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Migrating from Intel iMac to M1 MacBook Air: My five-day journey

Can a man with an eight-year-old maxed-out iMac find happiness with a little M1 MacBook Air?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

OK, let me set the stage. I have a bunch of very reliable, very functional, very old Macs. I have a 2013 iMac, three 2012 Mac minis, and a 2011 Mac mini. Some can run Catalina, one is stuck back at Mojave, but none can run either Big Sur or the upcoming Monterey. 

I also have a very powerful 2018 i7 Mac mini, which is my main desktop video editing machine and a 2015 i5 laptop. Both are able to run current software, so I'm sticking with them (although the laptop is going to my wife) for as long as they're supported.

I generally like to run my production Macs about half an OS generation behind, just because it usually takes half a year or so until the growing pains of the new release are overcome with bug fix updates. Certainly, I wouldn't say I like to fall two generations behind. At that point, applications and even web services start to fail, and they often fail at unpredictable times.

I've learned my lesson with that the hard way.

I've been putting off upgrading these machines because it's a hefty expense. Also, I wasn't entirely sure how the M1 would work for my projects because I'd been running Intel Macs for so very long.  

From iMac to M1 Macbook Air

Once WWDC was finished, and I realized there will be no new Macs for a while, I decided on an upgrade plan for my little fleet. I'll tell you more about that in a future article. But I decided to start with the very well-equipped (for 2013) iMac that moved from my office desk to the living room a few years ago and has served as my primary development machine ever since.

I decided to replace that 32GB iMac with a 16GB MacBook Air. I went with the Air because I want to be able just to unplug one port and take my development machine with me wherever I go. I haven't been able to do that with the 21 pound iMac.

Finally, my tactic for doing this was to spread it out over a few days so that I could get my regular day's work done as well. Once my regular work was done, I dipped into this project and moved it along a bit day-by-day.

Day 1: All Tangled up in Cable

I unpacked the box. All you get is an Air, a power cable, and a USB C charger. Note that the cable is NOT a Thunderbolt 3 cable. I found this out the hard way. Stay tuned for that part of the story.

The first thing I did was set up Migration Assistant to move my applications, data, and settings from the old 2013 iMac to the MacBook Air. I wanted to move all my settings because it took me weeks to get my development system just right, and I didn't want to have to go through the setup and tuning process again.

I connected the Air to Apple's recommended CalDigit TS3 Plus dock, and while power made it to the Air, nothing else worked. I reasoned that was because my TS3 was a few years old, but I just couldn't get it working. So instead of doing a migration using Ethernet, I was stuck with Wi-Fi.

During the migration, the screen said how much time remained: 30 hours, 4 hours, 2 days, 21 hours, 3 minutes, 2 hours, etc. Basically, the time-remaining estimates were completely inconsistent and useless. But it completed after about 9 hours, and most of my settings moved over perfectly. I had to re-authenticate a few things, but that was about it.

After the migration completed, I still found I couldn't get the CalDigit TS3 Plus to work other than to provide power to the Air. But when I hooked up the CalDigit Mini Dock, everything worked perfectly. That provided one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 port, two HDMI ports, and an Ethernet port. It did not provide power, so my measly two Thunderbolt ports were used up between the power cable and the dock.

But why didn't the TS3 work? As it turns out, the Apple-provided Thunderbolt cable wasn't a Thunderbolt cable. It didn't have the lightning bolt icon. It's just a power cable. When I replaced it with the TS3's provided cable, the TS3 Plus dock worked. The only gotcha? It doesn't support HDMI, just DisplayPort. Oh, and the mini dock worked because the Thunderbolt 3 cable was part of the dock itself.

So I ordered an Active Display Port to HDMI port adapter (CalDigit says it must be an Active adapter) and temporarily hooked up the machine to the Mini dock. I want to go back to the TS3 because I want just one cable going into the laptop for quick and easy removal.

