With the amount of time you’re spending at home these days, you deserve a better headset. A wireless one that works with your computer and maybe your console as well, with a mic for calls and great sound for games and movies. Fortunately there are a lot to choose from, and I’ve tested out your best options.
I asked the leading audio and peripheral companies to send over their flagship wireless headset, with prices ranging from about $100 to $250. Beyond this price range returns diminish swiftly, but right now that’s the sweet spot for comfort, sound and usability.
For years I’ve avoided wireless headsets because there were too many compromises, but I’m pleased to say that the latency has been eliminated and battery life in the ones I reviewed is uniformly excellent. (NB: If the wireless version feels too expensive, you can often get wired ones for $50-100 less.)
To test the headphones, I used them all for a variety of everyday tasks, from video calls to movies and music (with only minimal EQing to get a sense of their natural sound) to AAA games and indies. None require an app to work, though some have companion software for LEDs or game profiles. I have a fairly large head and medium-sized ears, for what it’s worth. All the headphones are rather bulky, though the angle I shot them at individually makes them look huge — you can see in the image up top that they’re all roughly the same size.
None of these headphones have active noise cancelling, but many offer decent physical isolation to the point where they offer a “monitor” feature that pipes in sound from the outside world — useful if you’re playing a game but waiting for the oven to preheat or something. Only the first set has a built-in mic, the rest have detachable ones of generally solid quality, certainly good enough for streaming and chatting, though for broadcast a separate one would be better. All these headphones use a USB-A style dongle, though the 7P/7X also has a USB-C connector.
The 7P and 7X headsets, designed with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in mind (as well as PC) respectively, are my first and most unreserved recommendation.
The standout feature on these is, to me, a truly surprising sound with an almost disturbingly broad stage and clarity. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I put on some familiar tracks I use for reference. This isn’t a 7.1 simulation or anything like that — but no doubt the gaming focus led to creating a large soundstage. It worked!
I also found the headphones to be very comfortable, with a “ski goggle” strap instead of a per-band adjustment that lets them sit very lightly as well as “remembering” your setting. The spacious earcups rotate for travel or comfort.
The built-in mic is unobtrusive and stows away nicely, but if you’re picky about placement it was a bit floppy to adjust. Many of the other headsets have nicer mics that completely detach — maybe that’s a plus for you, but I tend to lose them.
My main issues with these are that the controls feel cheap and not particularly well laid out. The bottom of the headset is a jumble of ports and buttons and the volume dials don’t have much travel — it’s 0 to 100 in one full swipe. (Volume control is independent from system volume.)
The dongle is different from the others in that it is itself USB-C, but with a USB-A cable attached. That’s good for compatibility, but the cable is three feet long, making it kind of silly to attach to some laptops and whatnot. You could easily get your own short cord, though.
At $150 I think these are an easy recommendation for just about anyone looking at that price range.
The high price on these is partly because they are the wireless version of a headset that also comes wired, so if you want the solid audio performance and comfy fit, you can save some money by going wired.
The sound of the AT-GWLs is rich and naturally has a focus on the upper-mid vocal range, which makes voices in media really pop. I did find the sound a bit confined, which hitting the “surround” setting actually helped with. I know that this sort of virtualization has generally been frowned on, but it’s been a while since these settings have been over the top and distortive. I found surround better for games but not necessarily for music, but it’s very easy to switch on and off.
The headphones are light and adjusted with traditional, no-nonsense metal bands, with a single pad on the top. I would say they are the lightest-feeling pair I tested, with the SteelSeries and Razer coming in just behind owing to some extra weight and bulk. Despite being compact, the AT-GWLs felt airy but not big. The leather-microfiber combo cups are nice, and I think they’ll break in well to provide better isolation over time.
Where they fall short is in the interface. First, a note to Audio-Technica: Turn down the notification noises! Turning the headset on, the mic on or off or hitting the system-independent volume max produces loud, surprising beeps. Too loud!
Second, the buttons and dials are stiff, small and same-feeling. Lifting a hand quickly to turn down the volume (maybe after a huge beep) you may very easily mistake the power switch for the volume dial. The dial also doubles as a button for surround mode, and next to it is a microscopic button to turn on and off the sound of surroundings. It’s a bit of a jumble — nothing you can’t get used to, but considering how nice other headsets on this list made their controls, it has to be said.
HyperX (owned by Kingston) wasn’t exactly known for audio until fairly recently, but its previous Cloud headset got the crucial Wirecutter endorsement, and it’s easy to see why. For less money than any of the other headsets in this roundup, the follow-up to that headset (which I’m wearing right now) has excellent sound and isolation.
I was surprised to find a soundstage nearly as wide as the 7P/7X, but with more of a focus on the punchy lower register instead of on detail and placement. My music felt big and close, and the atmosphere of games likewise, more immediately present.
The Cloud II’s controls are simple and effective. The volume dial, tied directly to the system volume, is superb: grippy, with smooth motion and just the right amount of friction, and just-barely-there clicks. There are two good-size buttons, the power one concave and the mic mute (which gives different sounds for muted and active) convex.
It’s unfortunate that they’re not as comfortable, for me anyway, as the others on this list. The cups (though a bit on the warm side) and band are perfectly fine. It’s that there’s little rotation to those cups, meaning there’s no play to accommodate the shape of your head. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my big dome, but they were noticeably tighter at the front of my ear than the back, so I was constantly adjusting or trying to twist them.
I’ll say this: If they add a bit more adjustment to the cups, these would be my default recommendation over the 7P/7X. As exciting as the SteelSeries sound is to me, the Cloud IIs seem more like what people expect, and are $50 cheaper.
The matte texture of the G733s had a weird interaction with my camera — they don’t look speckly IRL. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch
These are Logitech’s streamer-friendly, color-coordinated, LED-sporting set, but they’re better than the loud design would suggest.
The sound is definitely gaming-forward, with a definite emphasis on the low end and a very central, present sound that was a lot like the Cloud II.
To be honest, I was not expecting the G733s to be very comfortable — their stiff plastic look suggested they’d creak, weigh down my ears and crush my noggin. But in fact they’re really light and quite comfy! There’s a lot of play in the positions of the earcups. The fit is a little odd in that there’s a plainly inferior version of the 7P/7X’s “ski goggle” strap that really only has four settings, while the cups slide up and down about two thirds of an inch. It was just enough to accommodate my (again, apparently very large) head.
The mic boom is rather short, and sadly there is no indicator for when the mic is on or off, which is sometimes a minor inconvenience and sometimes a major pain. You can tell from the sound the mute button makes, though.
The volume dial is nice and smooth, though the “clicks” are really far apart. I like the texture of it and the mic mute button, the power button not so much. But it works.
The colors may not be to everyone’s liking, but I have to hand it to Logitech for going all the way. The headset, mic and even the USB dongle are all the same shade, making it much easier to keep track of them in my growing pile of headphones and widgets.
Currently Logitech’s most premium set of gaming headphones, the Pro-X abandon the bright, plasticky look of its other sets and goes for understated and black.
The sound of the Logitech is big and very clear, with almost a reference feel in how balanced the bands are. I felt more presence in the mid-lows of smart bass-playing than the other sets. There is a “surround” feel that makes it feel more like you’re in a room of well-configured speakers than headphones, something that I think emerges from a de-emphasis of the center channel. The media is “out there,” not “in here.” It’s not a bad or a good thing, just distinct from the others.
The controls are about on par with the Cloud II’s: a nice frictiony volume wheel controlling system volume, a nice mic toggle button and a fairly meaty on-off switch you’re unlikely to trip on purpose.
