Apple had foreshadowed a new era for the Mac line of personal computers in June — in fact for years there were rumours that the Cupertino-based company was developing its processors in a bid to dump Intel. But when it happened last night, Apple indeed made “chipzilla” look foolish.
Apple’s M1 processor which now powers the latest 13-inch MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini — is a rocket ship siping green tea, instead of gasoline-like Intel’s jet engine like processors have for decades. In other words — with the M1 Apple touts game-changing increase in performance for basic tasks, creative workloads, casual gaming and also brings its notebooks and PCs closer to the iPhone in terms of instantaneous behaviour. At the same time, it has doubled the battery life of these products, while keeping the price the same and in the case of the Mac Mini, reduced it by almost INR10,000.
This is sure to leave the folks based out of Santa Clara red-faced. But this transition comes after 14 years when the late Steve Jobs and late Paul Otellini came together to launch the first line of MacBooks.
Steve Jobs unexpectedly came on stage, said the magic words “one more thing” and announced the news of Mac computers transitioning to Intel Chips from Power PC chips. The reason this was substantial was this represented an architectural change for applications that were designed to run on IBM designed PowerPC processors to x86 apps that were designed for Intel chips. Intel’s performance advantage at the time was obvious but the success of the tradition wasn’t a given. After a few bumps and bruises, Apple made it with Intel as its partner in crime which enabled iconic products like the original MacBook Air.
Similarly, at WWDC 2020, Tim Cook walked on stage and stated that Apple would be shifting from Intel to Apple Silicon (ARM) and, yesterday’s event was an embodiment of the same. But, with that in mind arises another question. Why did Apple make the switch?
The reason for this is, believe it or not, very simple. Intel had become stagnant, and for Apple, that was not acceptable. Despite record sales, the MacBook Pro had become a joke in the industry with its overheating and often not having features that Apple provided on its iPads and iPhones. Apple craved for more differentiation while retaining its design sensibilities.
After a decade of making its silicon, Apple finally felt that it was time to bring the same to their Macbooks and Macs, to provide the best performance with minimal energy consumption. Apple had to be confident because its team had done a phenomenal job on mobile products which has enabled it an almost monopolistic position in the smartwatch, tablet and wireless earphone categories while its iPhones are the best selling phones on the planet and easily the most performant.
The M1 not only makes Intel look foolish but it also gives Apple an edge in the PC market it hasn’t had in over a decade.
Deep dive into the Apple M1 Chip
The star of the show, Apple showcased the M1 front and centre and, to be honest, it seems to live up to the hype. Before we begin a deep dive into the M1, why not get the numbers out of the way.
According to Apple, the new Apple M1 chip is the world’s fastest CPU core in low-power silicon, the world’s fastest integrated graphics in a computer, the world’s best CPU performance per watt and newer machine learning through the Apple Neural engine.
Apple says the M1 has the world’s fastest CPU cores. According to Apple, the four high-efficiency cores deliver performance similar to the current MacBooks.
- The cores are quite efficient when it comes to running regular tasks and browsing. The 8 cores combined can work to provide the world’s best CPU performance per watt. The high-performance cores are each designed to run a single task with the highest of efficiency while maximizing the performance. Apple augments these cores with low power cores which enable a balance between battery life and performance.
- One of the interesting things about the M1 is that it has RAM on the same die as the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine, ISP, and secure enclave — this eliminates redundancy, reduces latency and dramatically reduces power consumption. The chip unifies its high-bandwidth, low-latency memory into a single pool within a custom package. This results in the ability of all the tech in the SoC to access the same data without copying the data multiple times. This helps in power efficiency and performance, making video apps snappier and games detailed. The whole system becomes more responsive with UMA which is something Apple pioneered with the A12X Bionic for the 2018 iPad Pro.
- To add to this list of features, the chipset is based on a 5nm process like the A14 Bionic chip powering the iPhone 12 models and iPad Air. This is the smallest and most advanced manufacturing technique. It enables better performance and battery life. Apple says there are 16 billion transistors, which is the highest amount that Apple has ever put in a chip. Both of these combine to provide better efficiency and performance.
- Gaming is something that not a lot of people were able to do on MacBooks, but, it seems those days might be over, considering the new Apple M1 chip features the world’s fastest integrated graphics. There are 8 GPU cores, which results in the M1 being capable of executing nearly 25,000 threads at a time. That being said, one shouldn’t expect Apple’s graphics muscle to usurp the power of discrete GPUs by Nvidia and AMD, but this outshines Intel’s integrated efforts.
- For security purposes, the new chip also has support for Secure Enclave, which is a coprocessor that includes a hardware-based key manager, isolated from the main processor to provide better security.
However, with every piece of tech on the face of this Earth, the Apple M1 chip also comes with its Limitations and they might be troubling for some.
Limitations of Apple M1 Chip
- The first and most disappointing con of the Apple M1 chip is the presence of the new unified architecture. Confused? Worry not. The problem with this new unification is the fact that the RAM cannot be upgraded. While the MacBook Pro and Air can do with the specs offered, the problem arises with the Mac Mini. For someone buying the Mac Mini, they might be wishing to upgrade the RAM, but they will be unable to do so. This might not be a problem for you, but, it could be an issue for intensive workloads like gaming, coding, video editing amongst others. The RAM is also limited to 16GB right now which is another bottleneck.
