May 20, 2021•1,038 words
Due to personal circumstances that forced me to pull the trigger on my decision to eventually get a good ultrabook, I recently got the M1 Macbook Air. I'm quite happy with it, but not so happy with having purchased it. It was a combination of being pressed for time and having few viable options for my country of Portugal. Readers of this blog already know a few of the problems I have with Apple and I usually do like to vote with my wallet. Nevertheless, this laptop matches very well with what I consider to be a good ultrabook. It's a compromise.
My experience with Apple products has never been pleasant. I remember receiving an iPod Nano from a close relative and weeks later letting them use it instead. The absence of any customisation has always confused me as a user, makes it harder for me to do anything, not easier. I later had to interact with the Apple ecosystem as part of publishing apps to iOS and the experience hasn't been any better. Again, Apple fights you all the way if you're not using the thing to do the thing as they expect you to. If you only have a Mac Mini to compile apps, it's gonna need an update when you need it to work. If you need to test different apps in different devices, installing all of them is a pain.
Meanwhile, I had been looking for what I like to call "a real laptop", one that can easily be useful as an everyday carry. In my case, useful for development, design, working on the web and not so much gaming (although I love playing games). Theoretically, my options could range not only between the Thinkpads and the Dells, but also include the latest models from Microsoft, Asus, LG or HP. And let's not forget Linux laptops like the ones from Slimbook or Tuxedo. But in practice, a couple of important points start shooting down a lot of these options. For work, I really need a screen that's at least 16:10 or 3:2 and a keyboard layout in my native language. Also, in Portugal it seems that the only companies that actually sell these premium laptops themselves are Apple or Microsoft. And going through resellers in the middle of a spike in laptop demand means you either get price gouged or the model you're looking for isn't available anytime soon. While on the other hand, distribution wise, clearly the one company that really wants to sell you a laptop in Portugal is Apple. Their site has the thing, you buy it and they'll deliver it. This is similar to Microsoft but on a much more commited level.
Still this is not about making the choice that is possibly less bad. Until recently, I would simply never buy a macbook given its uncomfortable keyboards and questionable value for money in terms of performance per wattage. And the lack of repairability is still very much an issue. But the M1 Macbook Air changed that by leaning into what Apple does best. Yes, it's still a Mac but it's also kind of an iPad with a keyboard. Meaning, huge battery life, zero fan noise and the best performance you can get under those restraints. A lot of laptop manufacturers and reviewers are still playing in a different field, they are selling gaming rigs disguised as student laptops so parents will buy them for their kids. Or they are B2B solutions that I can't hardly access as a consumer in my country. Or they're cool independent shops but with chassis that seem to lag at least a year behind major brands. I've personally used several laptops in my life but, up to now, they were never truly portable. Even my Microsoft Surface Pro required charging it throughout the day and had issues with sleep mode. This Macbook Air weights almost just as much, the charger stays home and I almost never shut it down.
The final hurdle that I couldn't be bothered to jump over was MacOS. Only used it at work and I still think that it has a very weird learning curve. You either do exactly as Apple wants you to or you're suddenly confronted with hidden hotkeys and terminal commands. Still, learning a new OS is not some gigantic task, I just had to be willing to invest the time (I've used every version of Windows and a few Linux distros). Unlike iOS, you can still change a lot about your MacOS setup. And one thing that makes it usable that also matches my long-time workflow, is using it with the trackpad and putting everything in full screen. I personally don't like splitting the screen too much and prefer switching between virtual desktops. The other thing that MacOS kind of requires if you want to make it work for you is deliberately paying for software. Again, I don't have an issue with that, specially when you can still make a one-time purchase and get the full application.
These are still my first impressions, so I'll just end this very subjective purchase review with a few things that surprised me with my current setup and my first Macbook in general:
The zsh command line is always just a key press away (iTerm2).
It's easy to monitor temperature, network usage and other system stats from the menu bar (iStatsMenu).
Passwords can be very accessible with the fingerprint reader (1Password).
Non-native electron apps like Discord have the worst performance... and yet I've been in a group video-chat for a whole afternoon and the battery was still above 10%.
Vivaldi is actually a good option on MacOS since you can move your tabs to the bottom of the window which, in full screen, avoids having the menu bar pop up every time you reach for them. On the other hand, Firefox is noticeably slower in this OS.
The screenshot tool that can also record your screen is actually very configurable and definitely better than the one on Windows.