Our editors discuss the M1 Macs with Walt Mossberg

Last week on The Vergecast, the crew spent some time discussing Apple’s announcement of new Mac computers with its own Arm-based processor chip, which Apple is calling the M1. This week, Vergecast co-hosts Nilay Patel and Dieter Bohn got their hands on the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with the M1 chips for review and brought their findings to this week’s episode.

Nilay and Dieter also bring in deputy editor Dan Seifert and editor Chris Welch to discuss their experiences with the new computers in regards to performance, battery life, and running iOS apps on macOS.

But before they got into all of that, The Vergecast starts the discussion with an interview with legendary tech reviewer Walt Mossberg, who was able to try out the new MacBook Air for himself. Walt gives his first impressions as well as some background behind what he calls “one of the most seminal products of the last 20 years.”

Below is a lightly edited excerpt from that conversation.

Nilay Patel: We have obviously just reviewed the new MacBook Air with Apple’s M1 chip, and you have had one as well. I’m dying to know what you think of this sort of major internal change to the Mac even though the outside kind of looks the same.

Walt Mossberg: Okay, so I just want to say one thing first: I actually believe that the MacBook — which you know and I know was the thing that the Windows guys were trying to copy for years and years — doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the seminal products of the last 20 years.

I mean, it’s not as seminal as the iPhone or the first Android phone or whatever. But it was a seminal product because light, thin laptops tended to be cramped before the MacBook Air, and there were a lot of compromises. And the MacBook Air also kind of almost tied — I think it maybe was a month before one of the ThinkPads — in having an SSD. There were a bunch of things about it that were notable. And then the 2010 one was a huge improvement, and then the 2013 one, ironically, given what’s happening now because of an Intel chip — the Haswell chip at the time — which was specifically meant to give a huge leap in battery life. I got in my test. I looked it up. I got 12 hours on it, and they were only claiming 10 different battery tests, of course.

So I think the MacBook Air is a really important consumer tech product. And I think this one is — I mean, I agree with Dieter’s review — I think it’s sort of amazing. I mean, we’ve all known they were going to do this. I’m no chip expert, processor expert, but from what I can understand, they’ve pulled off something amazing in a relatively short time. And by that, I mean it takes a long time to develop a processor. It’s not like doing some other things.

So in my use of this, I think the single thing that has impressed me most, the battery life has impressed me. I’ve not plugged this in in about 36 hours, and I have 75 percent battery life. So that’s fantastic. It’s buttery smooth. It’s fast as can be.

But the thing that really impresses me is their translation layer. This thing called Rosetta 2. They had a Rosetta when they made another processor change some years ago. And what it does is it takes apps that have not been written for this processor that were written for the Intel — which is most of the third-party apps so far — and it runs them. And I got to tell you, they run fast. They run normally. I mean, fast. If you were doing a blind test and you didn’t know this was originally written for Intel, still written for Intel, and it was running through this Rosetta thing, you would never know it. At least that’s been my experience. I don’t know if it’s been yours.

Dieter Bohn: Yeah, no, completely. To me, that’s one of the most impressive parts. Maybe if you were staring at how many times it bounced in the dock when it launched for the first time after reboot or something, you might be able to tell the difference. But otherwise, just exactly the same. And it’s my understanding that they co-developed this processor hardware with Rosetta 2 in mind and vice versa.

So I think part of what’s happening here is this whole thing where Apple says we are able to integrate hardware and software that makes our stuff really special — sometimes that seems like a true claim, and sometimes it seems like it’s more marketing than reality. I think in this particular case with Rosetta 2, it’s absolutely reality that I don’t think their translation software would have worked as well if the chip team didn’t know it was coming and they didn’t know what was on the chip. My hunch is there’s some sort of thing inside the M1 chip that is just there just to make Rosetta fast.

You can listen to the entire Vergecast discussion here or in your preferred podcast app.

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