Also like the Cloud IIs, there is no rotation to the earcups, making them less comfortable to me than the ATs and SteelSeries, and Logitech’s cheaper G-733s. A larger head than my own, if that’s possible, would definitely feel clamped. I do think these would wear in well, but all the same a bit of play would help a lot.
The external material, a satinized matte plastic, looks truly lovely but is an absolute fingerprint magnet. Considering you’ll be handling these a lot (and let’s be honest, not necessarily with freshly washed hands), you’re going to need to wipe them down rather more than any of the others I tested.
The understated Razer Blackshark V2 Pro soon became my go-to for PC gaming when the SteelSeries set was attached to the PS5.
Their sound is definitely gaming-focused, with extra oomph in the lows and mid-lows, but music didn’t sound overly shifted in that direction. The soundstage is full but not startlingly so, and everything sounded detailed without being harsh.
The Razers look heavy but aren’t — it varies day to day but I think they’re definitely competing for “most comfortable” with the A-Ts and SteelSeries. The cups feel spacious and have a nice seal, making for a very isolated listening experience. Adjustment is done with the wires attached to the cups, which is nothing special — I kind of wish this setup would let you adjust the cant as well as the height. The material is like the Logitechs — prone to fingerprints, though a little less so, in my experience.
Their controls are very well designed and laid out, all on one side. The protruding (system-independent) volume knob may seem odd at first but you’ll love it soon. The one big notch or click indicates exactly 50%, which is super useful for quick “calibration,” and turning the knob is smooth yet resistant enough that I never once accidentally changed it. Meanwhile there are conveniently placed and distinguishable buttons for mute and power, and ports for the detachable mic, charge cord and 3.5mm input.
I’m hard pressed to think of any downsides to the Blackshark except that it doesn’t work with consoles.
Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here. This is Part 1 of the Best Books gift guide. Part 2 with even more selections will be posted shortly.
2020 was a tough year for all of us, but a strong one for books (how often do you get to say that?). Sales are up, driven by lockdowns, boredom and the need for escape. Yet, 2020 also felt like a watershed year for media in general, a time when we started to deeply question the value of real-time communications driven by fear.
Books are no guaranteed antidote to the daily grind of the information economy, but they do provide room for readers and authors to breathe, to take stock of where we are and where we are going. Not in the moment, but of the moment. Whether that means escaping into the lives of fictional characters on another planet, or understanding the lives of others on our very own, books provide the material that can help us rethink all that’s going on and what happens next.
So I’m delighted to share nine book recommendations from my fellow TechCrunch writers as well as a few VCs on what to read in 2020. Some books are a few weeks old, others a few years, but they all made an impact on the lives of their reviewers this year as we confronted one of the most challenging times in recent memory.
This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.
Penguin Random House, 2020, 448 pages
Recommended by Zack Whittaker, Cybersecurity Editor at TechCrunch
“Dark Mirror” tells the story of how its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, became embroiled in reporting one of the biggest leaks of highly classified documents in a generation, thanks to former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Gellman was one of only a handful of people given a copy of the cache of “top secret” documents swiped by Snowden in 2013. The documents revealed the enormous scale of the U.S. government’s surveillance capabilities — and those of its allies. The book is written largely in first-person, and it shines a brand new light on the Snowden disclosures and published stories that followed, the mistakes that were made, as well as new revelations that were never previously told.
You learn more about Snowden, his character and temperament, how he collected thousands of classified documents from right under the NSA’s nose, how he came to “meet” Gellman for the first time, and what motives led the whistleblower to go public.
You also follow how Gellman sourced, vetted and fact-checked some of the most significant findings from the documents — with help from researchers Ashkan Soltani and Julie Tate — from revealing the PRISM slides, to the jaw-dropping moment that Gellman recounted telling a Google engineer how the NSA was secretly siphoning off data from its private data center links. Gellman spares no detail of his years-long journey in covering the documents, and isn’t one to shy away from revealing his own struggles — not least trying to protect the cache from spies both at home and abroad, and fearing that he too could become a target.
Gellman brings a fresh perspective and hindsight on the narrative you might have followed in the aftermath of the scandal, and fills in the blanks during a period of time that had the world in turmoil. And yet seven years after the first of many stories broke, “Dark Mirror” continues to spill in every chapter details never known before. His storytelling is exquisite, even if you’ll never want to use the internet again after reading it.
Price: $20 from Amazon
Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2017, 384 pages
Recommended by Liz Sisson, Chief Operating Officer of Urban Us
Anyone who manages money, invests in others’ livelihoods or lives in America should read “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” by Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate dean and professor at the University of California-Irvine and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
Baradaran’s 2017 book explores the past efforts to create economic inclusion in the United States, how they have not succeeded and how any real attempts to improve the wealth gap would need to improve access to capital, among other solutions.
The book digs into financial institutions and policies that are responsible for creating and maintaining racial inequalities in the United States. Baradaran covers the racial wealth gap and its relation to banking as well as the history, political theories, policies and people who maintained the longstanding racist institutions with access to capital and therefore wealth. The book also addresses the idea that wealth is not the same as equality.
A median white family in America has 13 times more wealth than that of a median Black family. “The Color of Money” explains through history and an examination of government policies such as redlining and GI Bills as well as discriminatory behaviors why that wealth gap continues, and why it tripled between 1984 and 2009.
Baradaran teaches the reader about the long history of financial institutions, such as community banking, Black banks, mortgage lending and government programs (e.g. CDFI, CRA, GSE, OMBE and FDIC) that have played a role in these systems. She also investigates the limitations of capitalism due to segregation and exploitation during the Reconstruction era, the Great Migration, the New Deal era, Jim Crow and throughout the neoliberal, trickle-down, small government and war on drugs policies of the 1970s, 80s, 90s and beyond.
The book introduces the philosophies of many leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., and Presidents Nixon and Reagan, who argued that financial prosperity through Black capitalism (banking, ownership, boot straps and entrepreneurship) was the answer to equality. The author argues these ideas are not magic bullets to fix centuries of poverty and abysmal economic opportunity due to discriminatory government, banking policies and generally resource-poor communities. The book breaks down the stereotypes of self-help dogma that tout “save more, don’t spend so much or pull yourself up” and rejects the idea that those who are not wealthy just need more financial literacy or mentorship. “Self-help microfinance cannot overcome macro inequality and systemic racism.”
Deploying capital and creating economic opportunity in VC and in startups means it’s important to understand the racial wealth gap and the history of banking, credit and capital in the United States. As a society, we should constantly be learning from our past mistakes to ensure we are making better and equitable decisions for the future. “The Color of Money” is a necessary work that pushes us to correct those past wrongs.
Price: $15 from Amazon
Henry Holt and Co. (Macmillan), 2020, 368 pages
Recommended by Danny Crichton, TechCrunch Managing Editor
The internet has completely upended the production of art (often labeled as “content” in the capitalist jargon du jour). When it first came to wide attention, the internet seemed like an invention of infinite promise for creatives — a medium of open expression and a network of new human connections that offered faster and broader access to the most brilliant minds of the world. Old barriers crumbled, and cyberspace would be the new basis for an ambitious era of art.
Along the way, the internet also decimated the economic foundations of the modern art world, and despite the media’s obsession with platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon and Substack, has done almost nothing to underwrite the old middle-class careers that were once available to artists.
William Deresiewicz, the famed essayist of “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and a book on how colleges produce “Excellent Sheep,” turns his attention to the creator market and the economics of art. He’s both an observer and a participant, having left his decade-long teaching stint at Yale to go full freelancer. For the book, he interviewed about 150 creators across a range of fields, from painting and sculpture to writers and illustrators, and what he finds is, perhaps unsurprisingly, depressing.
