Apple had their final major announcement of the year. Not only did they reveal their first dedicated Silicon for the Mac platform, but they announced 3 models of Mac running this new Apple Silicon. They also talked a bit about Big Sur’s release and the some special things it can do with Apple Silicon. They also included 1 nice little callback and shade thrown at PC makers.
The Next Generation of Silicon
Let’s start with the processor, because everything else pretty much hinges on that. This first Mac chip is called the M1 (get it, 1st Mac chip, M1?). This first chip will focused on replacing the lower-end Intel chips, playing up to the strengths of underlying ARM architecture that Apple is inheriting from. The M1 chip will be a single System-on-a-Chip, meaning that rather than the processor, DRAM, IO, and Thunderbolt processing being done on separate chips on the board, it will all be integrated into a single chip.
This chip will be using a 5 nm architecture, a size that Intel still hasn’t been able to hit and has 16 billion transistors. Each M1 chips will be contain a total of 8 cores, 4 high-performance cores with the other 4 being high-efficiency cores. This is also similar to the iOS chip counterparts. The performance cores are focused on the heavy lifting, things like gaming, high-end photo and video work, and other tasks that need the full power of each core. Meanwhile the efficiency chips will use only a 10th of the wattage as the performance cores, and used for less demanding tasks. So things like handling email, writing notes, and other lighter tasks can be given to these high efficiency chips to help the Macs use less power and save battery, leaving the performance cores open for more intensive tasks. Apple did note that the efficiency processors aren’t slouches, and themselves have the equivalent performance of dual-core Intel Macs, while still using significantly less power. An odd metric to be sure, but does indicate that they do have some heft behind them. Apple said the CPU itself has the best CPU performance per watt, with twice the performance at 10 watts compared to the latest “PC chips”. It’s unclear what Intel chips specifically they were comparing themselves to, i3, Celeron, etc. At this point I’m presuming they’re going off of i3 performance at minimum since that’s the lowest end Apple previously offered in their systems.
Apple repeatedly mentioned the graphics performance of the M1’s GPU, though tempering it by only comparing it to integrated graphics rather than any discrete graphics cards from makers like AMD and Nvidia, which is likely the safest bet for now. That said, Apple’s graphics performance on mobile has repeatedly been impressive, so it’s likely that with even more power under the hood the built-in graphics of this chip could impress us yet. Apple said the GPU will have an 8-core GPU that can handles up to 2.6 teraflops, which compared to the original PS4 and Xbox One consoles beats them by roughly a teraflop (though is still outpaced by the PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, and dwarfed by the latest Xbox Series X and PS5 consoles according to Gamespot). Like the CPU, they highlighted the 2x performance compared to other integrated graphics vendors when running at 10 watts and beating them in performance while still using less power. This would make it likely the fastest integrated graphics chip on record. Again, it’s not going to beat most dedicated graphics cards, but it’s still impressive for its size.
The M1 chip will have a 16-core neural engine, which can be taken advantage of by any apps using machine learning such as Final Cut Pro, Pixelmator, AI researchers, and more. Whether you’ll see the advantage of this depends on the apps your using, mostly on the higher end for now.
The chip has a few other things up its sleeves. The M1 chip will replace the T2 chip as well while not losing out on its features, meaning it will contain hardware encoding and decoding for certain media types (such as H.264 and H.265) for faster media rendering and playback. This will also mean support for fingerprint readers in the MacBooks like before. Lastly, they showed the M1 chip will have Thunderbolt 4 and USB-4 support (meaning faster transfer speeds, as the machines will still be using the USB-C/Thunderbolt style inputs).
The Next Generation of Mac
Apple surprised us by announcing not just 1 new Mac, but 3 new Macs running Apple Silicon.
The first of these, honestly the least surprising, is a new MacBook Air. The body of the Air is the same as the previous generation, just with the internals changed. The base model starts at 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD for $999, though it can be bumped up to 16 GB of RAM and up to 2TB of storage. Apple said that the new Air is 3.5 times faster overall than the previous generation of Airs, with 5x better graphics performance, 9x better machine learning performance, and 2x better SSD performance as a result of both the M1 processor and improvements to SSD technology. Apple also claims 15 hours of wireless web browsing and 18 hour total battery life, which if true are leaps better than similar competition. All of this without a fan. That’s right, the MacBook Air will just passively cool. Which is great, just hopefully you’re not working in an area that has very high temperatures.
When talking about the improvements, Apple did reiterate their comparisons to the integrated graphics chips on previous generations of Airs, but they showed the little Air being able to edit two 4k streams simultaneously, which is fairly impressive for the little machine. On top of this, the Air’s 13-inch Retina display is a P3 color display, which is very high quality.
