Today, Apple held what is probably its final live event of the year: "One More Thing". True to its title, this announcement consisted of one thing: the M1, Apple's first custom chip, and the new Macs that will be powered by it.
If you regularly read my summary articles, you'll know that I'm not afraid to editorialize a bit. Well, be ready for more of that than usual. I'll tell you what Apple said, as well as some details other media outlets have found since the big announcement. I'll also be explaining what I feel was absent from what Apple told us, and why, more than almost any other Apple product launch I can think of, you should wait for the reviews before you buy one of these Macs. Oh, and remember that all the numbers given are what was claimed by Apple. No one in the world outside of Cupertino can verify any of this.
We're going to be talking about processors a lot, because that was the focus of today's event. It's important that we cover some terms first, so you know what's going on.
When I talk about a "chip", I'm referring to what's known as an SoC, or system on a chip. This refers to a set of components that are all housed on a single piece of metal. The M1 chip is an SoC, because it houses two types of CPU core, graphics cores, neural engine cores, the security enclave for Touch ID and encryption, and other bits and pieces. Often, such a setup is called a processor, even if that's arguably not correct. As you read, remember that the M1 (which I might call a chip, processor, or SoC) is basically the brain of the Mac, and handles all the math the computer has to run in order to do anything. Parts of the M1 are made for specific tasks, which is why there are three types of core.
By contrast, the Intel chips that power the Macs you might be used to are less complex. Most of them include CPU and graphics cores, but that's it. There is no neural engine, and the security chip is separate from the Intel chip.
Finally, many Macs include what is called a discrete graphics card. This means that the CPU handles the general computing tasks, while the graphics card, which is a physically separate component, does all the graphics work. In general, discrete graphics chips take more power and can put off more heat, but they make graphics-intensive work much faster.
That should be enough to get you through this article, I hope. Ready? Okay, let's do this.
The M1 Chip
Apple has revealed the heart of its newest line of Macs. It's a new chip called the M1. The company has applied its years of developing top-performing chips for iPhones and iPads to the Mac, and if their claims are even close to true, they've hit this one out of the park.
The M1 is built on a 5NM architecture, just like the A14 in the latest iPhones. It has eight cores, split into four high performance and four high efficiency. The former handle the heavy lifting during intense workloads, while the latter are meant for lighter tasks, as they use only a tenth of the power. Sixteen neural engine cores are next, allowing the M1 to chew through machine learning and AI tasks with ease. Eight graphics cores (well, up to eight) round out the processing, making up a graphics package that Apple says is faster than the integrated graphics of any processor on the market.
The M1 is crazy fast, according to Apple. Just its high efficiency cores are almost as fast as all the computing power available on a dual core MacBook Air, and those are the low-power cores that aren't meant to do the heavy lifting. Add the rest of the cores, as well as the neural engine and graphics, and the M1 leaves Intel in the dust. Apple said that the MacBook Air with the M1 inside can be up to 3.5 times faster in computing than the dual core Air, and up to six times faster in graphics. Despite this massive leap, the M1 uses a quarter of the power that an Intel-based Air does, letting it get up to fifteen hours of browsing, or eighteen hours of video playback--and it does it all without a fan.
Other claims about the M1 include that it has the fastest integrated graphics of any processor in the world, that it is faster than 98% of the laptops sold in the last year, that it is the most efficient processor ever made, and that it is the fastest low-powered processor out there. As mentioned in the intro, all of these claims have yet to be verified, and there's more to consider than theoretical numbers when we're talking about using an M1 in the real world. Still, it can't be denied that if the M1 is even close to the claims made today, Apple has done some incredible things.
New Macs with M1
Now we come to the part you really care about: the new shinies you can actually buy. The M1 SoC is included in three Mac models, all available to pre-order right now, to be shipped next week. The MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini are all getting the M1 treatment.
The MacBook Air has fewer graphics cores, and may have its M1 clocked at a slightly slower speed, but Apple is excited about all it can do. We've already talked about this machine's battery life, and that it doesn't use a fan to keep itself cool. What I haven't mentioned is that it includes two USB-C ports, an enhanced screen, and an improved camera sensor. Note that the camera itself is still the 720P module that many users are desperate for Apple to improve, but the thought is that the better image processor and AI power of the M1 will let macOS use software to improve the image. The Air starts at $999, just like its Intel-based cousin.
The MacBook Pro has all eight graphics cores and, I assume, a faster clock speed. It gets about two more hours of battery life than the Air, putting it at an impressive seventeen hours of browsing the web using wifi. It also comes with an improved microphone array. From what I can tell, the Pro has two USB-C ports just like the Air, though these support USB 4 speeds as well as Thunderbolt. You can drive an 8K monitor with one of those ports if you want to, and the M1 will handle it without a problem. Like the Air, the price of the new Pro is unchanged: it starts at $1299. Note that only the 13-inch Pro is available with the M1 chip for now.
Finally, we come to the Mac Mini. This machine loses a few ports, and, oddly, now only comes in silver. It received a price drop, starting at $699. That makes it the cheapest way to get into the M1 game.