In short, the economics of art today are terrifying. Platforms like Spotify pay a pittance for art, and the so-called “mid-list” works of artists are increasingly valueless. The internet may have millions of creators bopping around, but few of those people are getting paid, and an extremely small number are getting paid well. Like in so many other knowledge fields, there is an extreme superstar effect on the internet where a handful of artists can have all while almost all other artists have none.
While the descriptions of the salaries and lack of benefits offers some of the emotional heft of the book, Deresiewicz goes on to explore the history of the funding of the arts, from Renaissance patrons to the modern world of grant and foundation money, attempting to place our current predicament into context. He manages to critique everyone, from artists who refuse to adapt to the capitalistic structures of today to the art schools that profit off the indebtedness of their students. I was expecting a polemic, and got a reasonable slice of analysis instead.
It’s an eye-opening book, but necessarily incomplete. For the reality is, there are too many humans who want to produce art, and too few consumers who want to pay to observe and enjoy it. That supply and demand mismatch isn’t going away anytime soon. While the author has some interesting ideas about copyright and intellectual property commons and what not, the reality is that the plight of the artist is most definitely not a problem that has been solved by Silicon Valley technologists.
Most of the book isn’t revolutionary, but in many ways, few economics are for art. “The Death of the Artist” reminds us that the consumer choices we make do influence the kind of art we get — and the future prognosis isn’t good.
Price: $20 from Amazon
Penguin Random House, 2019, 368 pages
Recommended by Ron Miller, TechCrunch enterprise reporter
When you look back at World War II, you no doubt have heard about the male leaders and generals on all sides of the conflict. These are the people history typically remembers, but you don’t usually hear about the unsung heroes who operated in the shadows doing the hard work that wins wars.
One such person is a woman named Virginia Hall.
Author Sonia Purnell tells her remarkable story in the ironically titled “A Woman of No Importance.” As it turns out, Hall was incredibly important, and she single-handedly helped organize the resistance in Nazi-occupied France, moving stealthily around the country, constantly on the run from the Gestapo and French authorities, while somehow maintaining contact and passing valuable information to England.
She did all this not only as a woman in a world that didn’t take women seriously, remarkably, she also accomplished this with only one leg. Hall lost one of her legs in a hunting accident and used a wooden prosthetic, making her even more conspicuous for the authorities who were constantly on her trail.
Hall, who grew up in Baltimore, traveled overseas as a girl and developed a fondness for France. Even after the hunting accident, she drove an ambulance in France when the Germans attacked in 1940, simply wanting to help. Later, after returning to London, she somehow talked her way into a new spy network that was being formed by the English government. They lacked personnel who knew France and had contacts, so they took a chance on her. She rewarded them richly with a body of work that would help change the war. Later, she would work for the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, when America joined the war.
Among her accomplishments was building a network of spies, safe houses and supply routes. She quietly helped organize French resistance and, once in place, made sure they had money, weapons, food and training. She once engineered a daring escape of her colleagues, who were being held captive by Nazi authorities in a well-guarded prison camp. She climbed over the rugged Pyrenees mountains through deep snow to safety in Spain when she had to escape the country.
In spite of these accomplishments and many more, she of course had to deal with overt sexism along the way, and Purnell tells how she was often required to report to men who were inferior in every sense. Often she just went her own way, bypassing the system and simply getting the job done.
While there were awards and accolades after the war, she mostly ignored them and seemed content to be a person who operated in the background. She later worked for the CIA, where again she had to deal with sexism and a general lack of respect for her accomplishments.
Hall should be a figure who is remembered and revered by history — a role model for all, a woman whose dogged persistence, intelligence and savvy helped win the war. I couldn’t put this book down, constantly astonished by her feats of daring and bravery, and by the fact that such an amazing person could have been lost to history if not for this impeccably researched book.
Price: $16 from Amazon
Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2016, 400 pages
Recommended by Nicole Quinn, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
I was a competitive sprinter for many years. It’s how I cleared my head and maintained equilibrium, so the book I recommend to founders is “Shoe Dog,” Phil Knight’s story of how he started his career selling low-cost running shoes and turned it into a $160 billion empire.
I remember reading “Shoe Dog” for the first time shortly after it was published, under the arches at the Knight Management Center at Stanford, where I had just finished my degree while also working on my own startup. That building was named after Phil Knight, who received his MBA from Stanford and had donated $105 million to the university.
One of the things I like about this book is that Knight was one of the first to discover the power of influencer marketing — most famously Nike’s connection with Michael Jordan in the 1980s. The deal was a partnership of equals between an up-and-coming company and a rising superstar, and it completely transformed the worlds of both sports shoes and celebrity endorsements.
Knight’s account of that partnership taught me to never take my own partnerships for granted. I consider myself lucky to work with influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Gaga on Lightspeed portfolio companies Goop and Haus Laboratories, respectively. By treating these as true partnerships of value and respect, we can aspire to achieve what Nike and Jordan did with theirs.
“Shoe Dog” also drove home for me the incredible importance of word-of-mouth marketing. Knight writes about what happened when his first full-time employee, Jeff Johnson, walked around in a pair of Blue Ribbon Tigers: “People kept stopping him and pointing at his feet and asking where they could buy some neat shoes like those.”
When we analyzed Calm and Cameo to join our portfolio, we looked closely at their potential for generating word of mouth and were impressed with both. As in the early days of Nike, word of mouth is still one of the leading indicators of a brand with staying power.
Knight’s book also teaches us about the power of thinking globally. Back in 1980, Knight was already plotting to use Nike’s foothold in Japan to expand into China. Today, many strong U.S. brands still underperform in other countries. One of the key reasons Lightspeed has opened offices in China, India, Israel and London is to offer insights and advice for companies that seek a more global footprint.
Finally, “Shoe Dog” has made me grateful for all the funding options we have today for startups. Back in the early 1970s, when Knight was trying to build Nike into a global brand, IPOs weren’t necessarily a celebration. They were often the only way organizations could raise the capital they needed to reach the next level. “If we didn’t go public, we risked losing everything,” Knight writes. He didn’t want to do an IPO, but it was his only option to scale the company.
That’s a different universe than the one we live in now, with all the different investment rounds and funds available to startups today, which allow companies to take as long as they need before filing for a public offering, assuming they decide to take that path.
These are just some of the reasons why I recommend “Shoe Dog.” It perfectly captures the entrepreneurial spirit I see in the people and companies I work with each day and inspires me to help them follow in Knight’s footsteps.
Price: $11 from Amazon
Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2011, 544 pages
Recommended by Danny Crichton, TechCrunch Managing Editor
Information — what it is, when’s it true and what’s it for — has been one of the most persistent themes in tech the past few years. There are now dozens of works on misinformation, algorithmic propaganda and “fake news” trying to help us wade through the epistemology of the modern world. Yet, this isn’t the first time that humans have gone through an information revolution, nor is it likely to be the last.
James Gleick wrote “The Information” almost a decade ago, but the book feels more relevant than ever. In it, he provides a full historical overview of what we mean by information, how it gets organized and how it gets transmitted from person to person. It’s an absolutely fascinating lens to view history by, and represents one of the best examples of the power of synthesis to redefine our perspective on the world.
What’s all here? The invention of the alphabet and the dictionary. The use of drums and flares to signal danger and communicate over distances. The telegraph and the telephone. The development of mathematics and particularly the mathematics of information theory. Quantum and classical computing. All wrapped up into an overarching narrative about the human need for more knowledge and understanding of the universe. You also get to meet a cast of luminaries along the way, including some of the most brilliant minds in physics, mathematics and computer science.