Day 2: From Sluggish to Wow

I started my morning reading and realized I was a bit disappointed with Chrome performance (not the usual disappointment, but a more noticeable one). Chrome was more sluggish than I am used to on my old 2013 iMac. Don't discount that iMac because it had a top-equipped i7 and bonkers memory, so even seven years later, it's a pretty fast machine.

In any case, I googled for a minute and discovered that Chrome had an Apple Silicon build. My migrated Chrome was an Intel build. So I downloaded the M1 Chrome and just installed it over the original.

Boom! The performance improvement was exceptional. It went from sluggish to wow.

There was one really odd experience. System Preferences wanted me to update to Mac OS 11.4, and since this was a brand new system, I let it run the update. About 20 minutes later, when the update finished and the M1 MacBook Air rebooted, music started to blare out of the Air while the Apple logo with the percent done indicator was still on the screen. I could do nothing to turn off the music until the reboot finished and I got desktop access.

As it turns out, for some reason, the update decided to launch the Game of Thrones Apple Arcade game in the middle of booting up.

Now, let me be clear. I only tried that game once -- about four months ago on the old iMac -- I found it baffling and quit. I've never run it since. But, for whatever reason, the MacBook Air update decided to launch this game even before the boot process completed. In any case, as soon as I could, I used Force Quit to kill the game. You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Like I said: odd.

I needed to do a Time Machine restore for another computer, and I realized I hadn't checked Time Machine on the Air. It's good that I did because Time Machine wasn't fully set up. There was a little red alert button in Time Machine Preferences (but not on the menu bar). All I needed to do was claim the backups from the previous machine (the iMac), and Time Machine was back up and running.

Day 3: 'Selected product is not installed'

Now that the basic functionality is pretty much working, I decided to give some real attention to the M1 capability.

My first thought was running some of my iPhone apps on the machine. In particular, I wanted to run Pantry Check, which my wife and I use to manage our groceries. Unfortunately, it wasn't available on my list of iPhone applications within the Mac's App Store. A CNET article helped explain why: iOS developers have to opt-in to allow Mac functionality, and presumably, the Pantry Check developer did not.

To add an iPhone app, you need to go to the Mac App Store application, select your profile, and then, under Account, choose the very tiny tab that says "iPhone and iPad apps." Unfortunately, you can't search this list, so you have to scroll down and search by eye. I have apps going back to 2008, so that was annoying.

Clearly, Apple doesn't consider running iOS apps on the Mac M1 a real priority, or they'd optimize this almost hidden feature with a far better UI. I gave up since I didn't really care and never tested out this capability.

Yesterday, I learned that just because an M1 (also called a "Universal binary") app existed for an installed app, the Universal version does not install or update automatically. Chrome remained the Intel version after migration and updates until I installed a new Chrome right over it.

You can find out which apps are Intel or Universal in the System Report. Go to About This Mac, hit the System Report button, and then scroll down to Applications.


Notice the far right column.

Now for an interesting observation. I don't mind running the Rosetta 2 Intel emulator for most of my apps because the M1 is fast enough to make most of the less processor-intensive apps run just fine. But I did want to move over Photoshop and the other Adobe apps.

It's here I ran into a problem. The Adobe Creative Cloud app would launch, and it was completely unresponsive to mouse clicks. Its uninstaller wouldn't work because there were other Creative Cloud apps installed. And while I was able to uninstall Bridge, I couldn't uninstall Photoshop because the uninstaller simply relaunched the unresponsive Creative Cloud app.

So, I went ahead and used AppCleaner to remove all the Adobe applications from my new Mac. Partially through the process, a message stated that the "Selected product is not installed on this machine." And yet, the selected product[s] were still installed. So there was that.

I reasoned that maybe uninstalling the Adobe applications was a bad idea. After running AppCleaner and theoretically removing all my Adobe applications, I was able to install Creative Cloud once again...but it was again completely non-responsive once installed. This one is going to require an interaction with tech support. Sigh.

