In a recent post on the Real World Technologies forum—one of the few public internet venues Linux founder Linus Torvalds is known to regularly visit—a user named Paul asked Torvalds, “What do you think of the new Apple laptop?”
“I’d absolutely love to have one, if it just 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 OS.”
Torvalds, of course, can already have an ARM based Linux laptop if he wants one—for example, the Pinebook Pro. The unspoken part here is that he’d like a high-performance ARM based laptop, rather than a budget-friendly but extremely performance constrained design such as one finds in the Pinebook Pro, the Raspberry Pi, or a legion of other inexpensive gadgets.
Apple’s M1 is exactly that—a high performance, desktop-and-laptop oriented system that delivers world-class performance while retaining the hyperefficient power and thermal characteristics needed in the phone and tablet world. On paper, an M1-powered Macbook Air would make a fantastic laptop for Linux or even Windows users—but it seems unlikely that Apple will share.
In an interview with ZDNet, Torvalds expounded on the problem:
The main problem with the M1 for me is the GPU and other devices around it, because that’s likely what would hold me off using it because it wouldn’t have any Linux support unless Apple opens up… [that] seems unlikely, but hey, you can always hope.
Torvalds is almost certainly correct that Apple won’t be forthcoming with sufficient detail about the M1 System on Chip (SoC) for Linux kernel developers to build first-class support. Even in the much better-understood Intel world, Macs haven’t been a good choice for Linux enthusiasts for several years, and for the same reason. As Apple brings its own hardware stack further and further in-house, open source developers get less and less information to port operating systems and write hardware drivers for the platform.
We strongly suspect that by the time enthusiasts could reverse-engineer the M1 SoC sufficiently for first-class Linux support, other vendors will have seen the value in bringing high performance ARM systems to the laptop market—and it will be considerably easier to work with the more open designs many will use.
Up until now, ARM based laptops and miniature PCs have attempted to disrupt the market by shooting low on budget, rather than high on performance. Examples include but are not limited to: the $200 Pinebook Pro laptop, the $100 Raspberry Pi Model 400, and the $99 Nvidia Jetson.
Now that Apple has proven ARM’s value in the performance as well as the budget space, we broadly expect competing systems using high-end Snapdragon and similar processors to enter the market within the next few years. Such systems wouldn’t need to beat—or even match—the M1’s standout performance; they’d simply need to compete strongly with more traditional x86_64 systems on performance and price, while dominating them in power consumption and thermal efficiency.
It’s also worth noting that while the M1 is unabashedly great, it’s not the final word in desktop or laptop System on Chip designs. Torvalds mentions that, given a choice, he’d prefer more and higher-power cores—which is certainly possible and seems a likely request to be granted soon.