This past week, I’ve experimented with using, or trying to use, a wide range of hardware devices with the Intel Evo-based Razer Book 13 and Apple’s M1-based MacBook Pro I’m currently comparing. Not surprisingly, the MacBook handles the most common peripherals well enough, but it also comes up short in some key areas as well.
What I’ve found is that the MacBook’s troubles are two-fold.
The first issue is just a general design limitation that Apple inflicts on its customers regardless of the processor choice: Its portable computers only ship with USB-C ports now, and have for years, virtually ensuring that users will need to cart around dongles. And the MacBook Pro I’m testing, like the popular MacBook Air, only includes two of those ports. So many users will also need a USB-C docking station of some kind.
I’m not trying to be cute here. I have long claimed that USB-C is the future—arguably, it’s “the present” now—but the reality is that most of us have legacy USB devices that require the larger Type-A port that the portable Macs all lack. Not to mention devices that would benefit from other common ports, like HDMI-out. These ports are still common on PCs of all kinds, from the bargain basement to the premium sector.
The second issue is tied to limitations of the M1 chipset. Some hardware peripherals don’t work at all with this chipset, though one imagines compatibility will improve over time. And some peripherals don’t work the same way as they do with Intel-based Macs (and PCs). For example, M1-based Macs can only work with a single external display, and not multiple external displays.
To test hardware compatibility, I used three sets of devices: The peripherals I use routinely every single day, other devices like scanners and printers that I have in my home office and use occasionally, and an unfamiliar (to me) set of modern devices, provided by Intel, that performed, shall we say, predictably.
So let’s start with my daily-use peripherals, which I document from time-to-time in my “What I Use” series, for example, this version from June 2020. It hasn’t changed that much, if at all, over the years. But the one thing most of these devices have is that they connect via USB-A. The Mac doesn’t have such a port, so I used a USB-C-to-A adapter I have on hand. (And to be fair, were I to use my entire set of daily-use devices simultaneously with any laptop, PC or Mac, I’d use a USB-C or Thunderbolt dock of some kind to make it easier to detach—and later reattach—the laptop from all of these devices. Again, there’s no reason to be cute about this.)
First up is the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Wireless Desktop Keyboard and Mouse. Both worked on the MacBook Pro immediately—I could move the mouse cursor around and type into a Word document—but macOS threw up a short Keyboard Assistant wizard in which I had to tap on the keys next to each Shift key and identify the keyboard as ANSI. Nothing onerous.
On a Windows PC, the keyboard and mouse likewise work immediately, and there’s no need for any additional configuration. That said, Microsoft does provide software for configuring each further if needed, on both Windows and the Mac, but I’ve long since stopped installing it, and so I didn’t feel it would be fair to inflict this on the Mac.
I use a Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 for podcasts and virtual meetings, and so I tested that with Microsoft Teams, which I believe is translated, and not native on M1-based Macs like the MacBook Pro. No matter: Teams immediately recognized the webcam (as seen in settings), and after giving the app permission to use the camera, the video came right up.
On Windows, I am automatically prompted to download some additional Logitech software for configuring the camera. I do this only because I’m prompted to do so, but I rarely use it to adjust the picture or whatever. No prompt of any kind appeared on the Mac, as with the Microsoft keyboard and mouse.
I use a Focusrite Scarlett Solo (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface and a Heil PR 40 microphone with PL2T Boom Mount for podcasting. The key bit here is the USB audio interface: This is what passes through audio from the microphone to the PC and thus to apps like Teams and Skype. Here, again, I tested compatibility via Teams settings. It recognized the Focusrite, but I had to set it as the default microphone (as is often the case in Windows). And the app lets you make a test call to determine how well everything works. It worked just fine.
On Windows, I keep a copy of the latest Focusrite software on my NAS and make a point to install that every time I set up a new PC for use with the device. I’m not entirely sure how necessary this is, but because I need the mic to work with Windows Weekly and other podcasts, I want to make sure it’s up-to-date. I didn’t install anything on the Mac.
