The M1 Lifestyle: “Snappy”

For the second time in as many months I did something I’ve never done before; placed an order for a new Apple product right after the keynote event where it was announced. As previously blogged, I ordered a new Apple Watch Series 6 after the Time Flies event in September. Last month I ordered a new Apple Silicon M1 Mac mini to replace my aging iMac (21.5-inch, Mid 2011).

The Back Story

The iMac was a gift from my cousin Ann. It had belonged to my Uncle A.J., who passed in April of 2015. I kept it updated up to the latest operating system it could run (macOS 10.13 High Sierra). I’m sure I also stressed it much more than my uncle ever did with lots of menu bar utilities and Adobe Creative Cloud software. It was a work truck, but showing its age. Some iCloud services were no longer syncing reliably, partly because of the age of the OS. It was slow and prone to spinning beachballs. I couldn’t upgrade to the 2021 versions of the Adobe creative software apps as they didn’t run on High Sierra. And most disturbingly, it appeared that the graphics system was going out. The displays, both the built in and a connected Apple Cinema Display HD, would spontaneously flash little multicolored checkerboards at random intervals and areas across the screen. I knew I needed a new Mac sooner than later, but because of Apple’s June WWDC announcement of new Macs based on their own silicon design coming before year’s end, I wanted to wait until the announcement to see if one of the new systems would fit my needs and budget. I was hoping for an iMac or a Mac mini. My wait was rewarded and shortly after Apple’s One More Thing event on November 10, I ordered the M1 Mac mini.

My First Mac mini

This is the first time I’ve purchased a new Mac that didn’t have a built in display or come with a keyboard and mouse. Because of that, it’s also the least expensive Mac I’ve ever bought. Every Mac I’ve purchased since 1987 through 2018 (there have been five) were all on the high side of $2K. Since I did have a keyboard, mouse, and display, the Mac mini was the perfect fit and I could afford to bump up the specs and spend less than $1,500.

The New Setup

Photo of new M1 Mac mini setup on desk with two displays and peripherals.
The new M1 Mac mini setup.

My new M1 Mac mini has 16 GB of memory and 1 TB of storage.

The monitor on the left is an LG UltraFine 4K display (21.5-inch). This monitor was a gift from my father a few months ago. He used it as an external display for a 2017 MacBook Pro (the first generation with a Touch Bar), that he eventually sold and replaced with a 27-inch iMac. It had been in his basement, so he generously sent it to me for an external monitor for our 2018 MacBook Air so I would at least have a backup machine in case the old iMac went completely kaput before I could replace it.

Since I was used to a two-monitor setup, I knew I would want another display. On the recommendation of Dave Hamilton and John F. Braun of the Mac Geek Gab podcast, I purchased the Monoprice 27-inch CrystalPro UHD 4K monitor (on the right). Even though Apple worked directly with LG to produce the UltraFine displays back when Apple stopped making and selling their own, out of the box the Monoprice display seems, to my eye, to have a more accurate white point. The LG display looks to have a bit of a blue cast in comparison. I have not done any calibration on either yet — one of many things on the list for refining the new setup.

Peripherals attached include:

  • Fantom Drives G-Force MegaDisk 3 TB hard drive (Time Machine backup)
  • Anker 10-port USB 3 hub (three ports are charging only)
  • Western Digital MyBook 1 TB hard drive (file archives)
  • Western Digital MyPassport 1 TB hard drive (file archives clone)
  • Epson Perfection 4490 Photo flatbed scanner (I have not yet tested this with the new Mac and Big Sur — the software from Epson is not compatible, so I have to find an alternative.)
  • Wacom Graphire graphics tablet (from 2004 — it still works as an input device, even without specific drivers, and I can draw with it, but the pressure sensitivity is no longer recognized by any software I have tried lately.)
  • Anker PowerWave Stand (Qi-certified, upgraded since I purchased)
  • Apple iPhone Lightning Dock — White (only available in black or gold now)
  • MacAlly Solar Powered Slim Bluetooth Keyboard for Mac
  • Apple Magic Mouse (generation 1 — the one with replaceable AA batteries)
  • Altec Lansing stereo computer speakers (I’ve had these for years)

That’s how it stands for now. As mentioned, there is a list of things to do and things to purchase as time goes on, but for now I can be productive with this initial setup.

