Enlarge /. It would be great to see Linux running and fully functional on Apple M1 hardware like this Mac Mini – but it seems unlikely to happen.
In a recent post on the Real World Technologies forum – one of the few public Internet venues Linux founder Linus Torvalds visits regularly – a user named Paul Torvalds asked, "What do you think of the new Apple laptop?"
"I would absolutely love one if it could only run Linux," Torvalds replied. "I've been waiting a long time for an ARM laptop that can run Linux. The new (Macbook) Air would be almost perfect except for the operating system."
Torvalds can of course already have an ARM-based Linux laptop if he wants one – for example the Pinebook Pro. The unspoken part here is that he would rather have a powerful ARM-based laptop than a budget-friendly but extremely performance-constrained design like the Pinebook Pro, Raspberry Pi, or a legion of other inexpensive devices.
Apple's M1 is just that – a powerful, desktop and laptop-centric system that delivers world-class performance while maintaining the over-efficient performance and thermal properties required in the phone and tablet world. On paper, an M1-powered Macbook Air would be a fantastic laptop for Linux or even Windows users – but Apple is unlikely to share it.
In an interview with ZDNet, Torvalds explained the problem:
The main problem with the M1 for me is the GPU and other devices in the area as that would probably prevent me from using it as there would be no Linux support if Apple didn't open … (that) seems unlikely but hey you can always hope
Torvalds is almost certain that Apple will not release enough details about the M1 System on Chip (SoC) for Linux kernel developers to build world-class support. Even in the much better understood Intel world, Macs have not been a good choice for Linux enthusiasts for several years and for the same reason. As Apple continues to bring its own hardware stack into the company, open source developers receive less and less information to port operating systems and write hardware drivers for the platform.
We strongly believe that other vendors have seen the value of bringing high-performance ARM systems to the laptop market, if enthusiasts could reverse engineer the M1 SoC enough for world-class Linux support – and it will be a lot easier to do so many will use the more open designs to work.
So far, ARM based laptops and miniature PCs have tried to disrupt the market by shooting on a budget rather than high performance. Examples of these include: the Pinebook Pro laptop for $ 200, the Raspberry Pi Model 400 for $ 100, and the Nvidia Jetson for $ 99.
With Apple proving the value of ARM in both performance and budget, we broadly expect competing systems with high-end Snapdragon and similar processors to hit the market in the next few years come. Such systems would not have to exceed or even match the outstanding performance of the M1. They would only have to compete strongly with conventional x86_64 systems in terms of performance and price and at the same time dominate them in terms of power consumption and thermal efficiency.
It's also worth noting that while blatantly great, the M1 is not the last word in desktop or laptop system-on-chip designs. Torvalds mentions that given the choice, he would prefer more and more powerful cores – which is certainly possible and likely to be granted soon.