- While many suspected this when Apple announced the transition, but now this is a reality — Apple has nixed E-GPU support with all products that are being powered by the M1 chip. This represents a bottleneck for gamers who may want to upgrade to e-GPUs as this is not in play. The Mac Mini has an alternative to an iMac also looks more fragile because of the lack of e-GPU support as many production studios for music and movies use Mac Mini racks daisy-chained with e-GPUs. E-GPU support also makes the MacBook Pro a more viable mobile workstation for many people in the creative fields.
- Another disadvantage of the M1 chip is the fact that all three products just have two USB 4/ Thunderbolt ports. The MacBook Pro was expected to feature four USB 4.0 ports, but the device still features only two USB 4.0 ports. Luckily though, Apple is still selling the Intel-powered 13-inch model which has four USB ports.
With the new Apple M1 chip in it, the new Mac Mini is in for an interesting update. It loses the space grey colour, it has become more affordable and well it also becomes more powerful despite using technically an augmented version of the chip found in the new iPhone.
- The Mac Mini retains it’s Core i5 SKU, but, with that, Apple has added two options for the M1 chip, with the base version featuring the M1 with 8GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage and the second-highest variant featuring 512 GB of SSD storage.
- In terms of the performance, in the words of Hardware Engineering Senior Manager Julie Broms, “The Mac Mini is one-tenth the size of the top-selling desktop in the price range while offering five times the performance”. According to Apple, the Mac Mini is up to three times faster than the previous model which is powered by the desktop-class core i3 processor. As for the GPU performance, it is up to six times faster. All this extra headroom should also be unlocked as this also has an active cooling system in place which will allow the M1 chip to run hotter for longer and more consistently.
- If the user wishes, they can spec the Mini with more storage for added costs. The main highlighting point of the Mac Mini is the processor. This is quite good, considering the price of the Mac Mini, which starts at INR 64,900 for the base variant is now almost INR 10,000 lesser.
MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13-inch
- Both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro 13-inch use the new M1 chip. The headline feature of both the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air is the battery life, with the Air supposedly offering 18 hours of battery life, and the Pro model doing even better with 20 hours of battery life. Apple is claiming to have doubled the battery life of both these notebooks which is incredible and hard to believe for most following the PC market. But Apple watchers will reveal that the battery life may even be better as Apple is notoriously conservative about the figures it shares and often undersells its products.
- The performance too is quite a bit higher, considering the older base MacBook Air featured an Intel Core i5, which was far from being the best PC chip, to which the M1 was being compared. With the new M1 chip, the new MacBook Air performs 3.5 times faster than the Intel-based MacBook Air. Other upgrades include nine times faster machine learning workloads and two times faster SSD performance.
- The horrible camera has been improved with the M1 chip, but the hardware remains the same. However, according to Apple, there should be a visible difference between the two. Apple touts the use of the ISP which is also the secret sauce behind the camera of the iPhone that elevates the performance of the same sickly 720p camera. On the MacBook Pro, the cameras too have been finally upgraded to a 1080p sensor, which when paired with the new Apple M1 chipset, should provide better clarity.
- One quirk with the new Air is a fanless design, which means there is no active cooling. While this might seem alarming, Apple was quite confident on stage. As for the MacBook Pro, it features proper Active cooling, which would surely be useful in demanding situations where the CPU is pushed to its limit. This is why Apple is claiming higher performance figures for the notebook. On the MacBook Air, Apple claims that it can edit multiple streams of 4K video which wasn’t possible with the older MacBook Air or Pro models. But Apple is achieving this alone with the Air, and on the Pro, Apple astoundingly claims it can do colour grading on 6K video. Apple has pushed the envelope with the discrete GPU and neural engine on these notebooks if its figures are to be believed. The MacBook Air’s base model comes with 7 cores instead of 8, as Apple is using binning to salvage some weaker chips and offer a different and more affordable SKU.
- The 13-inch MacBook Pro also features a larger battery, 58.2 Wh instead of 49.9Wh found on the MacBook Air which is also one of the reasons why it has an extra two hours of battery life.
- The display of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is 100 nits brighter, whereas the Air has a peak brightness of 400 nits and the Pro has a peak brightness of 500 nits. The www Air, however, now adds support for DCI-P3 colour gamut. The 13-inch MacBook Pro also comes with a touch bar instead of physical function keys.
- The new Pro also gets stereo microphones and can be specced up to 16GB RAM which will be part of the UMA system of the M1 chip which should unleash even more performance considering it is actively cooled.
- All these devices come with iPhone and iPad like traits which means they have instant on, they are very silent machines and hyper-secure thanks to Apple’s fabled secure enclave which even the FBI struggled to crack open.
Perhaps, the most embarrassing claim that Apple made yesterday was the fact that applications written for x86 based chips — Intel-based chips — would perhaps run faster via the Rossetta 2 translation layer despite not being recompiled natively for macOS big sur running Apple Silicon. Apple expects some big-ticket apps to be available natively later this year and in the first half of next year – this, by the way, includes Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Earlier at WWDC Apple also announced FCP, Logic Pro and Microsoft’s Office apps will also support Apple Silicon.