Gleick focuses mostly on the theory and the invention of the technologies themselves, with occasional digressions into the social ramifications of these communications technologies. I would have liked more of the latter, as one pattern you notice with each wave of communications technology is that there are distinct short, medium and long-term changes that each induces. Given how much acceleration around information we have had the past decade or two, it’s quite palpable to observe just how much more change is to come that’s already been set in motion.
In short, “The Information” is a deeply researched and enticing historical journey, one that encourages us to contextualize the overwhelming changes happening in our world.
Price: $16 from Amazon
Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2019, 459 pages
Recommended by Alex Iskold, managing partner of 2048 Ventures
David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, dedicated his life to the research of aging. The central idea of “Lifespan,” his latest book, is that humans aren’t actually programmed by nature to age and die. Instead, Sinclair argues that heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other major causes of death are all manifestations of one single disease — aging. He then explains how cutting-edge science in coming decades will help substantially slow down, and eventually reverse aging, enabling people to live to 150 years old and beyond.
The book contains a fascinating mix of Sinclair’s research, practical advice on anti-aging, implications for healthcare and medicine, philosophy of anti-aging and mind-bending societal implications of substantially longer lifespan
Price: $15 from Amazon
Bloomsbury, 2005, 864 pages
Recommended by Anthony Ha, TechCrunch senior writer
I’ve had a copy of “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” on my shelf for years, but I never felt motivated enough to start the (literally) thousand-page tome until its author, Susanna Clarke, was profiled a few months ago in The New Yorker.
Boy, do I feel dumb for waiting. The novel is an absolute pleasure from beginning to end, and as soon I’d started it, I found myself trying to steal free time to read another 10 pages (or 50, or 100 …)
The novel takes place in an alternate England where magic is real — or so we’re told. By 1806, when the story opens, faeries have disappeared, and the only magicians are “theoretical,” spending their time researching magical history rather than casting real spells.
Gilbert Norrell, a rather stodgy and reclusive scholar of the magical arts, changes all that. When challenged by The Learned Society of York Magicians, Mr. Norrell reveals his powers by bringing an entire cathedral’s work of statues to life. He then proceeds to London, where he hopes to revive the practice of English magic. Eventually, he trains an equally talented magician named Jonathan Strange — Strange is younger, more dashing and more impulsive, and the pair’s friendship soon turns into a rivalry.
That’s just the barest outline of the story, which encompasses everything from the Napoleonic wars, the cost of bringing your loved ones back from the dead and the history of a mysterious figure known as the Raven King. “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” fully justifies its length — if anything, it packs an entire trilogy’s worth of plot into a fast-paced single volume.
Beyond the pleasure of finding out what happens next, I luxuriated in the opportunity to spend time with the characters and world that Clarke created. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell seem like real people, while its alternate history (often revealed in playful footnotes) feels like real history.
And, more than any novel I can recall, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” makes magic seem like something indescribably strange — not just a writerly trick or trope, but a hidden layer of reality that only a talented magician (or writer) can reveal.
Price: $10 from Amazon
Knopf (Penguin Random House), 2019, 368 pages
Recommended by Danny Crichton, TechCrunch Managing Editor
We ran an experimental book club on the short story collection “Exhalation,” which explores a variety of themes about connection, humanity and a nice bit of time warp. Chiang has a preternatural ability to devise interesting plot devices and extend them into beautiful fractals of thinking and reflection. Definitely read the book, and check out our story-by-story discussion from earlier this year on TechCrunch:
Price: $15 from Amazon
Hello everyone and welcome back to Week in Review! Natasha here, subbing in for Lucas while he’s out. This week, we’ll talk about loneliness raising money and how Zoom fatigue is fueling innovation.
For everyone celebrating, happy holidays! Keep on the lookout next week for more festive content, including the launch of our annual TechCrunch Gift Guides.
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Over the last month, I spent time working out of virtual HQs. Dozens of founders are using spatial technology and gamification to create online worlds. Consumers are invited to congregate and create some of the spontaneity of in-person events, such as the work day or weddings. Founders are testing if the metaverse can be brought into the mainstream. After tossing a few succulents around myself, I was impressed (especially as a non-gamer) over how intuitive the platform felt. It feels special to bump into someone in 2020.
You can read more of my story here, which includes a demo video and pictures to give you a feel for the space. For today, though, I want to talk about what I think the rise of virtual HQs is not-so-subtly telling us.
Founders are trying to disrupt loneliness in this chapter of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s a shift in what the technology at its core is trying to fix, and it’s a little dynamic called Zoom fatigue.
For example, in March, we saw startups race to try to bring remote work to the masses. Now, in November, we’re seeing startups race to fix the broken, fatigued world of remote work.
The issue here, I think, is that founders are trying to innovate a solution to a lack of spontaneity and togetherness in our lives. Spontaneity, by definition, cannot be forced. And the community will always feel different in person. These inherent clashes make us, or at least me, question what technology’s constraints are. That said, virtual event platform Hopin and its $2 billion valuation shuts me right up.
Still, as we see startups chase to fix the next big pain point that everyone can agree on, it will be important to track what’s a venture-backable problem, and what’s a more existential one.
Image Credits: Wongsaphat Suknachon / EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images
A White House in transition
It’s been a busy week for a shifting White House and big tech. President Trump fired U.S. cybersecurity official Chris Krebs for debunking false election claims. Meanwhile, two platforms that have fed fires of misinformation, Facebook and Twitter, had yet another testimony in front of Congress. Big tech will likely continue to face backlash when the Biden Administration takes lead, especially when it comes to antitrust regulation. However, it’s not all bad news for tech: President-elect Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and tech-friendly transition team could help out startups. More here.
The race for a COVID-19 vaccine
This week, Pfizer and BioNTech sought emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 vaccine, which is 95% effective. The news follows Moderna’s report that its vaccine is 94.5% effective. While proposed approval could get vaccines in the hands of high-risk populations, wide-spread vaccines likely won’t be available until 2021. Keep reading here.
Apple’s latest Intel
As my colleague Brian Heater puts it, “every refresh can’t be a revolution” in hardware product updates. That said, Apple’s latest trio of Macs has impressed. We have reviews on the Mac mini, Macbook Air, and MacBook Pro. Notably, the line is powered by Mac’s in-house microchips, pushing an effort that has been in the works since 2008. It’s a win for Apple, and loss for Intel, which had until now been powering Macs. Still, Intel seems to be taking its break-up with Apple alright, since announcing its own white-label laptop.
TC: Sessions Space is approaching fast
NASA and SpaceX successfully launched four astronauts — and a special guest — into space for their first operational Dragon Crew Mission. History has been made – which makes our upcoming event even more exciting and timely. This year, TechCrunch is hosting its first-ever dedicated space event on December 16 and 17. The TC: Sessions Space agenda is packed, and includes fireside chats with the head of the US Space Force, NASA executives and more. Get your tickets now.
Thanks for reading,
Charge Bikes founder Nick Larsen and VP of product Peter Vallance wanted to reduce the pain points of buying and owning an electric bike to attract everyday folks and cycling enthusiasts alike.
The company offers three models: the Comfort for weekend leisure rides, the City for commuters and the XC for off-road enthusiasts. I got to spend some time with the City and took it on a quick grocery to see what it could do.
The bbike features a 250w geared hub motor with a max speed up to 20 MPH, pedal assist and throttle, front and rear lights, a locking removable battery that’s capable of 50 miles on a single charge, folding handlebar and pedals, puncture-resistant Goodyear tires, tire pressure sensors, an easy to read display with speed and power assist selector, disc brakes, Shimano Tourney 7 speed shifter, fenders, a rack and a handy dandy kickstand. All of that weighs in at just 45 pounds.
