In November 2020 Apple introduced its M1 system-on-a-chip that powers its latest generation of Macs. We've already seen how these devices have seen significant performance boosts thanks to the new processors, but is that only thing to consider when choosing between them?

We take a look at how the new chips change the way the Mac works and some things you should be aware of before making your purchase.

We've already written about how the M1 Macs compare to their predecessors, so if you just want a general guide on how the machines fare in terms of speed, price, compatibility, and the kind of models you can buy, then take a look at these articles:

In this article we'll concentrate more on technical changes to some of the things you used to be able to do on Intel Macs, such as booting from external drives, using Target Disk Mode, entering Recovery mode, hardware resets and other things that have changed on the new M1 devices.

What's different?

With Apple now making its own processors for Macs - sometimes referred to as Apple silicon - there are some subtle but key differences in how they interact with macOS when compared to Intel processors. This can mean that tried and tested quick fixes for hardware related issues are no longer available to the user. We'll address some of the biggest differences below.

Entering Recovery on an M1 Mac

On Intel Macs if you want to use Recovery mode to wipe your Mac or reinstall macOS you enter the special mode by pressing and holding Command + R during start up. Then when your Mac boots up you will have access to tools like Disk Utility.

On an M1 Mac the process is a little different.

  1. To start you need to turn off the Mac.
  2. Next press the on button - and keep it pressed.
  3. When the Apple logo appears you'll see text informing you that if you continue holding the power button you will be able to access startup options. 
  4. Eventually you will be able to select Options > Continue and this will open up Recovery.

There is also an additonal 'fallback recovery mode', that is detailed by Apple here. In this case you double press the power button: first press it, release, and then press and hold down the power button.

Fallback recovery mode accesses a second copy of the recoveryOS on the SSD of the Macs with M1 Chip. The second copy is there for resiliency, according to Apple.

For more information read how to use Recovery mode. or Command R not working to find out how to reinstall macOS if Recovery won't work.

Resetting the System Management Controller (SMC)

Traditionally on an Intel Mac, one way to deal with any problems that arise with fans or power supplies is to reset the System Management Controller (SMC). This is achieved by switching off your Mac then restarting it, or using certain key combinations, all of which are explained in how to reset the SMC on a Mac.

M1 Macs don't have a System Management Controller, so this route obviously no longer exists. All functions that were previously handled by the SMC are now incorporated into the M1 processor.

You can still change some of these settings. For example, you could use the Terminal tool pmset to change sleep mode settings.

If your M1 Mac has a problem with its hardware you could try putting the computer in DFU mode and reinstalling the firmware using Apple Configurator 2 and another Mac. Apple runs through how to restore the firmware here here.

There are also comments on Reddit and Apple's support forums that indicate that M1 Macs can do something similar to an SMC reset if you shut down the computer and leave it turned off for at least 30 seconds before turning it on again.

Resetting the NVRAM

Another troubleshooting method that's missing from the M1 Macs is the ability to use a keyboard combination to reset the NVRAM. This can be a useful fix for booting issues, audio problems or your Mac selecting the wrong screen resolution when started. We discuss how to reset the NVRAM separately but we'll run through the basics below.

On Intel Macs you hold down the Option/Alt + Command + P + R keys when booting up the machine, but as far as we can tell there's no equivalent on M1 machines.

On M1 Macs the NVRAM still exists, but it works differently.

You can still view and change settings with the terminal command NVRAM, but you can no longer completely reset the contents.

According to reports, the M1 Chip tests the NVRAM when the computer is started up from a complete shutdown. If it finds something wrong with the memory it will be reset automatically.

An alternative is to start the Mac in Recovery mode, start Terminal from the Tools menu and enter the command:


You'll find this and other helpful ways to deal with Mac problems in our guide on how to fix a Mac that won't turn on.

Restoring a Time Machine backup or using Disk Utility

Should your Mac experience severe problems, you may need to restore a Time Machine backup, snapshot backup or use the Disk Utility software to either repair or delete the data on your hard drive.

While both are still available on M1 and Intel Macs, the way you access the options have changed. With Intel Macs, you hold down Command + R (as described above) when booting the machine to start up with a recovery partition. From there you can choose which type of backup or repair you want to use.

On the new M1 Macs, the route is slightly different in that you power down the device, then press and hold the power button until you see a message about the startup options loading. Click the Options button, then you should see the same features as on the Intel devices.

