While not as brazen and brash as the year Apple introduced the M1, last year (2022) was every bit as exciting, just in a quieter way.
It started with the Mac Studio and its Studio Display, and the absurdly powerful M1 Ultra showing us how Apple’s new chips scale by putting two M1 Maxes together. In less than a year, performance cores in the M1 series leaped from 4 to 16. We’re still left puzzled as to why the Studio Display has a full set of iOS ‘firmware’ to support its neat but relatively modest features. Maybe in the coming year or two it will spread its wings further and show us why.
Those who had forecast the arrival of the next chip in the M series, the M2, weren’t disappointed, but some rushed to the conclusion that Apple was going to replace the M1 Pro and Max before the end of the year. This leaves just two Intel Macs still on sale as we enter 2023: a 6-core Mac mini, and the tricky Mac Pro. Those apart, Apple has completed the transition to its own chips, and made a promising start on the second series.
There are still plenty of mysteries about Apple silicon Macs. Each comes with its own hardware neural engine, promising more extensive use of AI in the future. New subsystems and folders like triald and biome have been appearing in macOS to support machine learning, and we’ve grown to love or ignore features like Visual Look Up. I’ve also been looking in broad terms at how macOS decides which type of core to run threads on, and learning what limited control the user has over that choice. We still have a great deal to discover about Apple silicon Macs and how they work their magic.
At about the same time that some of us were starting to enjoy our new Mac Studios, Apple quietly released its first new security product for macOS in many years. Its arrival wasn’t noticed for a couple of months, because it was concealed under the guise of the existing XProtect, although its behaviour and capabilities are quite different. XProtect ‘Remediator’, as it calls itself, has come on leaps and bounds since then, as an anti-malware scanner that runs once or more each day.
macOS Ventura arrived and fixed some of the bugs left lingering in Monterey, including the notorious memory leak when using the Finder’s Find feature. Its hidden depths also brought new technology in the form of the cryptex. In the transition from Catalina to Big Sur, Apple changed the boot process, abandoning the read-only System volume in favour of a hash-verified snapshot. The snag with that is that its protection is so robust that making even small changes to the System requires large updates and a lengthy installation.
Components including Safari and its supporting libraries, and large dyld caches, that weren’t suitable for the signed and sealed System snapshot, have now been locked away in secure storage. This is also being used to deliver urgent security fixes, using the Rapid Security Response (RSR) system already available in iOS, and expected in macOS 13.2 next year. Together with fortnightly updates to XProtect Remediator’s scanning modules, these should shorten the period of greatest risk before macOS can defend itself from novel malware.
Ventura has reduced the size and installation time for full macOS updates. Less appreciated by some, though, was the fact that Apple delivered what should have been a full macOS upgrade as an update, leading to many upgrading involuntarily. Users weren’t warned about this either, when Apple apparently decided not to explain or warn.
With later releases of Monterey, and more fully in Ventura, Apple introduced lightweight virtualisation of macOS and GUI Linux (Ventura only) on Apple silicon. At first this might appear intended for a small minority of users, but it has great potential for maintaining access to Intel-only apps through Rosetta 2, and as a more convenient alternative to multiple boot systems. Its great strength is near-native performance, but it’s currently marred by poor speed writing to VM storage, and most of all by its lack of support for Apple ID, hence the use of any third-party App Store products.
Ventura also brought, at long last, a replacement for System Preferences, which for years has been one of the weakest and most jumbled features in macOS. System Settings brings the design into line with Settings in iOS, a move guaranteed to upset many, although in fact the resemblance is largely superficial. It has been surprising to discover which features were forgotten, perhaps deliberately, in the hope that users wouldn’t notice their absence. Among the more significant was network Locations, which have now been restored, but Apple still has more work to do.
If System Settings makes you doubt the future independence of the macOS human interface, Stage Manager should restore confidence that Apple remains committed to innovation. In contrast to its shaky start on iPads, this new approach to managing the multitude of open windows and apps has attracted many users, including myself. What’s unfortunate is that getting the best from Stage Manager involves knacks and idioms that some users struggle to acquire. Hopefully Apple will follow up with tutorials to show what is so hard to explain in words.
Finally, just in time for Christmas, Apple released Freeform, its new collaborative diagramming app. I’m sure in the New Year many of us will be exploring what could be a compelling addition to our Macs.
Last year really wasn’t any quieter, neither will next year be.
I wish you a successful, healthy, prosperous and peaceful New Year!