Apple is changing the processors used in the Mac. Instead of Intel central processing units, or CPUs, the company is switching to its own Apple Silicon chips, the first of which is the M1 processor. It’s already unveiled the first computers running on the new processors. As a CPU is at the heart of a computer, executing the instructions that make up a software app, this is very big news indeed.
It isn’t the first time Apple has changed the Mac’s processors. In 2006, it dropped the IBM PowerPC processor in favour of Intel’s chips, and before that, the Motorola 68040 series was abandoned for the PowerPC CPUs. Over the next few years, it makes a change once again as Intel CPUs are gradually phased out, and are replaced by Apple Silicon processors. But why? According to Apple, the changeover makes Macs faster and more efficient, while using less power, which is very important for battery life in notebooks. According to Johny Srouji, Apple’s vice president for hardware technology, “The first thing this will do is give the Mac a whole new level of performance.”
Also, as the Apple Silicon chips are based on the same architecture as Apple’s mobile devices, it will be easier to develop for Macs, iPads and iPhones together, creating one app that works on all platforms. We’re promised Apple Silicon Macs can run iOS and iPadOS software natively, and converting apps from one platform to another is a quick and simple affair.
The first of the Apple Silicon CPU series is the M1 chip, and on 10th November 2020, Apple lifted the lid on the first Macs that use it. And they’re looking pretty special.
The M1 CPU
Apple is no stranger to designing and manufacturing processors. It has been making chips for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch for years. But the new M1 CPU, Apple’s most powerful chip yet, is its first designed for the Mac. The M1 is an entire system on a single chip. In the past, a Mac needed several chips running alongside the CPU. There was a controller for data transfer in and out, and another for the Thunderbolt ports alone. Solid state memory required more chips, as did the Apple T2 for security features. Not any more. The M1 combines all these technologies into a single unit, which is great for efficiency, and therefore, performance.
The M1 chip uses five nanometer technology. What this means is an individual transistor, the things that do the work in a processor, is just five billionths of a metre large; the same size as ten atoms. Smaller transistors makes for greater speed and efficiency, and also – crucially – it means you can cram more of them onto a smaller area. The M1 packs in an amazing 16 billion transistors, the most Apple has ever put on a chip.
The M1 processor also features the world’s fastest CPU core in low-power silicon, the world’s best CPU performance per watt and the world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer. Clearly designed with notebooks in mind, a great deal of attention has been paid to keeping power consumption low, while ramping up its capabilities. As a result, M1 delivers up to 3.5x faster CPU performance, up to 6x faster GPU performance, and up to 15x faster machine learning, all while enabling battery life up to 2x longer than previous-generation Macs.
But how does it achieve these figures? Each M1 chip has eight cores, which means it can handle eight tasks at once. Four of those cores are optimised for high performance, for when carrying out processor-intensive tasks such as video encoding or image processing. Apple claims the four high-efficiency cores deliver outstanding performance at a tenth of the power. The other four cores are optimised for efficiency, meaning the chip is less draining on the battery when doing regular tasks such as web surfing, word processing and so on.
The M1 also includes an integrated graphics processing unit (GPU). Featuring up to eight powerful cores capable of running nearly 25,000 threads simultaneously, the GPU can handle extremely demanding tasks with ease, from smooth playback of multiple 4K video streams to rendering complex 3D scenes. With 2.6 teraflops of throughput, M1 has the world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer.
“The M1 ushers in a whole new era for the Mac,” said Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Technologies. “When it comes to low-power silicon, M1 has the world’s fastest CPU core, the world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer and the amazing machine learning performance of the Apple Neural Engine. With its unique combination of remarkable performance, powerful features, and incredible efficiency, M1 is by far the best chip we’ve ever created.”
The New MacBook Air
The first Apple Silicon-based Mac that Apple unveiled is the latest 13-inch MacBook Air, the ultra-portable laptop that packs a seriously powerful punch into a small and light package.
The M1 CPU makes the new MacBook Air 3.5x faster than the previous generation, with up to 5x faster graphics, the biggest generational leap ever for a MacBook Air. You can play modern, graphically immersive games at significantly higher frame rates; great news for Apple Arcade subscribers.
Video editors will also appreciate the new MacBook Air. Before, Apple’s ultra-portable wasn’t considered suitable for such a processor-intensive task, but now you can edit multiple streams of full quality 4K video without dropping a frame. Although the higher-end and the cheaper MacBook Airs use the same M1 processor, the cheapest model only has a seven-core GPU, while the more expensive notebook – as well as the rest of the new Apple Silicon Macs – have eight graphical cores.
The new MacBook Air out-performs comparable Windows notebooks by a significant degree too. According to Laura Metz, Apple’s Mac Product Line Manager, it’s up to three times faster than the best-selling Windows notebook in its class, and is faster than 98% of PC laptops sold in the last year.
The solid state storage used in the new MacBook Airs is up to 2x faster than the previous generation, thanks to the M1 storage controller and advanced flash technology. this makes tasks such as previewing large files or transferring data between external and internal storage are much quicker.
Perhaps the most important advance made by the new MacBook Airs is their battery life. Excellence in this department is nothing new for Apple’s thinnest and lightest notebook, but thanks to the M1’s efficiency, the new Airs take it to a whole new level. You can wirelessly surf the web for up to 15 hours on a single charge or play back videos for 18 hours, which is six hours longer than before.
