Apple presented three new Macs at the November event. The special thing about it is that it contains a brand new chip that the company developed itself.
Apple had already announced it at the Wordwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and now it is a reality. The company is cutting itself off from the previous chip supplier Intel and is starting to equip its Macs with its own chips.
Apple introduces its first laptop chip
On November 10th, Apple introduced three new Macs: MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13 ″ and Mac Mini. Common to all devices is the new M1 – a chip that was completely developed by Apple.
In contrast to Intel processors, which were previously used in Macs, the M1 is based on the ARM architecture. The manufacturer ARM licenses its architecture to other companies that can use it to create their own chip designs. Apple has been doing this for ten years. In 2010, the company presented the ARM-based A4 in the 1st generation iPad – the first chip developed in-house.
Intel has been in a difficult period for some time, with the company making slow progress. For about four years, Intel has not been able to switch to a more modern manufacturing process. The manufacturer’s processors therefore suffer from poor energy efficiency and thus little battery life. As one of the main consumers of the processor, Apple is particularly affected by its limitations. The company now wants to end this dependency with its own chips.
The Apple M1 in detail
The M1 is a system-on-a-chip (SoC) in a Mac for the first time. So far, different components were distributed on the mainboard. The Intel processor, memory controller, and memory themselves were individual chips. The M1 integrates all of these components in one chip with shared resources. Apple calls this “Unified Memory Architecture”. This means that all components communicate directly with each other and access the same storage resources. This enables the M1 to work significantly more energy-efficiently than before.
The deeper chip integration also means that RAM can no longer be increased afterwards. Anyone who buys 8 GB is left with 8 GB – so even those who surf the Internet a lot should think twice about whether that is still enough. For the Mac Mini in particular, the lack of upgradeable memory is a disappointment. After all, the entry-level Mac is now 100 euros cheaper.
The CPU of the M1 consists of eight cores, four of which are performance-optimized and four are particularly energy-saving. We already know a comparable arrangement from the A12Z Bionic from the iPad Pro 2020. The GPU also has 8 cores.
More performance and less power consumption?
But such a major shift presents the company with a major challenge. It has to prove that its “Silicon” (Apple calls its new product “Apple Silicon”, ie silicon) can keep up with or even surpass previous Intel processors.
But what Apple ultimately delivered at the November event has neither hand nor foot. The company threw around numbers about how much better and more efficient the M1 should be. “3x” more, “6x” more, “faster than 98 percent of all PC laptops” – but what is behind these numbers?
What Apple shows in the performances has in most cases a solid foundation. But the company is very secretive about what the numbers are made up of. So far, we only have claims that Apple made at the event.
The MacBook Air is said to deliver 3.5 times more processor performance and 5 times more graphics performance than its predecessor, which is only six months older. But which MacBook Air does Apple use as the basis for its claims? 3.5 times more power than the base model with Intel i3 dual-core processor? Or as the significantly stronger model with i5 quad-core?
With the MacBook Pro, Apple speaks of 2.8 times more CPU performance and also 5 times graphics performance. In the Pro model, too, it is unclear whether the i5 quad-core or the i7 quad-core is used for comparison. When they say the new MacBook Pro is “three times faster than the best-selling Windows laptop in its class.” What class should that be? In terms of price, performance, or perhaps the form factor?
The best-selling laptops are hardly the ones that also have the best performance. For all we know, the Windows laptop in the same class could be a $ 400 cheap laptop. Hardly a comparison for a 1400 Euro MacBook – or a 1400 Euro Windows device.
Apple does not give an answer to any of these questions and that is extremely misleading for the buyer. Because as long as there are no independent tests of performance, the claims are unchecked and loose.
There is no basis of comparison for Apple’s claims
For Macs with Intel processors, it was easier to measure performance leaps from generation to generation. This is because we already know almost all the details about the chips and can assess the performance. Apple silicon chips are completely new to us, we have no clue what they can deliver in a laptop form factor.
How vague the formulations are can be seen particularly well from the claim that the M1 is “the fastest CPU core in the world”. Where are the comparisons with high-end desktop processors like the AMD Ryzen 9 5950X and Intel’s i9-10900K? Anything to support this statement?
Apple shows graphs – if you can call them that – which should demonstrate the performance of the M1. However, I do not consider this to be very meaningful. The classification of the curves seems completely random, there are no orders of magnitude on the axes. As a point of comparison, Apple uses the “latest PC laptop chip”. What is this about? A mystery. Does Apple mean Intel’s Tiger Lake processors ranging from 2 cores to 8 cores with 16 threads? Or maybe the Tremont SoCs, which are manufactured by Intel for inexpensive entry-level laptops? I don’t have a single clue to be able to assess the claim “twice as much power with a quarter of the power consumption”. All the curves tell me is: Apple’s M1 is better than anything. Who is that supposed to convince of the capabilities of the new chip?
