struggling with Time Machine in Catalina will well understand the first, but the second might seem seriously geeky. It isn’t, and for the great majority of users it’s going to prove more important than speed or battery endurance.

Like it or not, troubleshooting procedures such as entering Recovery Mode have become arcane on Intel Macs. Was it local, remote latest or remote original Recovery mode that you wanted? Do you need Command-D or plain D to start in Diagnostics Mode? For anyone new to the Mac, or unfamiliar with all its different startup modes, they must be deeply confusing. Then there’s resetting the SMC and NVRAM: why would you ever want to do either, and which keys control them? And what do you use for a Mac with a T2 chip?

The truth is that, no matter how ingenious, each new feature such as the T2 chip has brought increasing complexity to troubleshooting, to the point where some users are genuinely scared that they could brick their Mac. Our Frankenmacs work superbly, and I’ve been delighted with the two that I use, an iMac Pro and a MacBook Pro 16-inch. But installing most macOS updates needs them to shut down and play dead, sometimes more than once. It’s always a great relief when they come back to life, and I can’t help wondering how many other users breathe a deep sigh when they realise that the update is progressing again, and their Mac doesn’t need a replacement logic board after all.

From what I’ve seen of my M1 Macs, this is just what Apple has addressed in them. Gone are the multitude of barely memorable keystrokes to select each mode. There are basically three different types of startup: normal, Recovery Mode (and its options), and DFU Mode for connecting to Configurator (which few users should ever need experience). You can also set more specialist modes using settings in the NVRAM.

Glance down through my article yesterday detailing these modes, and almost all of them start with the use of the Power button to enter at least the first phase of Recovery Mode. From there, your choices are mostly made using a simple GUI. There are a few simple things to remember, such as how to run Diagnostics, but by and large all the tools you need are provided in windows and menu commands. It’s like making the leap from MS-DOS to Classic Mac OS.

This is possible because, from the moment that you power up your M1 Mac, it’s running Apple all the way: its firmware is iBoot, which eventually loads the kernel, then the rest of macOS. There’s no EFI firmware, although for the sake of compatibility every disk still has an EFI partition.* There’s no contention between the Intel side and a T2 chip, and M1 Macs boot straight to Apple.

Speed is important, and by demonstrating how its M1 chip compares against its rivals, Apple has justly won an attentive audience. We all pretend that we understand the technical details of how this has been accomplished. Power (or Energy) use is also a winner, as every laptop user wants their battery to go days between recharges. Heat production is critical in any portable computer. Far from suffering local redness from skin contact with your hot laptop, my M1 MacBook Pro remains remarkably cool.

But above performance, battery life and heat production is usability. The M1 Mac’s new Recovery Mode is already in a different league from Intel Macs when it comes to usability. For me, that’s one of the most compelling reasons to buy an M1 model.

* Thanks to the anonymous commenter below who points out that’s no longer quite true: while non-system disks do still have an EFI partition when formatted in GPT by Big Sur’s Disk Utility, on internal boot disks at least these have been replaced by a partition of similar size named Apple_APFS_ISC, whose purpose remains similarly elusive.