Choosing your boot volume

When going through the process above, you have the ability to choose the Utilities > Startup Security Utility options for more tools. In here, you would usually expect to find three options: Full Security, Medium Security and No Security.

Apple describes the various tiers in this way:

Full Security

"Ensures that only your current OS, or signed operating system software currently trusted by Apple, can run. This mode requires a network connection at software installation time."

Medium Security

"Allows any version of signed operating system software ever trusted by Apple to run."

No Security 

"Does not enforce any requirements on the bootable OS"

What are the differences between M1 and Intel Macs?: Security levels

M1 Macs only have the first two security tiers, presumably as Apple tightens up the system against any vulnerabilities. In contrast to this, you can no longer set a firmware password, although we're not sure why.

Booting from external drives

Another difference is ability to boot from external drives. With the Intel Macs you'd see the options in a section marked External Boot, but this is missing on the M1 Macs. That doesn't mean you can't use external boot drives, just that the route to them has been changed.

Instead, power down your M1 Mac then press and hold the power button. This time wait until after the startup options are fully loaded before releasing the button. You'll see the available startup volumes displayed, so all you need to do is log in as an administrator and click on the drive you want to use.

We have seen reports of problems with Big Sur not being able to use external boot drives on either M1 or Intel Macs, but hopefully that issue has been resolved by the time you read this. If you're unsure how to start your Mac in this way follow our guide on how to install macOS on an external drive.

Using Safe Mode

If you think that software you've installed might be causing problems, a good way to check is by rebooting in Safe Mode. You can do this on both types of Mac, but again you'll need to use different commands.

For Intel Macs, simply reboot your Mac while holding down the Shift key.

For M1 users, turn off your Mac and reboot it while holding down the power key until you see the startup options have finished loading.

Then, select the internal disk, hold down the Shift key and click Continue in safe mode.

For more information read How to boot in Safe mode.

Using Apple Diagnostics mode

Another handy mode for troubleshooting is the Apple Diagnotics mode.

On Intel Macs, hold down the D key when rebooting and you should automatically enter the mode.

For M1 devices, hold down the power key when rebooting until you see the startup options appear, then immediately press Command + D to enter Apple Diagnostics mode.

Power naps and battery management

For MacBooks, it's important that you save battery charge and health to prolong not only how long you can use the device on single charge but also to extend its life in general.

Intel MacBooks have options for Power Naps and Battery Life Options which are designed to help with these tasks.

M1 Macs now handle the jobs themselves, with the system monitoring your activities and power requirements to protect the battery levels.

You can find out more about power management in our how to save MacBook battery life guide.

Input devices connected via Bluetooth

In the Bluetooth settings in System Preferences on an M1 MacBook, under Additional Options, you won't see the settings for Open Bluetooth Setup Assistant at startup if no keyboard is detected or Open Bluetooth Setup Assistant at startup if no mouse or trackpad is detected if said accessories are not present.

This isn't exactly surprising, as MacBooks always have a resident keyboard and trackpad available, but the same omission appears on the Mac mini M1 as well.

We assume that Apple has just permanently enabled the Bluetooth Setup Assistant to launch if it doesn't sense any input devices, as the feature still works. More of an aesthetic choice than functional one.

Using one Mac as a hard disk for another (Target Disk Mode)

M1 Mac users may notice that in the Startup Disk section of System Preferences you'll no longer find Target Disk Mode. This might seem a worry, as that setting was previously there to allow an Intel Mac be used as a hard drive on another Mac via a Thunderbolt connection.

There is no Target Disk Mode on an M1 Mac, however you can still achieve a similar outcome:

  1. Connect both Macs via a USB-C cable or a Thunderbolt cable (but sadly not the one that comes supplied with MacBook).
  2. With the cable in place, restart the M1-Mac by pressing and holding the power button to load the startup options.
  3. Next, select Options > Utilities, then choose Share volume.
  4. Once you enter your password, the drive should appear on the other Mac you can find the shared disk in Network section of System Preferences.

Apple has showcased the new security features of the M1 Macs in a Security Guide, read: M1 safer than Intel Macs: Apple's Security Guide to find out how the security features of the M1 and Intel Macs compare.

Further Reading

How good is Apple's M1 chip really?

MacBook Air M1 (2020) review

New iMac 2021: release date, price & specs for M1 iMac redesign