A week with macOS Big Sur on M1
Sat, Dec 5, 2020
My curiosity with the new Apple Silicon M1 got the better of me, so I bought myself a base-model (8G RAM/256G SSD) Mac Mini. I’ve now had the thing for a little over a week, and used it exclusively to get through a week of work. Here are my notes on the experience.
I have had a Mac before, it was a 13” Powerbook back in the days before they switched to Intel. Since then I’ve been Linux on the desktop with stints of Windows mixed in. Because of the last major stint with Windows I found my preferred desktop environment to be Cinnamon - it shares all of the Windows 10 desktop metaphors and many similar keyboard shortcuts, so it made switching back-and-forth easy. I share this because it helps explain my desktop comfort zone, and some of what I was looking to reproduce in my switch to MacOS.
Looking for a more-or-less drop-in replacement in my current desktop environment I didn’t replace any peripherals. I did add one: a $35 USB KVM switch that allows me to switch my keyboard, mouse, webcam, and one other USB input between the Mac and my Linux machine with the push of a button.
I’m using dual ASUS 2560x1440 displays (MG279 and PB277). With this first-gen. Mini that means pushing one with the HDMI output, and one with a USB-C-to-DisplayPort cable.
While I initially used the Mini’s wifi, which was fine, I ultimately plugged it into wired 1G ethernet.
I’m currently using an iPhone and have an iPad, so I already have and use an Apple ID. This meant no new account setup to begin using the Mini.
This thing is very snappy. It seems to detect and drive my monitors just fine.
Initial attempts at software installation are no problem. The Rosetta 2 translation layer installed to run Firefox, which at current release 83 doesn’t have native M1 support yet, but after install FF seems to run just fine, faster than expected for a non-native app.
Spent some time stumbling around the OS a little getting familiar with where things are located and adjusting to the some of the UI metaphors. Keyboard shortcuts are going to take some time, especially since I’m not using a Mac keyboard.
I’m a Firefox user. I switch between Linux, Windows, and now MacOS, as well as iOS and Android. Firefox is the best browser across all of these that isn’t Chrome (or running the Chromium engine). Firefox has much greater respect for privacy than Chrome. Why mention this?
Firefox issues arise
My initial impression that Firefox 83 runs great via Rosetta begins to fade as I find one important area that doesn’t work well (or at all): web apps that perform in-browser decryption fail to load the encrypted content.
This effects me because I use ProtonMail, ProtonDrive, and pCloud Encryption. ProtonMail (using the beta web client), will function briefly, but then messages fail to load. ProtonDrive and pCloud Encryption WebUIs fail to load at all.
The next version of Firefox, which is in beta, will have native Apple Silicon support, so I installed 84 beta 4. This fixed the in-browser decryption issue! However, I ran into serious stability issues with beta 4: visiting Amazon’s website consistently cause crashes. Luckily a few days later, by beta 7, the stability issues seem to be largely addressed, and I’ve now happily been on the Firefox beta channel for several days.
So it seems the Firefox on M1 issues are on the mend.
One more note on browser choice
Even with native support Firefox feels slower than Safari. This may improve as Mozilla refines FF for the platform, but I expect Safari will always have an optimization advantage. Unfortunately for me Safari isn’t really an option for my primary browser, because I will still be switching between platforms that aren’t Apple. Too bad, Safari feels blazingly fast.
Compatibility for other cross-platform apps
The long and short of it is only the pCloud Drive app has experienced problems.
Above I mentioned the pCloud webUI. Currently, their pCloud Drive client (v3.9.7) just doesn’t work on the Mini. I’m not sure if this is a Big Sur thing, or an M1 thing. I would install, but would not appear in Finder or otherwise show me any of my files. I couldn’t find anything on their website about compatibility, so I shot an email to support reporting my experience and asking if it was a known issue or a problem with my setup. Here’s the response I got:
We would like to inform you that the next pCloud Drive version will support Apple Silicon. We are currently working on the new build. We will keep you posted.
