Alex King
A PERSONAL WEBSITE AND BLOG ABOUT TECHNOLOGY
BLOG ABOUT PROJECTS & RESUME RSS
In Defense of the New MacBook and Intel Core M
MARCH 14, 2015

I've read countless impressions of Apple's new MacBook. Tech journalists seem to be impressed with the device, but the general tech-enthused public cannot get over the fact that Apple chose to put an Intel Core M processor inside, which on paper is a step down from the i5/i7 CPUs currently in the other MacBook models. I want to do my best here to explain why Apple made the right decision, and why it isn't nearly as big of a deal as people seem to think it is.

First, let me put into words what I think is the big criticism of the Core M, which in turn is the big criticism of the MacBook: that the processor isn't powerful enough for "most users", or perhaps "power users". The MacBook starts with a 1.1GHz chip that has Turbo Boost up to 2.4GHz, configurable to a 1.3/2.9GHz option. The gigahertz war has been over for a few years now, and most people that are relatively clued in understand how clock speed is no longer indicative of overall processor capability . I have seen numerous comments online saying something to the effect of, "My Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has a 2.4GHz quad-core processor and a higher resolution screen. It is literally more powerful than the new MacBook." The link above helps explain how this is so, so wrong.

Core M got off to a bad start when Lenovo released its Yoga 3 Pro laptop, which has the Core M-5Y70 processor in it, one of the models that will be in the new MacBook. Reviews found the laptop to be overly sluggish, severely throttling down the processor when any real computation took place. This became the main journalistic narrative for Core M. Ultrabook Review found the performance to be underwhelming , but later revised its review after using another Core M machine with a less powerful chip inside, the Asus Transformer Book T300FA . This machine delivered stronger performance with a weaker CPU with a base clock speed of just 800MHz. Gradually, people are giving Core M a second look and realizing that Lenovo's first attempt was faulty.

But even then, enthusiasts are looking at data about the Core M and are smart to recognize, (not that it's hidden information), that it is a definite step down in terms of pure power than processors in other portable Macs. But obviously this is for a reason. The Core M's TDP is just 5w, compared 15w for comparable i5s and i7s, and 35w for the 2010 i7 620M in the machine I'm typing on now. The Core M has been chosen for the new MacBook because it delivers profound performance with an extremely low power draw, and low enough heat that the device doesn't need a fan. For mobile processors like we have on phones and tablets, that's standard. But for an Intel processor, that's a big deal.

A fanless future is exciting to me. Not only does it mean less noise, but it means more space for batteries, and more power reserved to power the components in your computer that matter. Also, no fan means no dust. Though fans aren't inherently delicate, a fanless laptop is, theoretically, more durable and safe from small drops.

Years ago, say the mid to late 2000s, the CPU was really the face of any laptop. The GPU mattered too for video-intensive tasks, but the CPU was probably the clearest representation of what it meant for a laptop to be fast. At that time, RAM was relatively expensive to upgrade, and none of it was particularly fast. Solid state storage was a far cry from being affordable, so the most that manufacturers could do was to add 7,200RPM spinning drives as options compared to 5,400RPM ones. Therefore, CPU quality used to really be the only affordable way that consumers could configure a laptop for purchase and make it faster for general use.

Today, things are different. Solid state storage is affordable and encouraged in most modern laptops. RAM is faster and more capacious. A computer that used to take close to a minute to boot up now takes just a few seconds. Many applications launch nearly instantaneously. With the combination of more RAM and more CPU threads, heavy multitasking is far more practical than it used to be. As odd as it sounds to say like this, pure CPU power just does not matter for most mobile users like it used to, when it was the only easy way a laptop could be sped up.

But at what point does a user start using their laptop for more than "general use"? I've seen several comments online stating something to the effect of, "The MacBook will be good for web browsing, email, and watching videos, but it will be too slow for anything else." This is, again, so, so wrong. You know what's good for those tasks? My Surface RT from 2012, with the aging Nvidia Tegra 3 processor inside. This CPU would be blown away in benchmarks by any modern Intel chip, even a comparatively slow Atom one. The Surface has its own issues, but it provides an excellent experience for basic web work, word processing, and playing HD videos without a hitch. The Core M benchmarks demonstrate far, far more ability than most are giving it credit for.

Unfortunately, the GPU in my current machine is failing. I think the new MacBook will be perfect for my needs. Does that make me not a power user, does it cost me any hacker cred? I argue not.

I currently use a machine less capable across the board than the new MacBook will be. As a computer science student, I've written plenty of code on it, both to be compiled and run locally and remotely, both in IDEs and in text editors. I will daily rack up 30+ web tabs as I queue up news to read each morning. I run virtual machines with great success. I edit RAW photos in Adobe Lightroom frequently and I've processed 1080p footage in Final Cut Pro. I've done 2D and 3D CAD work with the Autodesk software suite on Windows. Obviously, things like rendering a final video file take a bit of time, but I guarantee you that if I thought that this machine was incapable of handling my work, I would have upgraded my setup by now. Owning a laptop, I completely acknowledge that a few heavy CPU tasks like video processing will take a bit more time, but time is easy. This time is almost always just in rendering a file at the end; it never affects my ability to move quickly through a piece of software or manipulate my work. An extra 30 seconds or minute for a file to process is not tangibly upsetting to me, and it shouldn't be for anyone else in the market for a good ultraportable.

Ultimately, any true CPU or GPU intensive task deserves a desktop. Professional video editors would never render feature-length films on a laptop. Gamers know that you get far more bang for your buck if you build a desktop instead of buying a gaming laptop. Why limit yourself? We're still at a point in time where many enthusiasts expect a thin-and-light laptop to be able to do it all, and criticize any laptop that proudly bucks that trend. Laptops will never be able to keep up with desktops. Why shouldn't we be embracing where technology is headed and celebrate the MacBook for what it is? Perhaps the purest, smallest, and most beautiful distillation of mobile computing we've seen yet. It is made up of a capable Intel processor, ultrafast storage and memory, a gorgeous screen, and is stuffed with battery. It is not an iPad with a keyboard; it can run OS X, Linux, Windows and all of the software that only exists for Intel processors. It will be able to do anything a mobile user should require, because a true power user will likely not want to do their hardcore processing on a 12" mobile device.

The MacBook's high starting price of $1,299 is a definite sticking point, to be sure, and I know it isn't a fair counterargument to say "Just buy a laptop and a desktop." But in just a few more years, products like the MacBook will be far more affordable, and I am certain that fanless Intel CPUs will have a much larger presence in the market.

If a user needs a laptop that will render videos as fast as possible on the go, or needs to own a capable gaming computer that can be easily transported, he or she probably will not want the new MacBook. But for nearly everyone else, I think the computing experience that the Core M processor suggests isn't at all limiting. It's exciting.

© 2015-2017 Alex King