Note: This article was first published on 12 Nov 2020.
Early Wednesday morning, Apple finally unveiled its first custom silicon for Macs. It’s called M1 and it’s coming to three new Macs.
It’s a big change for Macs, but it’s not without precedent. In 1994, Apple Mac’s went from Motorola 68k processors to PowerPC. And in 2005, they did it again, moving from PowerPC to Intel.
There is an understandable sense of trepidation for users but Apple has been through this before.
But more crucially, it looks like the benefits of Apple Silicon will easily outweigh whatever inconvenience users might face.
Here are some of my thoughts after the announcement.
Apple did not share specific benchmark figures (they never do) but they said that the new Macs are orders of magnitude faster than the current generation models.
For example, the new MacBook Air with M1 has 3.5x the CPU performance and 5x the graphics performance of the current generation Intel-powered model.
As for the new M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro, that has 2.8x times the CPU performance and 5x the graphics performance of the current generation Intel-powered model.
At a time when Intel and AMD are struggling to get double-digit gains in performance, Apple’s new M1 delivering triple-digit gains is downright spectacular.
Power would be nothing without endurance and not only is M1 fast, but it’s also more power-efficient than any other chip that Apple is using in a Mac today.
The above CPU performance and power consumption chart tells the whole story. For any given level of performance, M1 consumes less power than the “latest PC laptop chip” – it’s believed that Apple is referring to the Core i7-1165G7. But this is the most incredible bit, to match the Intel chip’s peak performance, M1 only needs a quarter of the power.
As a result, battery life has increased considerably. Even though battery capacities of the new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro are unchanged, battery life is up by 50% and 100% to 18 hours and 20 hours respectively.
Much of M1’s crazy performance and efficiency can be chalked up to its unified memory architecture. This means the CPU and GPU both share this central pool of high-bandwidth memory which reduces the need for data to be moved around should either component require it.
Another contributing factor is optimisations on the software side. This is one thing that Apple does so well. One of the reasons why iPhones are so fast and require so much less memory than the competition is because of how well iOS and Apple’s A series chips are optimised. We can expect the same from macOS Big Sur and M1.
Apple didn’t mention this during the keynote but it seems like a current limitation of M1 is that it will only support up to 16GB of memory.
Looking at how iPhones can get by with just 4GB and 6GB of memory gives me hope, but, judging from my experience with Intel systems, I’m of the view that 16GB should be the bare minimum for modern systems today. I’m currently testing a 2020 iMac and I keep experiencing slowdowns due to its 8GB memory. How macOS Big Sur and M1 manages memory usage will be interesting to see.
But perhaps more importantly, I don’t think the pro users will ever be able to accept "just" 16GB of memory. Remember the outrage from 2016 when users found out the 15-inch MacBook Pro was limited to a maximum of 16GB of memory? It doesn’t matter how well memory is managed or how good M1 is, memory is the lifeblood of pro users (perhaps even more so than outright CPU & GPU performance), and these users will also demand more and will happily pay for it.
At any rate, I think this will be addressed in future Macs. Remember, Apple said that a full transition to its silicon will take up to two years.
If you examine the specs closely, you’ll notice the base model MacBook Air has an M1 chip that has one GPU core less than the step-up model.
Apple won’t say, but it’s likely because of chip binning. If performance is anything like the new iPad Pro – whose A12Z Bionic has exactly one GPU core more than the A12X Bionic – then this could be the more value-for-money option. If performance is already so good, what’s one core less? Get it, add more storage, and away you go.
Ok, I’m overstating things a little because there’s also the slightly larger chassis and batteries. But it used to be that the MacBook Air was powered by low-power versions of Intel’s mobile processors while the MacBook Pro had more powerful versions. Now, the two notebooks feature the same processor and the only thing that is making the MacBook Pro perform better is its active cooling system aka fan.
One key limitation of Rosetta 2 is that it will not be able to run virtualisation apps for x86 platforms. To this end, Parallels, whose Parallels Desktop app is arguably the most popular virtualisation software on Mac, said that it is working on a new version of its software that will run on Apple’s new M1 Macs. However, the company stopped short at confirming that its app will allow M1 Macs to run Windows in a virtual environment.
Finally, Boot Camp will still be available on macOS Big Sur, but only Intel-based Macs will be able to use it to dual boot to Windows.
First of all, can we applaud Apple on rolling out these new devices so quickly? The new M1-powered Macs are available to order now and will be available in retail next week.
It’s early days yet and without a unit in hand, a lot of things are up in the air. But I think it’s safe to say that if your usage primarily centres around Apple’s apps and web apps, then upgrading now and being an early adopter shouldn’t be an issue. Apple has already said that all of its apps have been designed to run on M1.
To Apple’s credit, they have tried to assuage users that most apps will run without a hitch even if they have not been entirely optimised for M1 via its Rosetta 2 emulation software. They even said that some apps will run better on M1 via Rosetta 2 than on Intel systems. Your excitement is understandable, but if you are like me and use a mishmash of Apple’s apps and third-party apps, I think the sensible thing to do is to wait and check out the reviews and experiences shared by reviewers and early adopters.
Specifications are not everything. It's what you do with what you have that matters.