Unboxing was simple, and I was happy the company skipped the styrofoam packing. I really like working with my hands and building things, but this was almost too easy. Just unfold the handlebar and pedals, attach the front wheel and adjust the seat post. Once you fill the tires with air and charge the battery, you’re ready to ride.
I started my ride on flat ground and mostly used the throttle at the highest setting — because, why not? The seat, grips, and riding position were comfortable, and I could see myself easily riding for longer.
The foldable pedals felt strange. There was some flex and bowing, which made me think I might be losing some crank power going to the wheel. I was afraid I might break them. However, the foldable handlebar felt securely locked in and didn’t give me any worry.
One of the company’s marketing messages — “Get there and back, no sweat” — didn’t ring entirely true, at least for me. While it’s plenty fast and assists great on flat land, it’s not the hill flattening bike that I hoped it would be. We’ve got a lot of foothills out here in Oakland and my route to the local grocery store had several varying inclines. Some of the steepest had me cranking hard to make five miles an hour at assist level five.
It’s definitely better to have the electric power than not. I certainly wouldn’t attack any of these hills on my regular bike. I normally drive to this grocery store, but having an e-bike gave me the option of leaving the car parked and I like that.
Some critical points about the bike but aren’t dealbreakers are the fenders. While a great feature, they’d bend out of place often rubbing against the tires. The foldable pedals are a nice idea, but I’d likely swap them out for standard ones with straps.
I ran into gear-shifting issues mid hill climb which is the worst time for it not to shift into an easier gear. This was happening with my thumb on the throttle full blast. I also had an issue with the charger not charging the battery 100% overnight. It happened a couple times and I’m not sure what the issue was. I unplugged everything and plugged it back up, and that seemed to do the trick.
Overall, the City is a great utilitarian bike for daily riding for everyday folks. From purchasing the bike to storing it, they really have reduced the friction points of owning an e-bike. You can purchase the City bike on their site for $1,499.
We did shots to celebrate. Chrome rocked, and we were Day One Fans.
But over time what was once a romance began to sour, as Chrome got a bit slower, a bit heavier and a bit worse over the years.
The devolution felt a bit like what was happening to Google search, in which a very good idea was slowly turned into something that made more money at the cost of functionality, speed, and user happiness (more on that natural terminus of that progression here).
And because I am a petulant child, I have been very annoyed by what has happened to Chrome, software that I have never paid a single dollar to use. To make this point, I went out to round up a tweet or two from myself complaining about Chrome over the years, but after finding at least nine examples since May I started to feel bad (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine). So let’s move on.
What went wrong with Chrome? I don’t know. Over time its taste for RAM, lag, and being generally annoying grew. But as I was living in a G Suite world, sticking to Chrome made sense — so I endured.
And now, I may not have to any longer. This week Google detailed an impending set of Chrome updates that are amazing to read through and imagine the real-world impact of. Big Goog appears to have gone deep into its browser’s code, finding ways to make it faster, lighter on memory usage, and smarter.
I am so very excited.
What’s coming? Pulling from Google’s Chromium blog instead of its more consumer-friendly post (a big thanks to The Verge for bringing this set of updates to my attention), here are the highlights as far as I am concerned (Bolding: TechCrunch in each block quote):
Even if you have a lot of tabs open, you likely only focus on a small set of them to get a task done. Starting in this release, Chrome is actively managing your computer’s resources to make the tabs you care about fast—while allowing you to keep hundreds of tabs open—so you can pick up where you left off.
In this release, we’re improving how Chrome understands and manages resources with Tab throttling, occlusion tracking and back/forward caching, so you can quickly get to what you need when you need it.
Google this is literally me. I feel incredibly seen. Thank you.
When the world works again, I want to buy lunch for everyone who took part in this effort.
Next, we’re bringing Occlusion Tracking–which was previously added to Chrome OS and Mac–to Windows, which allows Chrome to know which windows and tabs are actually visible to you. With this information, Chrome can optimize resources for the tabs you are using, not the ones you’ve minimized, making Chrome up to 25% faster to start up and 7% faster to load pages, all while using less memory.
How many times have you visited a website and clicked a link to go to another page, only to realize it’s not what you wanted and click the back button? […] In Chrome 87, our back/forward cache will make 20% of those back/forward navigations instant, with plans to increase this to 50% through further improvements and developer outreach in the near future.
I didn’t even know I needed this, but I do. And I can’t wait to have it.
All in all, as I write this short post to you inside of Chrome, I cannot help but be freaking excited about New And Improved Chrome. More later after I get some testing in, but, honestly, yay!
Advertising drives the modern digital economy. Whether it’s reading news sites like this one or perusing your social media feeds, advertising is the single most important industry that came out of the development of the web. Yet, for all the tens of billions of dollars poured into online advertising just in the United States alone, how much does that money actually do its job of changing the minds of consumers?
Tim Hwang has a contrarian stance: it doesn’t. In his new book published as a collaboration between Logic Magazine and the famed publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he argues in “Subprime Attention Crisis” that the entire web is staring into an abyss of its own making. Advertising is overvalued due to the opaqueness of the market, and few actors are willing to point out that the advertising emperor has no clothes. Much like the subprime mortgage crisis, once people come to realize the true value of digital ads, the market could crater. I found the book provocative, and I wanted to chat further with Hwang about his thoughts on the market.
Hwang formerly worked at Google on policy and has developed many, many projects across a whole swath of tech-oriented policy issues. He’s currently a research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
TechCrunch: Let’s dive straight into the book. How did you get started on this topic of the “subprime attention economy”?
Tim Hwang: There were two incidents where I was like, something is going on here. I was having conversations with a couple of friends who are product managers at Facebook, and I remember making the argument that that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this whole adtech thing is maybe just mostly garbage. The most interesting thing that they said was, “Oh, like, advertising works but we can’t really tell you how.” That’s like talking to someone from the national security establishment and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we can stop terrorists but, like, we can’t tell you exactly how that goes down.”
I think one thing that got me really interested in it was how opaque a lot of these things are. The companies make claims that data-driven programmatic advertising really is as effective as it is but then they’re kind of strangely hesitant to show evidence of that.
Second, I was doing research with a lot of people who I think you’d rightly call sort of tech critics — strong critics of the power that these platforms have. I think one of the most interesting things is that even among the strongest critics of tech, I think a lot of them have just bought this claim that advertising and particularly data-driven advertising is as powerful as industry says it is.
It’s a kind of strange situation. Tech optimists and tech pessimists don’t agree on a whole lot, but they do seem to agree on the idea that this sort of advertising works. That was what I wanted to explore in the book.
Why don’t we talk a bit about the thesis?
The thesis of the book is really quite simple, which is you look around and basically our modern experience of the web is almost entirely shaped by advertising. The way social media is constructed, for example, is largely as a platform for delivering ads. Engagement with content is really good for creating profiles and it’s really good for delivering ads. It really has been the thing that has powered the current generation of companies in the space.
As you sort of look closer though, it really starts to resemble the market bubbles that we know of and have seen in other places. So explicitly, the metaphor of the book is the subprime mortgage crisis. I think the idea though is that you have this market that is highly opaque, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the value of ads is misidentified, and you have a lot of people interested in boosting it even in spite of all that.
For the book, I wanted to look at that market and then what the internet could look like after all this. Are there other alternative business models that we want to adopt for the web going forward?
There’s nothing small about the latest Mac mini.