Day 4: Support Call

I started off the day with a call to Adobe support to fix the Creative Cloud install. Fortunately, my tech support chat with Anupriya at Adobe proved quite productive.

I was advised to run the Creative Cloud Cleaner tool and follow the associated steps, which I did. After a reboot, I once again installed the Creative Cloud application, and this time it worked. Once that was operating properly, I was able to install Photoshop and all the rest then.

Quick first impression: Photoshop certainly launches faster than it used to on my 2013 beast of an iMac. That's a nice win.

I also got in the Active DisplayPort to HDMI adapter, so I removed the mini dock and installed the TS3 Plus dock. That's all working just fine now, my priority network connection is over the TS3's Ethernet port, and I have just one cable going to my MacBook Air for power and data.

I deem the hardware setup complete.

I then went on with my working day. Today was mostly a writing and editing day, so I spent most of my time in Chrome and Evernote, two applications that I tested very early in this setup.

Day 5: The Big Test

I now had a couple of event-free workdays under my belt with the new Mac. It was generally working just fine.

After work, I started what I call The Big Test. I was about to test every application on the machine. Recall that I migrated from a long-used iMac to this machine, so I have about 150 applications installed, some of which have been on that machine in one version or another for seven or eight years.

The Big Test involved launching each one to see if it would work in Big Sur and using the M1 chip.

I was pretty impressed. Most of the applications worked right away or asked for an update to be installed and then worked. But I did run into a few snags, but none were deal-breakers. That's right: everything actually runs.

That said, there were snags.

My installed version of Audacity failed. I downloaded an update, installed it, and Audacity then worked.

Bartender 3 had a big notice saying that it's not compatible with Big Sur. Bartender 4 is a paid upgrade, but with a 50% discount of $15, the upgrade was all of $7.50. Fine. The developer needs to buy food, too. I installed Bartender 4, and it works just fine.

BBEdit 11 didn't run. I went ahead and downloaded BBEdit 13 (running in free mode since I use it very rarely), and it works.

SmartSVN did not run. It launched, but no window or menu showed up. I was running SmartSVN 11. The current version is SmartSVN 14. When I downloaded that and installed it, it worked just as you would expect. Unfortunately, by removing the older version, I did lose my settings, but it's not a huge hassle to set my repositories back up for this application.

Then there was the gaming platform Steam. That was disturbing. I tried launching Steam, was able to log in, and... everything froze. No mouse or trackpad response. I had to do a hard reboot to get back into the system.

Once I did, I uninstalled Steam, then downloaded a new installer and installed it again. This time, I was able to get into the Steam app without any issues.

That meant it was time to see if a Steam game would run. The last time I spent any time in Steam, I was playing Cities Skylines. So I tried it.

The game hung on the first try, but after a force quit and a restart, I was able to get into the game. Graphics was surprisingly good, in some ways better than the native NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M of the iMac. That said, there was some tearing on the M1 MacBook Air, and after about five minutes, the program crashed.

Since gaming is not a high priority on this machine, I'll come back to it. But I'm very encouraged that even though the game crashed, it essentially ran. I've had many PCs that behaved similarly before tuning, and I expect either updates or tuning (or both) will fix these problems.

Final thoughts

I have to say that this is quite an accomplishment for Apple. I started with 150 applications, nearly all of which were Intel applications built before the M1 was a gleam in Tim Cook's eye.

All of them -- yes, all of them -- eventually worked, and only five gave me a hard time. The Steam gaming platform was a bit of a challenge, but even it showed signs that it's likely to be quite reasonably functional.

I'm working with the M1, and it's snappy and responsive. I haven't had any issues with my development environment or, really, anything else. I call this upgrade and migration a complete success.

Are you still running Intel, or have you migrated to the M1? What has been your experience? Let us know in the comments below. And yes, I know some of you think I should have upgraded to a Linux machine. I know. Feel free to remind me about that below as well.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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