While the body of the machine is the same, there are a few other components inside that have been updated. For one, the 2 USB-C 4.0 / Thunderbolt ports have been updated to USB 4 and Thunderbolt 4, though there are still only 2 of them. These will mean more data that can be pushed through them in less time. Another thing that has changed is the MacBook Air is getting an updated image sensing processor for the webcam. This means that while the 720p webcam itself will remain the same (something I hope they’ll update in the future), it does add features like being able to detect faces and keep focus on them while adjusting things like shadows and white balance. These new MacBooks will get a new 3-mic array as well for better audio quality and noise cancellation. While I don’t think many professionals will give up a dedicated mic, it’s likely that the average person will notice better audio recording and quality over calls when using those mics.
The Mac Mini is the second machine Apple announced with the M1 chip, this one having the most alterations. The chassis is pretty much identical to that of its predecessor, but with a difference in the back as far as ports. On this new model you get the power connector, Ethernet, HDMI 2.0, two USB-C 4.0 / Thunderbolt 4 ports, and two USB-A ports. This is actually fewer USB ports than the previous generation. When you put this next to the Air and the MacBook Pro announced, you notice that all three of these machines have 2 Thunderbolt/USB-C ports. This could indicate a limitation of throughput with the M1 chip, since the controller for the ports is now in the chip rather than on its own. How this will work for other Macs that need more than 2 of those ports we’ll have to wait and see. On the plus side the Mac Mini is now down to $699 for 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage space, upgradable to 16 GB of RAM and 2 TB of storage. This one also has a fan, which seems to lead to better performance. Apple claims it will have 3x faster CPU performance compared to it’s previous quad-core Intel model, and 15x machine learning performance. They also mentioned graphically that this little machine could display on Apple’s 6K XDR display.
13-inch MacBook Pro:
The most surprising of the 3 Macs announced was an updated 13-inch MacBook Pro with 2 Thunderbolt ports (now Thunderbolt and USB 4). According to Apple, these new MBP’s will be about 3x faster their their Windows counterparts, with 2.8x better CPU performance and 5x better graphics performance than their previous iteration. In fact, Apple showed off one working with 8K video and is capable of outputting to Apple’s 6K XDR display. For integrated graphics that’s astounding. Apple also said this machine will be the fastest laptop currently on the market for machine learning with 11x faster machine learning than other laptops. The MBP will be keeping the same chassis design as its predecessor keeping a fan inside for active cooling, though will be getting the same ISP for the webcam and 3-mic array to help with better quality audio.
But to top it all off, the MBP is claimed to have 17 hours of wireless web browsing and 20 hours of continuous video playback. If these numbers bear out in real world testing (and Apple is known to be fairly accurate, if not a little conservative with the battery numbers) then this is a huge leap for laptop battery life. Surprisingly the batter size really hasn’t changed in the laptop, rather it’s just the performance of the laptop.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro will be available for $1,299, and can be maxed out with 2TB of storage and 16 GB of RAM.
All three machines can be ordered since the November 10 announcement and will be available and arriving next week. Also the startup chime is back.
The Next Generation of Mac OS
Apple already said a lot about Big Sur in previous announcements, but did highlight a few new things. Let’s get the big thing out of the way, Big Sur will be available today (Thursday the 12th).
Apple said with Big Sur and these new chips, instant wake was coming to the Mac much like on iPhone and iPad, though admittedly the “atmosphere” there created was…interesting. To be fair they played up the campiness of it, but still. They also emphazised how Big Sur will take advantage of the M1’s Unified Memory Architecture, which will make for faster performance with all the chips being unified into one, meaning less travel time for memory and data since it doesn’t need to get copied around and moved as much. Big Sur can also make adjustments to move code to the efficiency or performance cores, and reiterated how some iOS apps will be available in the Mac App Store to run natively on Mac. They showed apps like Among Us coming to Mac via the iOS version, though some apps like Facebook and Google apps will not be coming to the Mac.
One last shout out, at the end. PC Guy came back, from the classic “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads. That was fun. There’s not much else to say about that, just that was fun to see.
As always, while I’m generally willing to trust Apple’s metrics, any vendors own claims to greatness must be tested out in the real world. From performance of the chips, to wake up times, to that crazy battery life, and compatibility of apps. ARM on desktops and laptops has also not gone very well, particularly for Windows machines. If anyone could do it, it would be Apple, who have the best ARM chips hands down. Apple also reiterated their 2-year transition time frame, so this will take some time. We’ve got to wait and see what they do with higher end machines, particularly the ones that have discrete graphics cards. It makes sense that Apple started with and compared these first products to other less powerful computers.
For the Mac Mini users, you are losing the ability to add RAM after the fact since the RAM is now part of the chip. You need to spec out your machine in advance with that in mind. And lets face it, Apple does have a bit of a premium on their RAM and SSD’s. Apple does use higher quality parts that demand a higher price tag, but they also make a pretty penny on those upgrades as well. And with all of these parts in one chip, that could mean a higher risk of failure, though admittedly with Apple’s boards mostly being all soldered on at this point, that may be less of a big deal since that won’t honestly change much.
With all those caveats, I’m interested to see what happens from here. What new exciting things happen from here, but also what do we lose in the process? What do you all think? Will you be getting one of these first gen M1 machines? Let me know in the comments and on social.