Apple Silicon MacBook Air – Unboxing and Initial Thoughts

MacBook Air

If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you will know that my personal operating system of choice is Ubuntu. I’ve used Ubuntu since 2006, first as a local development server (a physical box hooked up my local network), and then switched to using it as my daily driver in 2008. I had short stint being forced to work on Windows between 2011 and 2015 at the company I was contracting for but I have used it pretty much exclusively since 2016. I do keep a Windows install around as a dual boot option on my home workstation, for gaming. Whenever I buy new computer hardware or a new laptop, I make sure I can install the latest LTS version of Ubuntu on it without running into any problems.

You may also know, if you know me personally, that I’ve also avoided using Apple products. The only caveat being an iPad I keep around, mostly to test out iOS browser-related bugs. During my time at Castos, I am also on record as saying that if Craig ever bought me a MacBook as a work laptop, I’d install Ubuntu on it.

You are probably wondering then why I now own an Apple Silicon MacBook Air?

The answer to this is partly related to my work, partly related to the new Apple silicon, and partly related to what I actually use my laptop for these days.

The last laptop upgrade I purchased was the ASUS Zenbook 15 UX533FD, which I still love. It’s fast, light, has an amazing battery life (even running a Linux-based OS, which is known for not having the best power management), and I’ve had absolutely no problems with it since I bought it. However, I recently changed from being a full-time developer to being a creator of written content that developers consume. As a result, I’ve realized that not having access to macOS when a large portion of my audience is using it means I cannot perform my role effectively.

I’m also really interested in Apple’s decision to switch to its own Apple Silicon with the M1 chips. Regardless of what you think of Apple (and I am pretty vocal in my opinions), they are a leader when it comes to the personal computer space. Many of the innovations they pioneered in Steve Jobs’s time are considered the norm today. With the advent of the new AMD Ryzen 5000 mobile processors and NVIDIA to acquire Arm, mobile processor manufacturing has become really interesting, and the Apple M1 chip is paving the way.

And lastly, I find that I’m using my “developer spec” laptop less and less these days. I recently saved up and built a new workstation-slash-gaming PC at my office, and my old workstation-slash-gaming PC is at my home, so I’m pretty set up with computing for both home and work. Because I don’t develop full time anymore, my laptop is mostly used as a research and writing tool, when I want to do some work away from my desk.

So, I decided to try out a MacBook Air, as a replacement for my Asus Zenbook. As I mentioned, it comes with the 8-core Apple M1 chip, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB hard drive. If I were shopping for a new non-Apple laptop for the same price, I’d probably get another Asus Zenbook, specifically the ZenBook 14 UM425. For exactly the same price as the MacBook Air, I can get one with the AMD Ryzen 5700U processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB hard drive.

Unboxing

So the advantage of buying Apple products is their focus on the user experience. From the little levers on the side of the packaging box that pushes the laptop box out so you can get hold of it, to the little pull tab on the plastic covering around the laptop. Everything has a place and purpose, and that purpose is to make it easier for you to get started. However, I do wonder why they also wrap the power adapter in the same plastic sleeve as the laptop? In the box are the laptop, power adapter, USB Type-C cable, the manual, and the obligatory Apple stickers.

While Apple is definitely still the king of packaging, products I’ve purchased from companies like Samsung and Asus indicate that they have caught up to the trend and are close behind. That might also explain why their products are generally a bit more expensive than they used to be.

Initial Thoughts

What follows are my initial thoughts while setting up and using the MacBook Air for the first time.

I find the default touchpad click action interesting. On my Zenbook, I really enjoyed that it defaulted to “tap to click” and I’d gotten used to that. It didn’t take long to change it on the Macbook, but it was curious. I do see, however, why folks like the MacBook touchpad. It is very nice to use for long periods of time. I still prefer a mouse and am pleasantly surprised that my Logitech Triathlon Mouse easily connected via Bluetooth and just worked.

macOS is very, VERY iOS-like. I guess that’s the point; eventually, the experience should be exactly the same across all devices.

I really don’t like Finder! I’ve heard the same from a few Mac users, but Finder, as a way to launch applications, sucks. I don’t clutter my launcher/dock with many shortcuts. In this case, I still prefer the Ubuntu application launcher. Click it and start typing the application name you’re looking for, and it’s usually selected within three keystrokes. Then just hit enter to launch it. I want to see if Apple can be configured the same way, but I’m not holding my breath. I also really don’t like that Finder is also used to explore the hard drive and the fact that I had to find and pin my home directory to Finder to access it easily. I do miss having a separate hard drive explorer.

Installing Homebrew as a package manager is, in my humble opinion, daft! (There are other words I could use here, but I tend to keep this blog family-friendly) Many developers I know swear by Apple computers for regular development. Still, you have to install a 3rd party package manager to install any software to turn it into a development machine? I honestly can’t believe this. Why does macOS not have a default package manager?

I’m not enjoying the keyboard. I have big hands, and the tiny Enter key is going to be painful. I keep hitting the \ key. I also miss not having a number pad. 😢 I’ve obviously not used the keyboard on the Zenbook 14, but if it’s anything like the 15 I’m used to, it’s streets ahead. The touch ID button is cool though, even if it does sometimes not work due to my oily skin.

Daft design decision by Apple #2. The MacBook Air only comes with 2 USB-type C/Thunderbolt ports. To connect this to any regular external monitor, projector, wired network, or even just a USB stick, I’m going to need to buy a USB-C adapter. In contrast, the Zenbook I mentioned earlier comes with a built-in USB type C, USB type A, HDMI, and SD Card reader.

It’s this kind of “do it our way or buy more peripherals” Apple BS I typically dislike them from in the first place. For example, when I purchased my Asus Zenbook, it came bundled with a USB/RJ45 network jack, as the laptop didn’t have a network port. I’d rather Apple left out the stickers and bundled an adapter with the laptop.

WTF was wrong with CTRL + X and CTRL + V!!!

OK, so I have to admit, the battery life is pretty amazing, which I already knew. It was at 75% when I started. I had it running most of the first day and into the evening setting things up, and it was still at 30% when I opened it the next day. Again, this was something I knew going in, and it does not disappoint.

I am looking forward to trying out any Mac-only applications I’ve missed out on. There are a couple that have looked really interesting that I’d love to give a spin.

Manually needing to add my SSH key to the ssh-agent was an extra step I didn’t anticipate. Again, I know so many people who swear by Apple for their development, I can’t understand why they never mention this. It’s probably because they know to perform them, but it still seems silly not to make these things default, especially given that macOS is built on a Unix-like platform.

I can live without not having an HDMI port or a card reader, but I do wish this thing had at least one USB type-A port!

Ok, along with the battery life, the complete lack of noise is pretty damn amazing. My Zenbook was mostly quiet, but the fans did spin up from time to time, even doing low-intensity tasks. This thing obviously has passive cooling, as I’ve not heard any noise from its internals whatsoever.

Application installs that download as a dmg image and then need to be unmounted afterward are a pain and should burn in hell. I guess there is a setting to auto-unmount these somewhere, and I’m surprised it’s not enabled.

I can’t install my HP printer. 😞 It probably needs a new driver for the M1 chip, as the Mac printer driver on the HP site doesn’t seem to be usable.

Being able to access emoji via a keyboard shortcut is pretty cool! 🎉

To be continued…

Overall, it’s not complete hatred for the MacBook. There are some things I like and some that I really don’t. I do think I need to use it for a decent amount of time to give it a fair shot. So at some point, I intend to use it as my daily driver for at least a week. But first I have to buy a f***ing adapter!

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