Never mind the Mac mini’s tiny size or low price. This diminutive desktop is a revolution for most users, thanks to Apple’s new chipset. Called the M1, this chip platform replaces the Intel CPU long found at the heart of Apple’s desktop and portable computers, and the results are impressive.
Using the M1 Mac mini feels like using a new iPad or iPhone. Everything satisfyingly snaps into place. I keep waiting for my test machine to start lagging, and nearly a week later, it’s just as fast as the day I started using it. The new Mac mini is surprising, and most users will find it a major upgrade over existing Mac computers. It’s hard to beat regardless of the price.
For casual users, those who live in a web browser or Apple’s apps, the Mac mini is a no-brainer option. This is the desktop I would buy for myself. Even for power users, those who run bespoke applications, the Mac mini should be seriously considered. Most mainstream applications excel on the new Mini — especially apps with a creative tilt toward photography or video.
The Mac mini has long been a forgotten friend among the Mac lineup. Hardly updated and never promoted, it sat on the bench for years, watching as Apple’s portables received updates and refreshes as the world became more mobile. But here we are in the midst of a never-ending pandemic. With coffee shops closed and business travel limited, the COVID-19 crisis could lead to the rediscovery of the desktop computer.
The M1-powered Mac mini is a winner.
There are several things you should know. One, the new Mac mini runs the M1 SoC, which is fundamentally different from its Intel predecessor. Instead of a CPU, it’s an SoC — System on a Chip, which comes with advantages and concessions. The chipset is built around an ARM design with more integrated components than its CPU counterparts. In many ways, it’s more similar to the system powering phones and tablets than the chips used in traditional computers. Because of this design, components that used to be discrete are now integrated directly into the chip.
Second, Apple provided a 6K 32-inch Pro Display XDR with my test Mac mini (these will be returned to Apple). I’m also running a 24-inch display over HDMI. According to the Mac mini’s product page, the system is limited to two monitors. I was able to hook up a third monitor through 3rd party software but it was unstable and should not be considered a capability.
Lastly, you should know TechCrunch also reviewed the new 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. We benchmarked these systems with similar conditions to demonstrate the differences between the units. You can find the reviews here for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
In our tests, we found Apple’s M1 system on a chip (SoC) to outperform its rivals, regardless of price. With the M1 at its core, the Mac mini is faster in most regards than every Apple computer available except for the ultra-expensive Mac Pro — and sometimes the Mini is faster than the Mac Pro, too. What’s more, this performance increase is noticeable throughout the system and not just limited to raw computing tasks in purpose-built applications. The system is snappy, responsive and feels like the start of a new era of computing.
Snappy hardly describes the experience of the new Mac mini. This system flies. Users will instantly notice the increase in speed, too, from startup time to launching apps. In the past, even on powerful machines, macOS has always felt heavy compared to iOS, but not anymore. With the M1 chip, macOS (Big Sur) is light and free and a joy to use.
Even better, the ARM-based M1 chip allows Macs to run iOS applications, and they run as smoothly on the Mac as they do on an iPad.
There’s likely a hesitation around embracing a new Intel-less Mac. Will your legacy applications run on these machines? Will they run well? I can’t answer every variable. I installed and ran dozens of applications during my few days with the system and never experienced a roadblock. Even with older programs, everything ran as advertised, and in most cases, ran better on this M1-powered Mac mini than on my few-months-old 15-inch MacBook Pro. I didn’t find one application unable to run on the new platform.
The largest speed increases are most noticeable when using native apps for the M1 processor. With Apple’s Final Cut Pro, the application loads seemingly instantly — two seconds from button press to it being open and ready to go.
With the M1 chip, it’s less painful to edit 8K footage in the native Final Cut Pro app than it was to edit 4K footage on an Intel Mac. Exporting the files still takes time, though, and this is one of the few tasks where Intel’s platform outperforms the M1.
Even when using legacy software, the system preformed with ease. Edits in Photoshop seemed more fluid. Lightroom loaded photo albums quicker and without hesitation. Editing video in Premiere was easier and less painful as I scrubbed through 6K footage. Even unzipping files was much quicker.
Image Credits: Matt Burns
This is a silly demonstration, but watch the GIF above. Applications open instantly — all of them at the same time. If Apple put a beachball in this system, I haven’t found it yet.
The M1 chip is based on an ARM design, which required Apple to rework macOS to run on this new computing platform. While it looks mostly the same, the macOS is now purpose-built for Apple’s own silicon. To take full advantage of the redesigned chip, applications need to be re-coded into an Arm-friendly design. And yet, we found something surprising: Even the apps that are not re-coded yet are still impressively fast thanks to Apple’s Rosetta 2 that enables software encoded for Intel’s platform to run on the new Apple platform and take advantage of the M1’s power.
For most uses, this holistic approach of building the hardware and software results in major advantages. Common system-level tasks like launching apps, waking from sleep and unzipping files are lightning-fast. Other items like rendering video and editing photos are just as fast, too. Right now, at launch, all of Apple’s apps — from Music to Photos to Safari — are re-encoded for the M1. Like those from Adobe, other apps are not yet native, but the older versions run fine, and in most cases, run better on the M1 than an Intel platform.
The M1 platform lacks a dedicated graphics processing unit. It’s built-into the core of the chip. Thanks to a memory dedicated to machine learning, this lack of a discrete GPU is hardly noticeable for professional users. Still, those who do intensive graphics work (like professional gfx visual artists) should hesitate. Even then, this conclusion could change once the applications become native to the new ARM architecture.
The M1 also lacks the ability to use an eGPU — an external graphics card — but most users should not fret. It could be a problem for pros who found the Intel-based Mac minis paired with a powerful eGPUs as a viable, low-cost alternative to the Mac Pro. However, based on our testing, the GPU performance in these M1 systems are impressive and could be good enough for most, even in creative media editing applications.
In addition to common workflows, I ran through some industry benchmarks to see how the system responds and came away impressed. We took it one step further, too, and charted the performance between Apple’s top-of-the-line systems and the new 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Benchmarks often oversimplify results, but in this case, they seem necessary. This puts systems on common ground. By looking at multiple tests, the results draw a common conclusion. The M1 is really good.
The Mac mini has two siblings. The M1 is also available in Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. The differences are minor. The same computing platform powers all three but feature different cooling schemes in the MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Because of the improved cooling, the MacBook Pro and Mac mini are better suited for sustained performance.
In our testing, all three machines performed similarly. The Air started to fall short in the longer tests, and that’s likely due to its passive cooling that does not feature a fan. In the MacBook Pro and Mini, the SoC is cooled by a fan, while a heatsink is used in the Air.
What does this mean for you? For most users, the Air’s performance is sufficient as it only slows down during long, intensive tasks. For browsing the web, editing photos and watching videos, the Air is perfect.
There’s one downside to the new Mac mini over its Intel sibling. The M1 Mac mini only sports two Thunderbolt 4 inputs — that’s because the M1 chipset has an integrated Thunderbolt controller and it supports up to two of these ports. For some users, this could be a deal-breaker, though it’s not for me. There are countless ways to expand the Thunderbolt capability of the Mac mini, and to me, the performance of the machine outweighs the port limitation.
The M1 Mac mini also lacks a 10GB Ethernet option, limiting its use as a server for some users. This is also likely an M1 limitation, and something I would expect would be addressed in future chipset revisions.
Multiple monitor support is a major downside to the M1 Mac mini. It only supports two monitors: one through Thunderbolt and one over HDMI. I was able to get a third monitor running at low resolution through third-party software, but it was unstable and performed poorly. To some, including me, multiple monitor support is a major issue and two monitors are often not enough.
