The case for a Low Power Mode on Mac notebooks

macBook (Image credit: iMore)

What you need to know

  • Apple is thought to be adding a Pro Mode to portable Macs.
  • Pro Mode will increase performance but impact battery life.
  • But there's a case for reducing performance to improve battery life instead.

With the news that Apple appears to be working to add a new Pro Mode to portable Macs, it raises an interesting question. Which is most important to users – battery life, or processing power?

As ever the answer isn't a simple one. There will always be power users who want to be able to edit 4K video while sitting at the top of a mountain. But there will also always be people who need their MacBook to last a full day of writing at the coffee shop, too. How do you cater to both? Even more difficult, how do you cater for someone who needs both things in the same notebook but at different times? Options, that's how.

If Apple is indeed going to allow users to toggle a Pro Mode on and off, it's giving them the option of sacrificing battery life to improve performance for a specific task. But why can't we have an option to do the complete opposite? If you want extra battery life but don't need your iPhone to be as snappy, or its screen as bright, Low Power Mode is there for you to use. But it's nowhere to be seen in macOS. Nor iPadOS, for that matter. Which just seems....odd.

It's a tune that developer and podcaster Marco Arment has been singing to for a long time and he shared his thoughts in a recent blog post on the subject. And he also pointed to the lack of options as being a problem on portable Macs.

Modern hardware constantly pushes thermal and power limits, trying to strike a balance that minimizes noise and heat while maximizing performance and battery life.Software also plays a role, trying to keep everything background-updated, content-indexed, and photo-analyzed so it's ready for us when we want it, but not so aggressively that we notice any cost to performance or battery life.Apple's customers don't usually have control over these balances, and they're usually fixed at design time with little opportunity to adapt to changing circumstances or customer priorities.

But again, there's Low Power Mode on iPhone.

Arment has been jerry-rigging Low Power Mode into macOS by using the Turbo Boost Switcher Pro app that temporarily disabled a Mac's CPU from using its Turbo Boost function. That prevents the chip from ramping up the clock cycles to try and get through big workloads as quickly as possible. And as a result, battery life increases. And heat reduces. And fans slow down. get the idea.

Yes, disabling Turbo Boost makes the Mac slower when running intensive, CPU-hungry workflows but if you're more interested in making a battery last all day that's a trade-off you should be able to make for yourself. As Arment says, Apple isn't normally one for giving you those kinds of options. But it does it on iPhone, the one product it tries its damndest to simplify in as many ways as possible. And often to its detriment.

It's likely most people wouldn't even notice their Mac was running in Low Power Mode, anyway. Macs are already way more powerful than the majority of people need them to be. General tasks don't need multi-core processors running anything close to full bore and the fact that so many people get by on the lowly MacBook is a testament to that.

Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.

Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.