Power consumption in particular seems promising
Apple always struggled with heat development with Intel chips. MacBooks have been known to overheat and have problems cooling down hardware. This is where the M1 could really make a difference. The fact that Apple can do without an active fan on the MacBook Air is proof that the M1 runs more efficiently and cooler. However, it remains to be seen whether Apple has also got the high surface temperatures on the case under control, which are the order of the day with Intel MacBooks.
What claim I do trust Apple with is battery life. This is where the integrated design of the M1 flexes its muscles. The MacBook Air achieved 18 hours of video playback – 6 hours more, or 50 percent, than its predecessor. The MacBook Pro even lasts 20 hours, twice as long as the predecessor.
No changes to the design of the Macs
What particularly amazed me about the introduction is the fact that all Macs presented have exactly the same exterior as their predecessors. Unfortunately for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, that means they still have large bezels around the display.
Apple has been using this design for four years now. I would have liked the company to present a more modern look for such a major turnaround as the M1 is supposed to mark. At the beginning of 2020 it proved that it is capable of doing this with the MacBook Pro 16 ″.
Apart from the inner workings, there are few changes at all – not even new webcams. The image signal processor (ISP) of the M1 is supposed to deliver better images, but the quality remains limited by the 720p resolution.
Intel is not yet being completely replaced
The fact that Apple is apparently not yet entirely sure about the performance gains of the M1 can be seen relatively easily from the sales strategy. The new MacBook Pro with M1 chip is sold in two versions. The old MacBook Pro with Intel processors, which according to the idea of the new one was surpassed in all respects, is still offered. But not as a cheaper alternative, no. The old MacBook Pro comes in two more expensive versions than the new one. If the M1 chip really should be that much better, why is Apple still offering the old devices?
The new models are also available with a maximum of 16 GB of RAM, while the old models can have up to 32 GB. In addition, the MacBook Pro with M1 only has two Thunderbolt / USB ports, while the Intel counterpart has four of them. This suggests that Apple cannot completely replace the old design with its new chip. How the M1 fares against its Intel rivals in real life, we’ll find out next week when the new laptops ship.
It’s also interesting that the MacBook Air now has the same M1 chip as the MacBook Pro. So what’s the reason to buy a MacBook Pro? I guess Apple is artificially limiting the M1 in the Air by limiting the clock frequency. That would also explain why the Pro needs an active cooler while the Air doesn’t have one.
Apple mainly relies on app optimization
I assume that for the time being we will only see the big leaps in performance in apps that come from Apple itself. It is mainly an optimization for the new chip that provides advantages.
Editing 4K ProRes videos in Final Cut shows what is possible with this. Working with multiple timelines is a challenge even for high-performance laptops. Now that should be possible with a fanless MacBook Air. However, the question arises whether the performance is also as high with other codecs. After all, ProRes comes from Apple itself and is therefore well optimized. However, film cameras record in H.264 or H.265, is the performance equally good here?
New macOS required
MacBooks with the M1 start directly with the new macOS version Big Sur. This is necessary because only Big Sur was developed for the new chip architecture from the beginning. After all, practically all old programs and apps that were written for Intel’s X86 processors and have not yet been optimized for the new system run automatically on the new M1 Macs. At least that’s what Rosetta 2 promises, Apple’s software that translates X86 code into ARM code in real time – while the app is running. No figures are available so far, but it is very likely that unoptimized apps run significantly slower than on previous Intel Macs due to the translation process.
This could severely limit users who need their Mac to work. If work software suddenly no longer performs as usual and developers need time to adapt, this can quickly lead to failures.
macOS and iOS are growing together
One advantage of the ARM-based M1, however, is that iOS and iPadOS apps can now also run on the Mac. Because Apple’s A-Series processors, which are in iPhones and iPads, are also based on the ARM architecture.
Apple still has a lot to do
It will take a while for developers to adapt their apps to the new architecture. A new Photoshop version should come around the beginning of 2021. Only then can users really benefit from the higher performance of the M1.
After all, Apple itself admits that not all apps can benefit from the performance immediately. In an unusually self-reflective moment towards the end of the performance, the company admits that it still has a lot of work to do to fully exploit the potential of its own chips.