Long term usage review of 13″ M1 MacBook Pro from the lens of a Windows & Linux user
The story begins with a long time Windows & Linux user getting a taste of the Mac world. I joined a new organization – CoLearn last year. The company gave me a 13″ M1 MacBook Pro (2020) for work usage.
Prior to this, I had never used a Mac, I had been a full time Linux user for nearly a decade, until I had to install Windows to unbrick my phone. Around the same time, Windows Subsystem for Linux was released and I discovered that I can use Windows 10 full time, which lets me do more things than what I can do on Linux (playing games, using some Windows specific software) without affecting what I can already do on Linux (work, coding).
Linux and Windows, are, in general quite adaptive to a range of hardware because the user base is extremely large and they don’t impose restrictions on what the user wishes to use, even if it might not be the best user experience.
The thought process behind Apple products is different – this is something I realized after using iPad and iPhone, there is a much higher focus (if I may not say, utmost) focus on great user experience. Now because of this, if you already have a setup which satisfies your needs in a Windows / Linux environment, expect it to break when you shift to a Mac.
I had previously never used a 4K monitor, and I found two full HD monitors sufficient for my use case (coding included). Just prior to joining CoLearn I had upgraded one of my monitors to a 144 hz full HD monitor for better colours and some better gaming experience because of the higher refresh rate.
The M1 MBP 2020 just has two USB C ports which can be used for expanding connectivity and/or charging. The naive user in me thought just buying a USB C dock which has a bunch of USB-A ports and a HDMI out will help me use one of my monitors. So I purchased one from Amazon.
When I connected it to my new 144 hz full HD monitor, I found the fonts to be slightly blurred and not suitable for using for say more than one hour – it can cause headache. Later Googling around, I found Mac uses something called Retina display which is basically a display with high pixel density.
What does high pixel density mean? A crude explanation could be dumping more pixels and scaling it to a smaller resolution, so that there are double or triple the number of pixels representing the same video frame buffer on the screen.
Suppose you have a monitor which supports 2560×1440 resolution and you let the OS run 1920×1080. Here you are basically having twice the number of pixels being drawn on the monitor for the same size of resolution. If you would like to learn more about high pixel density give this article a read.
So the solution to this problem: buy a 4K UHD monitor, which I did. The dock I had purchased supports only 30 Hz at 4K on the HDMI out, which I thought would be fine, but initially it’s a bit annoying to see jittery mouse on the screen. Next I bought a USB-C to DP adapter to get past the problem of 30 Hz refresh rate.
While it worked, but my desk was a mess of cables and it was also inconvenient to switch between my PC and laptop whenever I wanted – this required removing a USB hub’s cable from the dock and putting it in PC, then pressing the button on monitor to switch the alternate input.
I must say though, display in 4K looks really good, and it’s something worth investing in if you spend lot of time coding. Now I had become accustomed to a 4K display as the primary monitor.
Eventually I purchased a KVM switch which would let me share the keyboard, mouse and HDMI 4K with more than one PC/laptop (not attaching the link here because the device I have is different than what is on sale on Amazon right now).
This setup was working fine for 6-7 months, until recently when I started feeling my productivity was taking a slight hit due to just two monitors (one the primary 4K one and second the 13″ laptop display). I would really not expect a laptop to drive more than one display – even my previous laptop didn’t, so I typically used my desktop when at home and laptop at office.
But here, we are full time work from anywhere (which is a very good thing, IMO) and I was spending majority time of the day on the Mac. Previously when researching about the solution related to improving the fonts on full HD monitor I had come across a piece of tech called DisplayLink which allows one to use multiple monitors on any laptop. It’s a kind of USB GPU if I must say.
After evaluating multiple options of USB-C docks which support DisplayLink, I came across this article in which a person has managed to drive 5 displays from the M1 MBP. My use case was just two displays – one primary 4K and the second one full HD (the same 144 hz one). The person had used a Dell D6000 dock. Dell has one more model in same series D6000S, the only difference between the two being audio ports in the former.
I didn’t need those audio ports since I use an USB audio interface + mixer combo so I bought the 6000S. When I connected the dock to the Mac and restarted it the 4K display connected via HDMI powered up (remember: I am using a HDMI KVM switch, so primary display has to be driven by HDMI only). The dock supports both DisplayLink and USB-C Alt mode. USB-C Alt mode means using the laptop’s GPU instead of the USB GPU in the dock.
In order to use the second display which I connected via DisplayPort (DisplayPort and DisplayLink are different technologies!) you have to install the DisplayLink app. Once I installed it, both monitors started working. But there was a problem, the text became too big on the 4K monitor. I used to run the 4K monitor at 2K resolution and had got used to the font and icon size. MacOS was not allowing any other HiDPI resolution mode on the DisplayLink monitor.
Then I came across an app called BetterDummy which creates a dummy display and forces MacOS to enable HiDPI resolutions. Installing this let me use 2K resolution on the 4K monitor. But with this, the window effects and scrolling were a bit jittery – even a bit more than running the 4K monitor via USB-C Alt mode at 30 Hz, still I continued to use it.
Until I accidentally discovered that if I did a full restart of the Mac with the dock connected, it would automatically detect the 4K monitor via Alt mode (the dock configures the HDMI @ 30 Hz using Alt mode in the absence of DisplayLink app). And once I login, DisplayLink app used to start and enable my second monitor. I was happy again because the 4K display running on Alt mode was smoother and supported the HiDPI resolution without resorting to the BetterDummy app.
That happiness was short lived, because whenever the screen locked and display turned off the Alt mode configuration used to get reset and both monitors used to get detected via the DisplayLink app, which is not the ideal experience because of the resolution issue and dummy display hack I explained previously.
To enable Alt mode, I had to do a full restart of the laptop, which can become annoying pretty fast. The solution to this? Keep the display turn off interval much higher than what you usually leave your laptop on the desk unattended with charger connected (dock powers the laptop using the same USB-C cable). Since it’s a work from home environment, there’s no risk of privacy compromise etc – these would be issues in any office environment, hopefully that should have some solution too if one is in such an environment.
The D6000S solves multiple problems for me:
- Has a longer USB-C cable compared to the one I was using earlier – so better cable routing, no desk mess
- Enables multiple monitors
- Additional benefit of having a LAN port, but it was a non issue for me, just a good to have
My thoughts about the Mac
It’s a good laptop, and a quiet one, runs cooler. M1 platform is nice. If you want a decently performing laptop for Windows/Linux, you typically don’t have an option other than buying a gaming laptop.
In this 13″ form factor, which is easy to carry because of the size and weight, I don’t think there are many options in the Windows/Linux world which will offer decent performance for a heavy user.
Do I like MacOS – it’s fine, nothing too great. Given a choice, I’d still use Windows/Linux, but that’s probably me because I’m accustomed to it for several years. People who have been using Mac for several years won’t shift to Windows/Linux for similar reasons.
When you shift initially you will have to retrain your muscle memory if you are heavy keyboard shortcut user because the shortcut key combination changes drastically (Control/Option/Command vs Control/Windows/Alt). For easier use of keyboards designed for Windows/Linux you have to remap the Alt key to command and Windows key to Option in the preferences. If you are accustomed to using Home, Insert and Delete keys on a full size keyboard that also might require retraining a bit.
If you do buy a Mac, be prepared to discover hardware incompatibilities and spend additionally on getting compatible hardware! 😅