Week One Impressions

During the initial setup my main first impression was, “Wow, this Mac is snappy!” That word has been thrown around a lot in many reviews of the new M1 Macs I’ve read. Even to the point of being perceived as hyperbole. It’s not a bad adjective for the experience, but one could also say “this Mac flies” or “it’s wicked fast”. Granted, I’m coming from an overburdened, nine-year-old iMac. But even our two-year-old MacBook Air is not as “snappy” as this new Mac mini. Apple has done something extraordinary in computing with their own systems on a chip (SoC). They have created a computer that is quiet, efficient, cool, and fast. Usually there are tradeoffs among those characteristics, but not with the M1.

System Setup

Instead of setting this up as a brand new machine, letting my cloud documents sync down and reinstalling all my apps, etc., I chose to migrate the system over from the iMac and see if I could get up and running faster. Actually I used a clone of the system on an external hard drive for it’s ease of implementation.

Usually, migrating a previous system to a new Mac is a processor-intensive, fan-spinning, slow process. I’ve never migrated a system from an old Mac to a new Mac as easily and quickly as this time, however. I could tell it was hitting the new M1 SoC pretty hard as the Mac mini’s cooling system did come on. Although I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t put my hand behind the enclosure and felt the air coming out. It was moving quite forcefully, but was not hot. It was completely silent, however — no fan noise whatsoever.

Initially, Migration Assistant indicated it would take three plus hours to complete the transfer, which was in line with my past experience. I got up to let it do it’s thing while I did a little Christmas decorating around the house (this was Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.). About ten minutes later I wandered back into the room where I was setting up the new Mac mini and Migration Assistant now said it would be done in about 20 minutes.

Photo of the Migration Assistant screen while setting up my new M1 Mac mini.
Only 22 minutes left?

What‽ Never have I had a migration go so fast. I wonder how quickly it would have finished if my previous system clone had been on an SSD?

When the Mac mini booted up in macOS 11 Big Sur and I logged into my user account I was immediately overwhelmed with notifications and alerts asking for various system permissions for numerous software programs that launched at startup. I was so used to the old iMac’s startup routine taking ten minutes or more for all my menu bar utilities to load. I was unprepared for how fast this new system loaded everything, seemingly all at once.

It took some sorting out and a little time on my part to get through all these initial setup tasks. I lost count of how many times I entered my Apple ID and password as well as the new admin password for my user — at least I got a head start on impressing it into muscle memory. But after a while things settled down and I moved on to testing old software, installing updates, uninstalling incompatible apps, and installing new software (Adobe Creative Cloud apps, specifically).

Snappiness

There’s that word again. The thing that brought this most pointedly to my attention was opening apps, specifically the Apple apps that have been updated specifically for Big Sur on Apple silicon.

On the old iMac, I kept my music and photos libraries on external drives since the internal storage was only 512 GB. I upgraded the M1 Mac mini at the time of purchase to the 1 TB storage option so I could move my music and photos back on to the internal storage. The process was pretty seamless using Apple’s Music, Books, Podcasts, and TV apps to consolidate their respective media from the external drive back into place on the Mac mini. Moving the Photos library was even simpler — copying the library file from the external drive to the Pictures folder in my user’s Home folder, then double-clicking the library file to launch Photos.

When I first launched Photos I was blow away by the fact that the window opened immediately with all photo thumbnails fully visible before the icon on the dock had finished bouncing once. There was no delay to draw the thumbnails in the window as the individual photos were read from disk. This same almost-instant launch of apps is the new normal for those that are compiled for the M1 or are universal (contain both Intel-native and Apple silicon code). I’ve never experienced anything like it. Ready to launch an app and do some work (or play)? Click the dock icon and BAM, the machine is ready for you to start! No more waiting around for windows to render or files to load —they are just there on screen waiting for you to do something.