Big Sur, or macOS 11, will be released on November 12. While it will run on any modern Mac, it has been optimized for the M1 chip. Safari is much faster, apps launch almost immediately, it has an instant-on feature that makes it as fast to be ready as an iPad or iPhone, and all its apps have been tuned to run smoothly and quickly on the M1.
Now, About that M1...
Okay, we've gotten all the claims, details, and products out of the way. What does all this mean, or what could it mean, for you?
There's a lot to like. The M1 is similar enough to the chip in an iPad or iPhone that any iOS app can be run on an M1-powered Mac, Developers can optimize their apps, of course, but right out of the box, you can toss an app on your new Mac and it will at least run. In addition, no Mac has ever had access to the level of machine learning power that the M1 offers, so a lot of small things across macOS are going to run much faster. Plus, Apple's own apps, and apps made specifically for the M1 by other developers, will run quite nicely, giving you that amazing battery life.
My first problem with Apple's claims is that they're comparing apples to oranges, and no, I'm not sorry for that joke. Let's look at this idea that the M1 is faster than 98% of all laptops sold in the last year. Faster at what, exactly? Faster across the board, or in a single benchmark Apple wrote themselves? Faster with what thermal considerations? With what hardware upgrades to the non-Apple notebooks? In what price brackets? Honestly, this is a meaningless claim, since we don't know anything about how it was tested.
Okay, then, what about the M1 being up to 3.5 times faster than a dual core Intel MacBook Air? Again, under what conditions? You see, there's a big issue that Apple didn't talk about: emulation. Yes, Mail or Safari will run natively on the M1 chip, but a lot of apps won't. Those apps were written to run on Intel chips, so macOS will have to emulate an Intel chip to let that code work right. The system that handles this is called Rosetta 2.
When you emulate something like this, you introduce a lot of overhead. The computer isn't just doing what an app tells it to, it's having to constantly translate what the app wants into what the M1 will understand, then translate what the M1 says in reply back to something the Intel-based code can understand. We don't know how big a toll Rosetta 2 will take on the M1's performance. The thing is, at least for a while, most people will be using their favorite apps through this emulator. How much will that cut down on Apple's performance numbers? If most of someone's work is done in apps that run in Rosetta 2, and those apps aren't likely to be converted to work natively on the M1, should that person buy an Intel-based Mac instead?
Then there are the graphics claims. Intel has never been great at integrated graphics, but Apple only compared the M1 to integrated graphics when it talked about performance. Even a modestly powerful discrete graphics card is a lot better than the graphics an Intel chip has to offer. When Apple says the M1 has six times faster graphics, which Intel CPU is it talking about, and how does the M1 stack up to a discrete video processor? Should someone who needs power for video editing or modeling opt for the M1, or a high-end MacBook Pro with Intel and discrete graphics?
I am honestly excited to see where Apple takes the new generation of Mac. Now that iOS and iPadOS apps can run on macOS, and the silicon inside most Macs is almost the same as what's already inside Apple's mobile products, who knows what will happen? Will iPads run macOS one day? Will Macs get touch screens? Will consumers eventually buy an Apple computer, which is sold in sizes from a small iPhone up to a huge iMac, with the only choices being screen size and color? I have no idea, but I can't wait to find out!
That said, today's introduction to this new future was overshadowed by the lack of concrete details, at least for me. When a new iPhone comes out, it gets compared to the previous iPhone, and it's easy to judge whether upgrading is worth it. It's not the same when we're talking about comparing the M1 to an Intel CPU, though, which is fine. The problem is that Apple never said which Intel CPU was being used. They also failed to explain the differences between the M1 in the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini. Oddly, there was no mention of the storage size or other configurations for the new Macs. The presentation focused on the M1, which is fine, but we got so few details that it felt like the new Macs were secondary. I don't expect benchmarking details from Apple, believe me. I know the company prefers generalities in marketing materials whenever possible. For an event like this, though, which seemed aimed at developers and enthusiasts more than the average consumer, a few details would have been nice. Even a webpage released after the presentation, explaining the comparisons and claims, would have been enough.
This is almost certainly a case where those who buy an M1-powered Mac are going to be beta testing the platform for Apple. That's fine, but you should know that it's the case before you buy. I strongly recommend waiting at least a few weeks, until the reviews and real-world benchmarks come in. Maybe the M1 will be a dud, but I suspect the truth will be much more complicated. I'd guess that it will wildly out-perform Intel in some areas, and be soundly beaten in others. I'd also guess that Rosetta 2 will impose a noticeable, but not severe, performance penalty. Basically, I expect the M1 to live up to the claims more often than not, despite the lack of details today.
In short, be excited and intrigued by the M1, and be ready to try it out once the reviews are in. Don't believe the hype from today's announcements, though, until we know more about how Apple got those numbers. If you want to know whether to buy an M1 Mac or an Intel one, hold off three or four weeks and see how things shake out.
Now that you've read this rollercoaster, how do you feel? Are you itching to be the first to try the M1, or will you give it a month or two? Will you skip this first generation entirely, and wait for the M2, or whatever comes next? Do you plan to stick with Intel Macs?