Life so far with a 2020 13″ MacBook Pro

I recently switched from using a Mid-2015 15″ MacBook Pro to a 2020 13″ MacBook Pro with Apple’s Silicon M1 chip. It was a Big Deal in the sense that my computer is a primary daily tool in my personal and professional life. So much of my work, my creativity and the management of my life is handled through this one device, so it’s always a little scary to make a change. (I actually could have been happy continuing with my previous laptop if its battery hadn’t been expanding, causing the entire computer to bulge in weird and alarming ways.)

Here are a couple of things I observed in making this transition and in using the MacBook every day since:

Apples to Apples

My previous MacBook Pro was pretty high end (2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 Processor, 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM, Intel Iris Pro 1536 MB Graphics, 1TB HD) and very fast for the things I used it for. These included software development, hosting multiple software development environments, audio and video editing and rendering, graphic design and photo editing, and LOTS of browse tabs. It took everything I could throw at it and I never felt slowed down by the computer itself.

So the idea of “downgrading” to a smaller screen (13″ instead of 15″), fewer ports, and the same amount of RAM but 5 years later was a bit nerve-wracking.  Conventional wisdom for a long time was that 13″ MacBook Pros were fine for some kinds of advanced computing but that the 15″ model was always the best option for the kinds of things I use it for. Maybe this was just me naively buying into Apple’s marketing, but it seemed to be supported by testimonials from colleagues over the years, and was a strong narrative in my head nonetheless.

But I’d heard and read that the Apple Silicon M1 chip was a game-changer, and that any comparison between Intel and the newer processors was not really valid. And after seeing enough stories from real users where they said the new chip plus 16GB of RAM was even faster running some of the same software I do, even with Rosetta 2 translation turned on, I was sold.

The huge leap forward in terms of speed and performance turns out to be real, at least in my experience. Everything the new machine does is super fast; instead of any feeling that I’m using a lower end machine, I feel like I’ve gotten a huge upgrade to my daily computing experience. And given the price difference, that’s a really nice value.

Goodbye Vagrant, Hello Valet

On my old machine, I used Vagrant all day every day, in the form of VVV (a local developer environment for WordPress work) and Homestead (a local development environment for Laravel work). Since Vagrant was created to emulate the x86/Intel architecture, and since Apple decided not to support virtualization in their launch of the Rosetta 2 translator, and since creating a version of Vagrant that would support the M1 chip (which uses that ARM architecture) would basically be a matter of rewriting it from scratch, it quickly became clear that I would not be able to keep using those tools.

I will admit that I did not research this change very much at all before purchasing the new MacBook Pro. The implications were huge, and yet the detail about Apple not supporting virtualization was a little bit buried in a developer note on the Apple website:

Oops. I got pretty stuck on this for a bit, frustrated at the idea that I might have to rework my development workflows and environments. I spent way too long crawling through forums and GitHub issue discussions looking for hope or a solution, and finding very little. And I felt silly and embarrassed for so completely trusting that everything would just work in the midst of a huge architecture transition where I was an early user.

In the end, I decided that I was still excited enough about all the other quality of life improvements I was experiencing that it would be worth finding a new option for my development environments.

So I started fresh on the question of what recommended options are out there for people doing WordPress and Laravel work. I pretty quickly landed on Laravel Valet as my best bet and started making the transition. Austen Cameron has a particularly helpful blog post here and after some detours in getting Homebrew working (the latest version 3 includes native ARM support and eliminates some of these hassles) I was up and running. For each project I wanted to bring over, I was largely able to just import the MySQL database, copy over the repository, find/replace some things and then it was ready. My biggest blip was forgetting that using a virtual environment had protected me from things like email generated from development applications going out onto the real Internet; I learned that lesson quickly and reconfigured my PHP setup accordingly.

Having used Laravel Valet now for a few weeks, I’m actually really happy with it. Gone are the days are waiting for heavy virtual machines to boot or provision, and maintaining the additional tool stack to support them. Valet is fast to start/stop, easy to manage and super fast. So I guess on the whole I ended up with an improvement in this part of my tooling, just one I wasn’t planning on.

Dongle and Accessory Madness

Following the Apple transition to using USB-C over the last few years, I’d already made peace with the idea that at some point I was going to have to transition all of my various dongles to that standard. (I guess there are rumors that 2021 MacBook Pro models may bring back some other ports, but such is life as an Apple user.) The additional change in form factor from 15″ to 13″ meant a few other accessories would need replacing.

But I’m not exactly known for being an accessory minimalist, as I’m more likely to be the person who shows up with an adapter for every possible situation. “Sure, we can get that 30-pin dock connector iPad hooked up to a VGA monitor, just a minute!” I’m also happily using some older hardware like an Apple Thunderbolt Display at the center of my home office setup, and wasn’t planning to upgrade that too.

So I knew if I wanted to be as prepared in this new USB-C world, I knew I’d be spending a bit on the notoriously expensive dongles and accessories.

So far, I’m happy working with:

These are on top of various other Thunderbolt 2 and USB adapters I’ll keep in the mix, since in theory with the above I can rig up the right combination to handle pretty much anything.

For the record, it’s disappointing that Apple has created such a ridiculous and preventable situation for its longtime laptop users when it comes to adapters.

Other Observations

A few other things I’ve noticed:

  • I do notice the slightly smaller screen size when I’m coding on just my laptop without having it attached to a monitor. It mostly means more scrolling through files and isn’t a big deal. I think the first time I try to work on an airplane or carry it around for a few hours, I’ll appreciate the smaller size a bit more.
  • SSD speed has clearly improved in the last 5 years, as filesystem operations are noticeably faster. It’s great.
  • Having Touch ID is a nice improvement in terms of entering passwords less often. It works so quickly and reliably that I still can’t believe it’s actually reading a fingerprint.
  • I occasionally check if the software I’m using has added ARM/Silicon support. Some developers are not offering an auto-update path between their v86/Intel versions and ARM/Silicon M1, requiring a manual download and install process. Almost all of the big ones are native now, which is nice.
  • Related, it’s clear that the architecture change has been a big deal for some software developers. A few have told me they just don’t plan on releasing a Silicon-compatible version at all. Others seem to be encountering bugs with resource usage that they’re taking a while to fix. Others are taking the opportunity to do a paid upgrade, which is fine but created a round of license purchasing I had to do to get my system back to working order after the change. I can see how it might be hard for someone on a tight budget to plan for all the unexpected costs of making this change.
  • Transferring files from the old computer to the new computer over a Thunderbolt cable was very fast and easy once I got past an issue where the Thunderbolt port didn’t have its own entry in Network Preferences on the old machine, and therefore couldn’t self-assign an IP Address and make itself available to the new computer. I understand that Apple recommends Wi-Fi as the default transfer option that most users will be able to get working right away, but I was glad for the faster transfer speed.
  • I don’t like the Touch Bar. Enough has been written about this elsewhere that I won’t bother elaborating beyond saying that it distracts and confuses me more than it helps me. Maybe I’ll get more used to it over time.

Lest any of the above be read as complaining, let me say that on the whole I’m VERY pleased with this change and I enjoy using the 13″ MacBook Pro every time I sit down with it. As a tool central to so many parts of my life, I feel fortunate to have a shiny new version that further enables my creativity and productivity in noticeable ways.

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Chris Hardie

I'm a deep generalist, currently focused on software engineering + writing + the open web.

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