Mild Dermatographia



Macbook Air M1

software

My 1st gen surface book became nigh unusable in September 2021 after maybe 4 years of use; the keyboard would continuously disconnect from the tablet (I presume because a loose fit and the pins losing their connection), the screen has some major burn-in issues, the battery life had dropped to almost nothing, and the CPU would struggle to achieve anything. I imagine all this, minus the keyboard issues, were caused by me using it pretty heavily for CAD, programming, and occasional gaming; I get the impression it was never designed to sustain high loads for long periods of time, despite its purported productivity pedigree. In any case, I had just started my first semester of grad school and discovered that I had midterms which would be done in MATLAB on our personal laptops. In a fit of moderate panic, I bought the M1 Macbook Air, with its price-to-performance actually seeming pretty amazing compared to similar ultrabooks, and also being cheaper than any reasonably powerful non-mac laptop as a student. I used it from early October until late February, when some major software incompatibilities described below effectively wiped the performance advantages it has away.

The Good (Hardware)

Battery Life

I could get close to 20 hours of battery life while web browsing. When I flew from Zurich to SF (12 hours), I gamed for about 6 hours, and still had half the battery left. For long stints away from a charger, this was amazing. I discovered throughout the semester, however, that I wasn’t actually away from a plug that often; the TAs brought in extension cables during the midterms, so if the only issue with my surface book had been the battery, then the upgrade may have been unecessary.

Performance

I returned to an Ubuntu laptop last week and does it ever feel sluggish. Boot times feel much much longer, as do login times. I’m not using a potato either; I’m running a workstation laptop with a 10th gen xeon processor, dedicated NVIDIA GPU, and the Macbook feels much more snappy, despite consuming 1/10th the power (Thanks to dmesg I discovered the NVIDIA driver was adding 10 seconds to my boot time; downgrading to an older driver brought the boot time to 20 seconds; better, but still worse than the Mac by quite a bit).

Screen

Apple chose the resolution for the Macbook wisely; 1080p would have been too low, 4k too high.

Trackpad

I’ve always used a mouse with Windows or Linux laptops; the Mac was the first time I prefered using a trackpad. It’s just so darn large, smooth, and responsive. I did have to enable tap-to-click manually though, but it was smooth sailing since.

The Bad (Software)

macOS

I prefer tiling window managers like i3, where I can split the screen into smaller and smaller windows and navigate between them and desktops using my keyboard. It’s very efficient with very little time invested in learning the basic shortcuts. I’m not as big a fan of Windows, but it’s still pretty good; snapping to halves with the keyboard and quarters with the mouse works very well. macOS, on the other hand, has decided that everything should be full screen and fuck you otherwise. Sure, you can go split-screen if you move your mouse to the full-screen button, click and hold, and then select to tile it to the left or right, but that’s so much more time and cognitive load than just tapping windows+left arrow or clicking and dragging the window into place. You can navigate between desktops using your keyboard, but only if you configure them in the system preferences, and only if they’re not full-screen. If you want to get to a full-screen program, you have to navigate to the right-most desktop, then swipe right to get to it. I downloaded Rectangle to have keyboard shortcuts to snap windows to sides, which is a bandaid over Apple’s painful imposed design.

I also found that keyboard shortcuts were not consistent. In Windows, the Windows key, combined with other keys, would make OS-level changes, such as switching desktop or application, while the Control key with other keys would make program-level changes. Same goes for GNOME. In macOS, however, system-level and program-level commands seem to randomly alternative between using Options, Control, and Command.

The default text editor was slow and tried way too hard to be feature-full; I just want something to show plain text, not retain whatever formatting the source I’m copying from may have retained.

I’m not sure why the default behavior of the built-in Terminal when pressing Control+d was to leave the window open instead of closing it.

Cut and paste isn’t a thing; I need to copy, then delete the old files, or click and drag, which is virtually impossible with deep file heirarchies without setting up two distinct file manager windows.

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed with macOS. Getting around it using the default configuration is slow, and the time commitment to being productive is much higher than it was when I learned how to use i3, Windows, or Gnome.

Software Support

macOS was barely bearably bad, but the lack of support from necessary software libraries for my program/work killed any benefits this machine may have had. I spent a few days futzing around with GDAL and other libraries to have my planning homework skeleton code run at all, let alone actually doing it. I needed to SSH into a Linux box to run my HPC homework because the Intel MKL library and Open MPI don’t run on Apple silicon. Scilab is a no go either, neither are a slew of other libraries that I’ve honestly forgotten, likely from subconsciously repressing the memory of countless hours wasted trying to get things to work on this machine. I installed everything on my new (used) workstation with a couple apt and pip commands and was off, zero issues whatsoever. No speedup in computing, battery, display, or form-factor can overcome the basic software I need to work not working.

State of Affairs

I’m back on an Ubuntu laptop. The screen is only 1080p. Booting it takes over 20 seconds. The battery life is maybe 8 hours if I’m careful, 2 if I stress it too much. The trackpad is very meh. It weighs almost three kilograms. But damn if it isn’t nice to login to i3, snap around with the keyboard, install all my software with a quick apt install, and everything just works.