I also use a pair of pedestrian Sony headphones during podcasts. Both PCs sport a combo headphone/mic jack, and the headphones worked fine on each.
I don’t typically attach portable PCs to Ethernet, but I do connect my desktop PC (an Intel NUC) to Ethernet, and when I’ve experimented with a docked portable PC as a desktop PC replacement, I do always use Ethernet. So I tested that as well. This required a different kind of adapter on the Mac—USB-C to Ethernet—of course. And while there was no visual indication that Ethernet had been enabled, a quick check of Network preferences (in System Preferences) showed that it was working. Oddly, it also delivered slower speeds (91 over 24 Mbps) than did Wi-Fi (292 over 25 Mbps); my connection is 330 over 30 Mbps. I can’t explain that one.
Except that maybe I can: I ran the same tests on the NUC and the Razer and saw similar results. This was 94 over 24 Mbps on the former with Ethernet and then 101 over 25.1 on Wi-Fi. And as for the Razer, it doesn’t have an Ethernet port, so you’d need a dongle on this PC as well. It achieved speeds of 268 over 25.3 Mbps on Wi-Fi and 63 over 25 Mbps on Ethernet. Something is up with my Ethernet, I guess.
Finally, my display is an HP Business Z27n G2 27-inch LED with a 1440p (2560 x 1440) resolution and a nice set of inputs that includes USB-C 3.1, DisplayPort 1.2, DVI-D, and HDMI 1.4. I connect it to my NUC via USB-C normally, so it seemed only fair to test it against this port on the PC and the Mac.
Again, no surprises: After a few flashes of the primary display, the external display came up and seemed to work just fine. I had to go into Display preferences to scale the display a bit, but it correctly identified the display, and doing so worked well.
On the Razer, I was greeted by a familiar experience: Windows 10 now defaults to the Duplicate display mode when you add an external display. But I switched that to Extend and had to manually adjust the scaling as I did on the Mac.
Of course, where things fall apart on the M1-based Macs is that they only support a single external display. I typically only use one external display when I use one at all, but on Windows, you’re not constrained by this weird artificial limitation. Presumably, future Apple Silicon-based Macs will overcome this issue, but it’s unclear whether it will ever be rectified on first-generation M1-based Macs.
Anyway. Overall, I was impressed with the compatibility of my daily-use devices on the M1-based MacBook Pro. There were no blockers at all, and while I would really need to use these peripherals over time—recording multiple podcasts, for example—it seems that all is well here.
Other devices I own and use occasionally
Moving on, I next looked at other peripherals that I have in my home but use less frequently. First up, a couple of network-based devices.
We have a few printers around the house, but our primary printer is an HP OfficeJet Pro 9020 in my wife’s office on the second floor. In Windows, this comes up automatically as a choice, and the HP Smart app, which is used to configure this and other modern HP printers/scanners, is automatically installed through the Store (whether I want it or not).
I was curious how the Mac would handle this, so I brought up a Microsoft Word test document, tapped CMD + P and observed that no printer was selected in the Print dialog. However, when I selected the drop-down, there it was: An HP OfficeJet Pro 9020 series printer appeared in the list under “Nearby printers” and, after a bit of preparation, was ready for use.
So I printed it. Word warned that the document’s “margins are pretty small” and that some of the content might be cut off when I printed. But I printed it anyway, and it came out fine (and in color). I also I loaded an article I recently wrote and printed that all-text document instead. Also fine.
The other network-based device I tried to access from the Mac is my WD NAS. This worked fine as well.
I have a set of USB flash drives and USB hard drives, and each of these was immediately recognized by the MacBook Pro, with a drive icon appearing on the desktop in each case. (The Mac still freaks out when you detach USB storage manually like it’s 1999, but whatever.)
I tested a few portable USB hubs as well—portable, in this case, meaning that they don’t require an external power supply. One of these has three ports—USB-A, USB-C, and HDMI—and each worked correctly; I connected a different HP display via HDMI and it was identified correctly (HP E232) and worked as expected. (I used the USB-C port for a storage device.)