Real World Production

After getting licenses transferred and apps updated, I am enjoying a new working environment for my telecommuting graphic design production. The main Adobe Creative Cloud app — the one that manages my account subscription and installs/updates the individual applications (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDeisgn, and the like) — updated itself to an M1-native beta version, which is “snappy” and has so far worked great, except it did not recognize the 2020 versions of creative apps I already had installed, so I could not just tell it to update everything to the 2021 versions and migrate all my user settings and preferences. This I had to do manually.

The creative apps that I use mostly are not yet M1 native, so they run in Apple’s translation environment, Rosetta 2. Apple has done it’s best to make sure that Intel-based applications that are translated with Rosetta 2 work as expected (just as if they were running on an Intel Mac). The Adobe apps are no exception. They are not “snappy”, but they do load faster and perform better than they did on the old Intel iMac I was using. I’d say they launch in about half the time it took on the iMac. So, even though they are not yet optimized for Apple’s silicon, I am experiencing a much more responsive working environment. All the features that I’ve put to the test have worked and I’ve had no unexplained crashes. This is all anecdotal and only over three days of working, but It’s a more enjoyable experience by far.

Moving Forward

There’s still a bunch of tweaking and app updates to go (when developers get M1-native versions out) before I have the new setup where I want it. But for the time being I am very pleased and glad I jumped onto the leading edge of Apple’s Macintosh offerings. Considering these are the first generation Apple silicon Macs, and the slowest of this class we are likely to see as the rest of the Mac line transitions to Apple SoCs, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending to anyone needing a new Mac computer to choose any of the new M1 macs. This is the future of Mac computing, available now!

Fruit Flies Like an Apple

Apple Time Flies logo.

Yesterday Apple presented part of it’s annual fall new product introductions in a pandemic-friendly, highly-produced, pre-recorded video event titled, Time Flies. I say “part of” because there was no mention of new iPhones, which would be expected in a mid-September announcement, if this was a different kind of 2020. More on what was not announced below.

What Apple did announce was right in line with most of the leaks and rumors reported by too many reporters, bloggers, tech pundits, “analysts”, and YouTubers. The hardware announcements included the Apple Watch Series 6, a new mid-range Apple Watch SE (the series 3 is still available at the entry level), an updated iPad (gen. 8), and a new iPad Air (gen. 4) sporting the design language of the iPad Pro line. On the software/services side there were segments about new apps on the new watch—most notably the ability to take a blood oxygen reading, a Family Setup option for Apple Watch that provides the ability for multiple family members to have an Apple Watch that’s managed by a single family member, a new subscription service called Fitness+ that integrates with the watch and provides video training for 10 different kinds of workouts viewable on any Apple device screen ($10/month or $80/year, available late 2020), and a service bundle called Apple One with three price tiers (Individual: $15/month, Family: $20/month, and Premier: $30/month). Check out the links for all the details.

If you’d like to read Apple’s stories on all the announcements, point your browser to Apple’s Newsroom for the official press releases. For the moment Apple’s Fall 2020 Keynote is at the top of the feed. It’s also well worth the little over an hour to view the video of the keynote in order to get the full experience of the new “reality distortion field”.

For some thoughtful first-impression analysis, you can do no better than reading John Gruber’s “Brief Thoughts and Observations on Today’s ‘Time Flies’ Apple Event”. If you prefer videos, tune in to Rene Ritchie’s YouTube channel.

I do have to say I do like the way Apple is making announcements by presenting these pre-recorded keynotes during the COVID-19 pandemic (both for WWDC 2020 and these fall announcements). They are certainly missing a specific energy that only a live audience can provide, but these recorded keynotes provide an opportunity for Apple to tell a very tightly controlled and concise story about their hardware, software, and services. Another aspect I really enjoy are the transitions from segment to segment where the viewer is seemingly flying through the Apple campus, inside and out—with a couple of comedic cameos by Craig Federighi in the Time Flies event video. It’s like getting a privately guided tour of parts of Apple’s headquarters that most of us will never get so see in person, albeit a very speedy one.