OK, I can deal with “working on it” given how recent the platform is, especially since I can access my files via the web in beta Firefox.
Other apps that run fine
- Standard Notes
- Signal Desktop
- Keeper Password Manager
- ProtonVPN client
Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client (work VPN, very important)
Other apps I have yet to evaluate
Steam - it’s installed, but I have yet to actually install or play any games. I didn’t buy the Mini for gaming, and with its limited storage space (256G), I don’t fancy eating up all of its storage with games I could play on other machines.
Proton Bridge - I’ve read that it works, but I don’t use it much and haven’t tried yet.
MacOS Apps to help settle in
I’m on the command line a lot and iTerm2 came recommended. So far I like it, but I’m not sure I’ll use half of its capabilities.
On Linux I actually prefer xterm, which is super basic. It’s possible the MacOS-provided terminal program would work for me. My biggest gripe about terminal was that ctrl-D didn’t actually quit the window. Maybe that’s adjustable, but it annoyed me into jumping to iTerm2.
I should note that I’m running iTerm2 in with Rosetta.
This app provides desktop window tiling that feels similar to Windows 10 and Cinnamon. The native split-screen behavior in MacOS didn’t make sense to me, and Magnet gave me basic tiling with reasonable keyboard shortcuts.
I wanted a resource monitor that would integrate into the menu bar and prove quick access to memory and cpu usage. This app came up frequently in my searches and is sufficient to my needs.
Being new (again) to MacOS, I’m not yet a heavy Homebrew user. I’d read there were compatibility issues with Homebrew on M1. However, I found that for my basic needs it ran fine in iTerm2 running in Rosetta mode. So far I’ve really only used it to install tmux.
Inconsistent display wake
Probably my biggest annoyance in this first week of use was that whenever I lock the screen of my Mini (using ctrl-cmd-q) my displays would go to sleep almost immediately. This was in spite of adjusting the display sleep preferences to something reasonable. Upon returning and waking the system, the Mini was very slow and inconsistent in waking my dual displays. Sometimes one or the other or both just wouldn’t wake. Several times I had to power-cycle the displays to re-engage them, and other times I had to reboot the Mini to both displays functioning.
Workaround for display sleep
This display wake problem is a big deal for me. Since I’m using this for work, I lock my screen every time I step away from my desk throughout the day.
After some research it seemed the best way to deal with this is to use the “require password immediately” setting in the screensaver preferences and then set a keyboard shortcut for starting the screensaver. OK…
Using a very simple Automator script (start screensaver) and a custom keyboard shortcut (ctrl-cmd-/) to call the Automator script I now have lock-screen behavior that isn’t a crap-shoot on whether I’ll have two working monitors.
This was annoying, but the workaround is fine.
RFI Issue: Noisy PSU?
I use an Avantree Leaf Bluetooth dongle to transmit sound to my headphones. I prefer this to having to pair the headphones to every different device that I use.
Unfortunately, when I plugged this transmitter into a small USB hub near the Mini, I noticed that the range was awful! I tested many different configurations (e.g. turning off the Mini’s internal BT) and physical arrangements for plugging the Leaf into the Mini, and ultimately found that the only way to get the range I expect from this dongle was to use a USB extension cord to hang the dongle at least several feet away from the Mini.
This suggests to me that the Mini is putting off RFI and interfering with the radio frequencies used by the dongle. In my experience w/ ham radio I’ve encountered this with certain external laptop power supplies. Some “cheap” switching PSUs can emit a lot of garbage in spite of being FCC approved.
So while I haven’t pinpointed this issue, it sure seems likely the Mini has a noisy PSU. Which doesn’t bode well for using it as a ham radio workstation.
The switch to MacOS has been fairly straight forward. The performance of the new architecture paired with Apple’s software is very impressive for the first release of a new platform. The handful of software compatibility issues I expect will get worked out over the next few weeks. Overall I’m really happy with the Mac Mini. I think I’ll keep it!