Problems on the M1 frontier

I hadn’t gotten around to writing about my newest Mac, even though I’ve had it for a while now. Unfortunately, now that I am finding the time, it’s because of an unexpected problem with it. Oh well, that’s life.

Backstory

A few months before the new M1 Macs were announced, my mom’s iMac (20-inch, Early 2009) started to fail for her. This machine had already had its HD replaced once and, from the symptoms I was seeing, it looked like it was on the verge of happening again.

Since I had stopped using my iMac to host GCW, and I had a gaming PC with enough horsepower that I could use it as a backup to make music, I wasn’t really doing anything mission critical on the Mac, so decided to wipe it and give it to my mom as an upgrade. That machine was incredibly badass for its day, and is still running fine. Between the processor upgrade (Core2Duo to i7), the Fusion Drive, the top (at the time) Mac graphics chip (780M), and the increased system RAM (4Gig to 24Gig), the new machine behaves easily >10x faster than what she had. Woot!

Of course, my secret plan in all this was to replace my iMac with a new M1 Mac when they became available. 😉

What I got

What I ended up getting was this…

Of course, this wasn’t my first Mac mini, and I had lots of peripherals lying around, so “downgrading” from the iMac wasn’t a big deal, but I have to say I was not prepared for how much faster this new machine is.

I can honestly, say that this is the most responsive Macintosh I have ever worked on, and that includes my (almost) current gen, max spec, work MBP, which cost four times as much.

Starting up an application? Instant. Starting an Intel-based application via Rosetta 2? Almost as fast (after the first startup). Gaming performance? Everything is faster, even comparing against the dedicated 780M in the iMac, and that includes games written for the Intel architecture.

Wow! To say I’m pleased with the performance would be a massive understatement.

And now the bad news.

Like any first generation product, there have been growing pains — Blutooth dropouts, USB issues, etc. Generally, these have been minor and new releases of macOS 11 are bringing improvements.

At this point though, there are two issues which are pretty serious:

Lack of support for M1
Because of Rosetta 2, most applications you run work fine on M1. However, the closer you get to things that are at the edges, like printer drivers and music software, the more likely you will be to see problems. I’m still nowhere close to having all of my music software running on the new machine, but at least my mainstay, Reason, works as does Logic Pro (of course).

The display flickering bug
This is a reasonably wide-spread issue that causes certain combinations of content being displayed to flicker in brightness and have faint vertical lines. The problem is quite bad, when it happens, but I usually only see it when watching videos with dark backgrounds.

Here is an example:

Notice how the whole screen flickers when the lightning flashes

It’s hard to get a good demonstration of the problem, because it usually only occurs when the display is in flux, but at one point I did manage to capture a video of a static case. Here’s a close up:

At this point, there’s no fix for the problem. Anecdotally, there’s some evidence that this is a software bug, which hopefully means it will eventually get fixed, but who knows.

Also, in case you think it’s just me, here are some links from around the net:

I have a case open with Apple, of course, but they weren’t able to provide any useful suggestions, and fell back to the old standbys:

I did try running in safe mode (with no effect), but the other two are particularly sad because neither of those are possible on an M1. Argh.

I guess we’ll see. Hopefully, this gets fixed at some point. I’ll update this post when something changes.

3 thoughts on “Problems on the M1 frontier”

  1. Just a quick update: After 11.3 came out, I retried the cases that were failing and I’m seeing no improvement. I got on with Apple support again, and got mostly the same answers as last time, but one difference was that they admitted that they were seeing other cases. They also collected some hardware config/test results and attached them to the case. I’m still somewhat hopeful that they’ll figure it out. I guess we’ll see.

  2. Just a quick update… I recently took the ultimate troubleshooting step, by completely wiping the SSD in the Mac mini and re-installing Big Sur. I then immediately tried the tests I’ve been using to demonstrate the issue, and found that they still showed the problem happening. 🙁

    At this point, that seems to be pretty definitive proof that the problem is not caused by something I installed on the machine, so I believe it is time to return the hardware — I believe that it is defective.

  3. While packaging up the machine to return it, I decided to verify the problem one more time. Since I’d already torn down the workspace where I had it previously, I just swapped it in for one of the other machines I had running elsewhere in my office.

    … and low and behold, the problem was gone(!!!). Since I had tried every combination of monitors, video cables and connection types, and still saw the issue before, the only thing I can think of it is that the *power* (or something else equally unlikely) was the culprit.

    I swapped around the machines in my office so I could leave the Mini set up in the new location, and moved the machine(s) that were in that spot to where the Mini used to be, and those machines are also still running fine. I then restored the Mini from the Time Machine backup off of my file server.

    Man, I am confused, but at least everything is working again. What an outcome!

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