Apple, when promoting the M1-powered computers, laid out some wild claims about the chipset. We found most of the claims to be factual. We ran a handful of benchmarks on the M1 systems, comparing them against the most recent Macs, including the Mac Pro.
Benchmarks paint with a broad stroke and often miss nuances. That’s the case here. While the first few benchmarks demonstrate the speed of the M1, the final test fails to capture a critical aspect of Final Cut Pro. Sure, it’s slower to export than an Intel-based system, but using the M1-native version of Final Cut Pro is much smoother than what’s available on older systems. I was able to easily manipulate, scrub and edit 8K footage without even a hiccup. Rendering takes longer, but editing is seemingly easier.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
Here we downloaded the Xcode 12.3 beta. It’s an 11.57GB file that extracts a 28.86GB folder. Lower times are better.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
Here we compile WebKit. Lower times are better.
With Geekbench, we ran two tests: One, using Rosetta 2 to demonstrate the system’s power when running legacy applications. Then we ran Geekbench in an M1 native mode to test Apple’s silicon. Higher is better.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
For Final Cut Pro, we timed the rendering of an 8K video (80GB). Lower is better.
Test Mac mini specs
The new Mac mini is a fantastic machine and feels like the start of a quiet revival. In another era, Apple was known for its solid, fairly-priced desktops, which is a great description for this Mac mini.
As a longtime fan of the Mac mini, I’m thrilled to see it once again as a great option for those of us who live at a desk .
With the M1 chipset, Apple is moving onto a new chapter in its long history of personal computers. This chip redefines the computing paradigm by offering stellar performance in a small, power-efficient package. In the Mac mini, the M1 shines as a stable workhorse that provides a new experience to Mac desktops. In the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, the M1 is just as solid while offering substantially better battery life than previous offerings. Read those reviews here and here.
Should you get the new Mac mini? If you’re stuck at a desk, yes. The new Mac mini is fantastic.
Reviewing hardware is an act of minutia. Occasionally something new or potentially earth-shattering comes along, but on the whole, it’s about chipping away. Documenting small, gradual changes designed to keep product lines fresh and — if you play your cards right — differentiating yourself from the competition.
Apple’s as guilty of this as anyone, of course. That’s just the nature of a 12 to 24-month product cycle. Every refresh can’t be a revolution. Every so often, however, a game-changer comes along — something undeniable that sets the scene for a more profound shift for a product line. The trio of Macs launched at the company’s third major press conference in three months certainly apply.
It’s been 15 years since Apple made the jump to Intel processors from PowerPCs, a chip technology it had relied upon for more than a decade. That move came as the company was butting up against the limitations of its chosen technology. PowerPC took them far at the time, but it couldn’t deliver on the processing power it desired for the next generation of portables.
As with that transition, the move toward Apple silicon has been years in the making. The company has been making a concerted effort to wean itself off of third-party components. Among other things, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate your product when you’re essentially using the same parts as everyone else on the market. Creating your own processors is, of course, a long and difficult process. Thankfully, however, the company had a head start.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
The Arm-based chips that power the company’s mobile devices are a great starting point. The company can build on several generations of learning, while moving ever closer to that perpetual Holy Grail of Apple software: perfect cross-ecosystem compatibility. Elements of iOS have been trickling down into MacOS for years now (a trend that includes, and arguably accelerates with, Big Sur), while the company eased the transition for Intel Mac owners with the Catalyst.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
After countless rumors and months of wait, the first three Apple Silicon Macs are finally here. And the results are, in a word, impressive. You’ve no doubt seen some of the benchmarks that have popped up over the past several days that have left many in the community taken aback. While it’s true that Apple talked up performance in its own presser, it’s easy enough to discount those numbers without more specific benchmarks. We’ve split our testing of the three systems among three editors — and it’s pretty safe to say we were blown away by what the systems can do.
Okay, so, a brief break down of the M1:
The Air, in particular, presents some truly robust gains of the most recent versions of the system, released back in March. That may feel like forever ago, given everything that has transpired, but that’s a mere eight months. The system excels at two benchmarks in particular: battery life — measures by a simple video playback — and Geekbench, which tests a system’s CPU and GPU performance by simulating real-world situations. Anecdotally, things are just faster all over the place.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Apps open almost instantly and resource-intensive tasks like editing 4K video are surprisingly zippy. Some of these are changes you’ll likely notice right away, even if you’re not pushing the system to the limit. Take the neat trick of waking up instantly from sleep. It’s something we’ve taken for granted on mobile devices but haven’t seen as much on desktops.
These advances, perhaps unsurprisingly, arrive in the same package. Like the new Mac mini and 13-inch Pro, the Air is identical to the one released early this year. Perhaps the company is seeking to maintain consistency on the outside as the products undergo rather dramatic changes under the hood. Maybe a redesign didn’t line up with the move to Arm. Or, hey, maybe Apple thinks the current design represents some sort of platonic ideal for thin and light laptop.
Whatever the case, you’d be hard-pressed to pick the new Air out of a lineup. I’ve been using the system in public, and no one’s been any the wiser that I got a slight head start on the next generation of Macs. If I’m being honest, I’d have liked it if Apple had ushered the moment in with some befittingly dramatic redesign — but at least no one can accuse Apple of introducing change for the sake of change. And let’s be honest, while the physical design of the Air hasn’t changed much in recent generations, it remains one of the most iconic and better-looking laptops on the market.
That includes the same thin and beveled design that differentiates the product from the rest of the MacBook line, and at 2.8 pounds, it’s 0.2 pounds lighter than the 13-inch MacBook. That’s not a huge spread, but it’s something that will make a difference to your lower back over time — I say that as someone who lugged the system around on a 15-mile walk over the weekend.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Once again, there are two USB-C ports, both positioned on the same side. I’m always going to argue for more ports, especially given the fact that one will semi-regularly be monopolized by a charging cable. I’m also a fan of spreading them out a bit more — preferably on either side of the machine for those instances when you just can’t get enough slack from the cable or have something a bit wider plugged into the port. Of course, there’s no surprise on that front, unlike the new 13-inch Pro, which lost two ports in the process of upgrading.
That will likely sting for some users attempting to figure out whether to upgrade here. The change appears to be connected to some limitations of the new M1 SOC. If I was a betting man, however, I would suggest that there’s a pretty reasonable possibility that whatever pro-focused version of the chip comes next will support more ports for upcoming devices like the first Apple Silicon 16-inch MacBook Pro.
In fact, the company is likely reserving a number of upgrades to differentiate this round from some new pro-focused devices likely to arrive at some point next year. It’s all part of a kind of configuration of Apple’s Mac strategy that we’re seeing play out in slow motion. The new Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini represent the entry-level tier for the Mac line. It’s a category that’s become an increased focus for the company in recent years — and one we’ve seen play out across the iPhone and Apple Watch lines.
There is, of course, still truth in the longstanding notion of the premium “Apple Tax,” but the company has expended its approach to improve things on the lower end. One of the more surprising aspects of this strategy on the Mac side is just how much the company has closed the gap between the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook. There are differences between the two devices, of course. For many or most, the biggest is the $300 price gulf between the $999 starting price for the Air and $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro.
So, how does Apple justify the price difference? And more to the point, will the upsell make a difference for a vast majority of users? Before we go any further, let’s break down the key differences between the new Air and Pro.
The last bullet is the most important when it comes to performance. The arrival of the M1 made a fanless MacBook Air a possibility — something that was unheard of in early models. It bodes well for the thinness of future MacBooks, and more immediately, it means extremely silent performance. And, indeed, no matter how much stress testing I’ve managed to do over these past few days, the system has remained eerily silent — though I’d caution you that the passive cooling system can result in a rather toasty Air if you really push things. And, more importantly for a workload standpoint, the system will throttle during resource-intensive tasks — but you’ll have to push it.