Apple Watch Series 6 gold aluminum with product red sport loop band.
The gold aluminum Apple Watch Series 6 with a (PRODUCT)RED sport loop band that I ordered.

This keynote marks an historic occasion for me personally. It’s the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a new Apple product on the same day as it’s announced. That’s right, I ordered an Apple Watch Series 6 a few hours later. I had several Apple Store gift cards burning a whole in my virtual Wallet app on my iPhone. I’ve been wanting to upgrade to a newer version for a couple of years, but this time I actually followed through. It should be delivered about September 30. It’s not a moment too soon, either. Last evening when I was going to bed after placing the order I noticed that my current Apple Watch Series 1 screen has begun popping off of the case.

Apple Watch Series 1 on a wrist. The display is coming off of the case.
My Apple Watch Series 1 with the display coming off of the case.

Near the end, Tim Cook made a somewhat passing announcement that the new operating systems would be available today (Wednesday, September 16). Specifically, iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7, and tvOS 14. I will be waiting until the weekend before my new watch arrives to upgrade my iPhone 11 Pro, however. The main reason being that this last-minute announcement has caught a lot of developers off guard. They were provided less than 24 hours notice of when the public will have access to the new operating systems. Normally they would have about a week to get the final adjustments to their apps made before the operating systems went live (thanks, 2020!). I’m not in a hurry and want to make sure that the developers of the apps I use have time to get their iOS 14–compatible updates submitted and through the review process before I upgrade my iPhone.

Lastly; what wasn’t announced. There was no word on the release date of macOS 11 Big Sur. There was no mention of Macs. We recently got updates to the Intel iMacs, but we were told at WWDC that the first Macs with Apple’s ARM-based SoCs would be out before the end of the year (there have been rumors and/or leaks regarding an Apple silicon MacBook coming soon). And as mentioned up top, nothing about this year’s new iPhones. We know there will be some if for no other reason than on Apple’s Q3 financial results call the CFO specifically set expectations that this year’s iPhones would be “a few weeks later” than usual. My suspicion is that there will be another announcement event sometime in October to tell the story of the iPhones 12 (I thought this was supposed to be an 11S year), more features of iOS 14 that depend on the new hardware, the first Apple silicon Mac, and when macOS 11 Big Sur will be available. And maybe, just maybe, “one more thing”, although the talk of the tech pundits would lead me to believe there might be two or three “one more things”.

One thing for sure is there is no shortage of rumors and speculation about what Apple’s going to do in the future. When/if they actually do, we’ll find out when Apple tells us.

My Favorite Things: Part 2

Sometime in the first couple of months of the 2020 pandemic shelter-at-home period, my wife and I rewatched one of our favorite movie musicals of all time, The Sound of Music. Every time I see it my heart is filled with euphoria at the sweet sound of Julie Andrews’ voice as she masterfully delivers unforgettable song after song. One of those songs, sung to the Von Trapp children on her first night as governess to calm their fears during a late-winter thunderstorm, is titled, “My Favorite Things”.*

Keeping Apps Up to Date

The practice of listing things to be grateful for is a recommendation for dealing with the stress and uncertainty of these times. So I thought I’d take a cue from that song and make a series of blog posts on some of my favorite things related to Apple specifically and technology in general. In this second installment I’d like to share with you my favorite app for helping me keep applications on my Macs up to date.

If you only use the applications provided by Apple with the operating system or only add apps from the Mac App Store, then this may not really apply to you as those get updated automatically by Apple with OS updates and by turning on “Install app updates” in the App Store preference pane in System Preferences.

Screen shot of the App Store preference pane in System Preferences for macOS.
The App Store preference pane in System Preferences. Check the “Install app updates” box for your Mac App Store purchases/downloads to get updated automatically.

But if you install applications (utilities, games, etc.) from third-party software developers by downloading from websites, you may find that they don’t all have built-in mechanisms for keeping themselves updated to the latest versions. As the old Apple marketing campaign used to say, “There’s an app for that.”