I also tested a new Xbox Wireless Controller. I couldn’t get it to connect to the Mac via USB—the Xbox button’s light just kept flashing—but it paired via Bluetooth quickly. (I guess Apple is working on getting a wired connection to work.)
Of course, finding a game to test it with can be problematic. I started with Gylt on Stadia via Microsoft Edge and a “Controller linked” notification appeared when I pressed a button on the controller. And it seemed to work normally, both in menus and in the game itself. (Stadia didn’t adapt well to the Mac’s display, with a bright white line appearing across the top, but it wasn’t hugely distracting.)
Here, too, I was impressed by the M1-based MacBook Pro’s compatibility with the hardware I have here at home.
As Steve Jobs would say, however, “but wait, there’s more.”
While the M1 chipset offers excellent compatibility and performance across both hardware and software, its deficiencies are, of course, well known as well. And in addition to not supporting more than a single external display, there are certain other classes of hardware peripherals with which M1-based Macs simply don’t work. And it is these edge cases that can make or break the experience.
If you’re familiar with my stance on Windows 10 on ARM, you know that I’ve often made the case that this platform will betray potential users via some incompatibility, be it a key software application or a driver utility related to a specific hardware peripheral. And that this problem, combined with the system’s performance issues, is so bad that Windows 10 on ARM is basically not suitable for anyone. It’s certainly not something you would ever inflict on a normal, non-technical person.
The M1-based Macs do not suffer from this problem, not exactly. That is, unlike Windows 10 on ARM, the new Macs offer levels of performance and compatibility that should meet the needs of most normal users. But depending on your needs, the M1-based Macs could be unworkable. It’s just that these issues impact more technical users with more specific needs.
The multiple display issue is, perhaps, the big one. Windows PCs (and Intel-based Macs) of course support multiple displays. Evo-based PCs even support dual 4K external displays over a single port, thanks to display chaining. But with a Mac, even a USB-C or Thunderbolt dock won’t help. Apple only supports a single external display.
I tested this using a CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 dock that Intel supplied for testing. This thing is awesome, and on Windows PCs and Intel-based Macs, you can connect multiple displays via USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 and DisplayPort. Any one of these works fine with the Mac, even the DisplayPort, which I was able to test because the HP E232 display supports DisplayPort. But just one. (The dock works fine otherwise, in the sense that the USB ports all work, etc.)
PCs (and Intel-based Macs) also support external GPUs (eGPUs) like the Razer Core X that Intel supplied for testing. You basically just pop a GPU card into the enclosure—Intel also supplied an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti for this purpose—connect it to power and the PC and you’re good to go. (So good, in fact, that I’ll be writing about this setup separately. I’ve been wanting to test an eGPU for a long time.) But the M1-based MacBook Pro? Nada. It doesn’t even see the eGPU.
Apple fans will correctly argue that these problems are a slice in time and that the firm’s silicon will improve to the point where these compatibility issues lessen and perhaps disappear entirely. And I agree with that, with two caveats. First, we can only test what is available now, and what’s available now on the Apple side of the fence has some limitations that do not exist in the PC space. And second, it’s possible if not likely that future improvements will only come to future generation (M2 or whatever) chipsets. That is, the M1 may always be the least compatible of the Apple Silicon chipsets.
We’ll see. For now, I think it’s fair to say that those with specific requirements—gamers, of course, but also many developers, engineers, scientists, and others who rely on multiple displays or higher-end configurations—will want to avoid the M1-based Macs.
Beyond that, the needle hasn’t really changed: Macs are Macs and PCs are PCs, and there is nothing particularly special about the M1-based Macs and hardware compatibility, beyond the fact that most typical peripherals appear to work fine. So even if we judge compatibility to be even with that of the Intel-based Macs, which it’s not, there’s no advantage there. Everything works fine on the PC. Most things work fine on the M1-based Macs.
That’s a win for Apple and for Mac fans. Is it not enough to trigger a new wave of switchers? No, I don’t think so.
I’ll look at software compatibility soon as well.