Take, for example, the five-minute, 8K clip we exported in Final Cut Pro. At 33:13 minutes on the Pro and 32:59 minutes on the Air, the end result was, honestly fairly negligible (the Mac Pro, meanwhile, blew them both away at a blazing five and a half minutes). Ditto for running a WebKit compile. That took 25 minutes and five seconds on the Air and 20 minutes and 43 seconds. That’s not entirely negligible, but both systems beat out the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro’s 26 minutes and 56 seconds. And both systems took far less of a battery hit, losing around 9% during the process, versus the 16-inch’s 39%.
The new M1 chips are remarkably energy efficient, even when performing more resource-intensive tasks. In a video playback test, I got 16 hours of life. That’s less than the maximum 18 hours stated by Apple’s numbers, but it’s an impressive figure, nonetheless. I would certainly feel comfortable leaving the house without a charge.
Per Matthew’s numbers, the Pro fares even better. He was able to get right around the stated 20 hours. That higher figure likely comes due a higher capacity battery courtesy of the thicker laptop footprint. In both cases, however, the systems blew away last year’s 13 and 16-inch Pros, which got eight hours and eight minutes and six hours and 40 minutes, respectively. That’s a tremendous bump in an important metric.
So let’s break down those Geekbench 5 numbers. The new Air and Pro’s numbers are quite similar. That’s to be expected given their respective internals. Again, you’re going to have to really push the system — likely for a prolonged amount of time — before the Air take a noticeable hit due to its fanless design. The Pro scored a 1711 on single core and 7549 on the multi-core. The Air got an average of 1725 and 7563, respectively (for good measure, I’ll add that the the Mini hit a similar 1748 and 7644).
Here’s some more historical context from Geekbench. A few relevant examples: the Core i7 MacBook Air from earlier this year averaged 1136, while the 13-inch Pro hit 1240. Running the Intel version of the benchmark (using the Rosetta 2 emulator), the numbers predictably took a hit, but still best the Intel systems. And, indeed, Intel-designed apps performed quite smoothly.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
Most of the benchmarks we ran found the two systems scoring remarkably close to one another. In other words, I think it’s a safe bet a majority of people searching for systems at this tier won’t be bumping up against those kinds of limits too often. Those who do find themselves frequently performing tasks that challenge those hardware limitations are going to have the difficult choice of buying the new 13-inch Pro now or waiting the see what models like the 16-inch have in store. For more information on that front, spend some time with Matthew’s review of the new 13-inch.
Image Credits: Apple
What I can say with more certainty, however, is that Apple’s got a much stronger case for its rediscovered focus on creative pros. While the category has long been its bread and butter, a case can be made that the company has surrendered some of that market to the likes of Microsoft’s Surface line and others. Apple made the case that the Touch Bar found it rekindling that relationship, but I think there’s a much stronger case to be made for a MacBook Air that can process much heavier workloads than its predecessors.
And, frankly, I haven’t missed the Touch Bar. My primary laptop is a 15-inch Pro with Touch Bar, but it’s a feature that hasn’t really impacted my workflow — and it’s not for a lack of trying. I suspect that for those attempting to distinguish between the Pro and Air the missing feature will barely register. And besides, my favorite part of the Touch Bar addition — TouchID — is here as it was on the last Intel version of the Air. On a whole, I’ve found the ability to log in with a fingerprint more useful than scrolling through photos or emojis on the thin touch strip.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Speaking of touch — there’s another elephant in the room here. Obviously the touchscreen Macs some predicted didn’t arrive at the event early this month. Even so, it seems reasonable to expect that they will at some point in the not so distant future, with the lines continuing to blur between macOS and iOS. Look no further than Big Sur, which continues the recent trend of adopting key features from the mobile operating system.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
As I noted in my recent writeup of macOS 11.0, a number of features are practically begging for touchscreen interaction. Take the sliders in the newly added Control Center. Sure, the trackpad works fine, but it sure would be satisfying to swipe them over with a finger. This becomes even more pronounced when playing certain iOS optimized games, which now play natively on the M1. Take “Among Us.” I played the wildly popular social game on the new Air — and while the gameplay was predictably smooth, playing with the trackpad feels less natural than touch.
In this implementation, you either have to use the pointer to control an on-screen joypad or simply point the character in the right direction. There’s also the fact that the game occupies a fixed window that you can’t expand to take up the full display. The M1 chip goes a long ways toward opening up the available Mac ecosystem, making porting an iOS app as simple as ticking a box to make it available through the Mac App Store, but in many cases, additional optimization for these systems is warranted particularly for more professionally minded applications.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
As for the other primary input device, the keyboard is pretty much the same as the latest Intel Air — which is to say head and shoulders above early versions. That’s no doubt a dark couple of generations of keyboards Apple would like to forget. They were solid as a rock, and insufferably loud. They also caused a lot of users undue stress by getting jammed. The latest version of the scissor mechanisms are far superior to the early butterflies. I won’t go so far as saying it’s the best laptop typing experience, but it’s like night and day compared to early models.
Another aspect that warrants mention is the webcam. It’s a feature that rarely warrants a sentence in most laptop reviews, but this is 2020. It’s a weird year with weird demands and here we are carrying out the vast majority of our interaction with other human beings over Zoom. It sucks, but it’s life. Many people have no doubt already invested in external webcams as part of the shift toward working from home. For the first time in — well, probably ever — webcams are an important factor in purchasing for many or even most people.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Apple has, indeed, upgraded the camera for the latest Air — but not entirely. That is to say the sensor is the same, and the camera is still stuck at 720p. But the new image signal processor (ISP) included as part of the M1’s SOC design does result in a better image. You can see the difference above. Frankly, neither is great to be honest, but one is decidedly less bad than the other. On the left you’ll see the Air’s image.
The resolution is still low, but the color — among others — is certainly improved. The white balance is more inline with reality and it handles shades better. I’m going to still defer to my external webcam for things like Extra Crunch panels, but for a quick meeting, sure, I’m fine letting the Air do the job. This would have been a perfect time for Apple to go all-in with a webcam refresh on these systems. Common wisdom says there are limitations on camera hardware give the thickness of the laptop lid, but if I had to venture a guess here, I’d say the company is looking at webcam video as another point of differentiation for Pro models.
The microphone, meanwhile, remains a point of distinction between the Air and Pro. I’ve included voice recordings from the Intel and Arm Airs above. See if you can tell the difference. Honestly, I can’t, really. As with the webcam, they’re fine for a casual chat, but I wouldn’t want to, say, record a podcast on the thing.
These three new systems represent the first step toward Mac’s future. And there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the potential of Apple Silicon. The M1 chip already displays some pretty dramatic performance gains for a lot of tasks, coupled with substantial increases in battery life, courtesy of decreased power consumption.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
There are some limitations worth noting on these models. Two USB-C ports appears to be the maximum in the current configuration and all three models currently top out at 16GB of RAM. If either of those are dealbreakers, the company will happily still sell you an Intel model for the foreseeable future.
When Apple Silicon was announced at WWDC back in June, Tim Cook noted that it would take two years to transition the full line. That means we’re very much at the beginning of this journey and there’s a lot left to reveal, including how dramatically different the true Pro tier of MacBooks look.
For most users with most needs, the Air is a fine choice. If I had to buy a new MacBook today I would pull the trigger on Air and upgrade the memory and storage for good measure. It’s a surprisingly powerful machine in a compact package.