My Favorite is actually a website/app combo from CoreCode called MacUpdater. The website is macupdater.net and it gives you free access to their database of all Mac apps, which provides information on their current versions. You can search for the app’s name that you want to find out if there is an update and use the tools on the website to download the update, either through the Mac App Store or from the developer’s website. But this is still somewhat of a manual operation—there’s a better way.

Screen shot of the MacUpdater.net website in Safari for macOS.
The MacUpdater.net website.

Download their desktop app, appropriately called MacUpdater. It’s also free to download and use. When you run the app, it scans your Mac for all installed applications, calls home (you need an active Internet connection) and compares the versions on your Mac with the latest version in their database, and presents you with a list of apps that have updates/upgrades available. You can tell it to “update all” or click on update buttons for each one in the list manually, whatever works best for your situation. It can even run in the background and automatically update apps when they become available.

Screen shot of the MacUpdater app window after scanning the internal drive for apps that need updating.
The MacUpdater app after a scan.

It doesn’t work with every single app, but when it has a problem updating an app, it will notify you of the issue and usually download the installer and launch it for you so you can proceed with the update/upgrade. It won’t automatically upgrade any apps where there’s an upgrade fee—for those you will still need to deal directly with the software developer for the app in question..

The free version lets you update up to 10 apps on your system. I believe that is per session/scan. You are limited to 4 manual scans every 18 hours (this applies to the full paid version, the limit for the “free” version may be lower). The full version is only $9.99 U.S. (same in €). It’s a one-time purchase and not a subscription. The blurb about it on their website has the infinity symbol next to it, which I assume means it’s a lifetime license—you’ll never have to pay again even when MacUpdater gets updated. You can use it on up to 5 Macs with that one license.

Now, there may be some confusion in that there is another similar website/app service combo called MacUpdate (with no “r” on the end). The website is macupdate.com. They also have a desktop app you can download to scan and update apps on your system. It can be downloaded for free, but I’m not sure of it’s “free” features and/or limitations. I did use it years ago when it was totally free, but when they went to a paid subscription model, I just decided to monitor my app updates manually on my own (until MacUpdater came into my consciousness, thanks to one of my favorite podcasts, MacGeekGab). The MacUpdate app is $20 for six months. This is not the one I’m recommending. But feel free to check it out—you may like it.

*By the way, “My Favorite Things” is not really a Christmas song, even though many musical artists have covered it on their Christmas albums over the past 60+ years. First, in the chronology of the musical, it was sung in late February or early March 1938. Second, the lyrics don’t mention Christmas at all. There are references to mittens, packages, sleigh bells, snowflakes, and winter—all of which could be inferred to be images related to Christmas, but could just as easily not.

317 Days

Holy mackinoly! It’s been 317 days since my last post—my bad. That’s 86.85% of a common year, or 10 months and 12 days, or 45 weeks and 2 days, or 7,608 hours, or 456,480 minutes, or 27,388,800 seconds. Man, that’s time. Now, before you get to thinking that I’m some kind of a date math whiz kid, first of all I’m no longer a kid, and second, I found this handy-dandy website called timeanddate.com. They have a bunch of cool stuff to explore, like world clocks, time zones, calendars, weather, sun and moon cycles, timers, and calculators (what I used to figure this out). Something to do while sheltered at home. They even have some iOS apps that might be fun to download and have on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad.

There are a number of things I’ve been ruminating on for sharing here, so stay tuned—I hope to ramp up the frequency of my posts very soon.

Apple gives developers a hug.

Apple gives developers a hug.

Dave Wiskus writing for Macworld:

Those of us who make software tend to see our industry through the lens of what came before us: a scrappy group of nerds banded together to start software companies and change the world. It’s easy to continue to cast ourselves as the underdogs, but the truth is that we won. Technology is cool now. People are buying computing devices and software at a rate unmatched in history. All kinds of people like this stuff, and now Apple is empowering and encouraging us to make software for all kinds of people.

As a user (not a developer), I agree with Mr. Wiskus’ take on Apple’s WWDC keynote. Last year I thought we were seeing the emerging of Tim Cook’s Apple. This year it’s beginning to blossom.

Be sure to watch the short WWDC Developer Reactions video.