David Heinemeier Hansson

March 16, 2022

I can't tell the difference

Despite my continued and fierce opposition to Apple's monopoly abuses on the App Store, I continue to be thoroughly impressed with the technical advances they keep making. I don't have a problem in the slighest with admiring the engineers while skewering the business operators. And perhaps no engineering unit within Apple is currently more worthy of praise than the chip team. They single-handedly managed to make CPUs interesting again, after what seemed like a decade of stagnation under Intel's efforts.

I've been marveling at the year-over-year improvements this team has delivered for the iPhone for quite a while. Perhaps even tasted a bit of glee as Apple humiliated Qualcomm by putting their fastest chips in devices costing half the Android flagships. It's hard to resist that pull of "team iOS" after 15 years of usage, even if it's neither healthy for Apple nor the industry to have them that far ahead. The strings of tribalism pull on us all.

So when Apple made the jump to putting their own M1 chip in a Mac, it was easy to get excited. And for once, all the hype was completely justified. The M1 chip is the kind of big leap forward that even ordinary people notice. My wife instantly noticed just how much better, smoother everything ran when she swapped her Intel MacBook for an M1 MacBook. Not to mention the battery life.

But the reason we call it a big leap is because it stands out from all the ordinary leaps. Those regular yearly incremental improvements that most people just don't feel. It's remarkable because it's rare.

I think I probably forgot that a bit when I immediately jumped from an M1 MacBook Air to a M1 MacBook Pro the second the latter was announced. And I was just about to forget it once again when the new Mac Studio with the M1 Ultra was announced.

I had that Ultra machine all specced out in my cart when it suddenly struck me that I actually couldn't recall any material difference hopping from the original M1 to the M1 Max machine. What if instead of splurging once again for more imperceptible power, I swapped back to that 2020 machine, just to feel the difference?

So I did that, and I couldn't. Feel the difference that is. The 2020 M1 MacBook runs everything that I do more or less exactly as well as the three times more expensive specced-out MacBook Pro. Well, sure, I can measure an all-core full suite test run of our apps and find an advantage. But it's not consequential, and that's not a workflow I do all the time. Not even editing 50 megapixel photos in Lightroom seemed noticeably different.

That's not to say that the Max or the Ultra M1s aren't a big deal to some people. I'm sure if you're editing multiple streams of 8K video on the daily, then it's a big deal to you. And surely there are other workflows that benefit from just throwing more cores and codec units at the problem. Web development is not it, though.

So now I'm back on that 2020 M1 MacBook Air again. And do you know what, I actually appreciate some of those vintage Ive sensibilities again: Slimness and lightness as qualities in themselves. Once a machine is Fast Enough and the battery lasts Long Enough, making it lighter and slimmer really does count for more. I don't even mind the machine just having 2 USB Cs. 

Maybe Ive was right all along – minus that awful keyboard! – he just didn't have the chips to fulfill his vision. Either way, it's a marvel that a $999 M1 laptop is now all web developers really ever need. Hurrah for deflationary progress!