In a recent post on the Real World Technologies forum – one of the few public Internet venues where Linux founder Linus Torvalds is known to frequent – a user named Paul asked Torvalds, “What do you think of the new Apple laptop? “
“I’d love to have one, if only it ran Linux,” Torvalds replied. “I’ve been waiting for an ARM laptop that can run Linux for a long time. The new [MacBook] Air would be almost perfect, except for the operating system.”
Of course, Torvalds can already own an ARM-based Linux laptop if he wants one, say the Pinebook Pro. The unspoken part here is that he would prefer a high-performance ARM-based laptop, rather than a budget-friendly but extremely performance-limited design found in the Pinebook Pro, the Raspberry Pi, or a legion of other low-cost gadgets.
Apple’s M1 is just that: a powerful desktop and laptop-oriented system that delivers world-class performance while maintaining the hyper-efficient power and thermal properties required in the world of phones and tablets. On paper, an M1-powered MacBook Air would make a fantastic laptop for Linux or even Windows users, but Apple seems unlikely to share it.
In an interview with ZDNet, Torvalds explained the problem:
The biggest issue with the M1 for me is the GPU and other devices around it as that would probably put me off using it as it wouldn’t have Linux support unless Apple opens up… [that] seems unlikely, but hey, you can always hope.
Torvalds is almost certainly right that Apple won’t provide enough detail about the M1 System on Chip (SoC) for developers of the Linux kernel to build top-notch support. Even in the much better understood Intel world, Macs haven’t been a good choice for Linux enthusiasts for years, and for the same reason. As Apple continues to internalize its own hardware stack, open source developers are given less and less information to port operating systems and write hardware drivers for the platform.
We strongly suspect that by the time enthusiasts can reverse engineer the M1 SoC enough for top-notch Linux support, other vendors will have seen the value in bringing powerful ARM systems to the laptop market – and it will be considerably easier to working with the more open designs will be used by many.
Until now, ARM-based laptops and miniature PCs have tried to disrupt the market by being low budget instead of high performance. Examples include: the $200 Pinebook Pro laptop, the $100 Raspberry Pi Model 400, and the $99 Nvidia Jetson.
Now that Apple has proven ARM’s worth in both the performance and budget space, we generally expect competing systems using high-performance Snapdragon and similar processors to hit the market within a few years. Such systems need not beat or even match the excellent performance of the M1; they should just compete heavily with more traditional x86_64 systems on performance and price while dominating on power consumption and thermal efficiency.
It’s also worth noting that while the M1 is unabashedly awesome, it’s not the last word in System on Chip designs for desktops or laptops. Torvalds mentions that if given the choice, he would prefer more higher powered cores – which is certainly possible and seems like a likely request that will be granted soon.