Video conferencing is a notoriously power-hungry task, but you can go for up to twice as long with the new Air. Video chatters will also appreciate the improved picture quality when streaming from your notebook’s camera, and as the new Airs are fanless, even when carrying out processor-intensive tasks it still operates silently.
Other new features worthy of note are Touch ID, which lets you unlock your Mac with your fingerprint, and support for P3 wide colour for an even more vibrant, true-to-life Retina display.
The New Mac mini
As the Macs given to developers to help them convert their apps to Apple Silicon were based on the Mac mini, it’s no surprise Apple’s small form factor Mac is the first desktop to benefit from the new M1 chip. However this only benefits the cheaper two Mac minis. The high-end model, with the space grey housing, still uses an 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor. Perhaps this model has been retained for those who need a lot of onboard memory; it can be customised with up to 64GB of RAM, while all computers that use the M1 chip are limited to 8GB or 16GB.
There’s no holding back the new CPU. It delivers up to 3x the performance of the previous generation’s quad core chip, and the eight-core graphics processor is up to 6x quicker than before. Just the thing for playing – and even designing – graphics-intensive games.
According to Apple, compared to the top-selling PC desktop in its price range, the mini is one tenth the size but up to five times faster. We understand Apple used ‘production Intel Core i5-based PC systems with Intel UHD Graphics 630 and the latest version of Windows 10 available at the time of testing,’ but we’re not told which systems.
Machine Learning, the feature whereby software applications improve over time by automatically learning as they go, is up to 15x faster than the previous generation of Mac minis, making it great for ML-assisted photo processing and ideal for scientists, developers and engineers.
All this extra power hasn’t taken a toll on the price. In fact, the entry-level mini is even cheaper than the previous generation, costing just £699/$699/778,85 €, but remember, it doesn’t come with a keyboard, mouse/trackpad or monitor. If you don’t have these items already, factor in the cost.
The New MacBook Pro
Apple also unveiled a new M1-powered MacBook Pro, but only the 13-inch version. If you prefer the extra screen size offered by the 16-inch model, you’ll have to wait. Also, the two more expensive 13-inch MacBook Pros retain Intel chips, presumably for those who need more than 16GB of RAM. The M1 chip makes its appearance in the two cheaper notebooks, which can be configured with 8GB or 16GB of memory and up to 2TB of storage.
The M1 eight-core CPU, when paired with the MacBook Pro’s active cooling system, is up to 2.8x faster than the previous generation, delivering improved performance when compiling code, transcoding video, editing high-resolution photos and more. The eight-core GPU is up to 5x faster, allowing users to enjoy super smooth graphics performance for gaming, video editing and design.
It’s a pro-level notebook that offers improved pro-level results. According to Apple, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is up to 3x faster than the best-selling Windows laptop in its class. Machine learning is up to 11x faster, and for on-device ML tasks that use the M1 chip’s Neural Engine, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is now the world’s fastest compact pro notebook.
We’re told that compared to ‘the best selling Windows PC in its class,’ the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is ‘up to 3x faster.’ The small print on Apple’s website says these Windows notebooks are ‘production Intel Core i7-based PC systems with Intel Iris Plus Graphics and the latest version of Windows 10,’ but doesn’t identify the make or model.
With up to 17 hours of wireless web browsing and up to a staggering 20 hours of video playback, MacBook Pro delivers up to twice the battery life of the previous generation and the longest battery life ever on a Mac. If you find you often run out of battery between charges, this is an excellent reason to consider an upgrade.
Operating System and Software Support
Yet for all its strengths, the change-over in processors leaves a very important question in Mac users’ minds; will Apple Silicon Macs run existing software written for Intel processors? Thankfully, the answer is ‘yes.’ Apple fans can look forward to Universal Apps, that is, applications which include native binary versions for both Apple Silicon and Intel processors. Omni Group, for example, is bringing out universal versions of all its apps, as is Adobe, starting with Lightroom in December 2020.
Serif has gone one better. Its Affinity group of creative apps are already optimised for the new processor, and it didn’t take them long to convert them. According to Ashley Hewson, Managing Director of Affinity developer Serif, “Our fully-featured iPad apps already take advantage of very similar architecture on the A-series chips, so it only took us a day to port our Mac version to run natively on M1. Ever since developing for iPad, we’d always hoped that chips with this architecture would eventually come to Mac, so we’re very excited that day is finally here.”
Big Sur contains a new technology for running apps that have not yet been upgraded. When Apple transitioned from PowerPC to Intel chips starting in 2006, it developed a dynamic binary translator called Rosetta to allow the new processors to run PowerPC software, giving developers time to update their apps to the new architecture. Big Sur includes Rosetta 2, a similar feature allowing Apple Silicon Macs to run software written for Intel platforms. Naturally, Apple’s own apps area already optimised for M1 chips, and during the transition to the new processor (which will take around two years), third party developers will work on optimising theirs. According to Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP Software Engineering, “Thanks to Metal and M1, some of the most graphically demanding apps actually perform better under Rosetta than they did running natively on previous Macs with integrated graphics.”
As Apple Silicon includes both the new M1 chips and existing A-series processors used on Apple’s mobile devices, for the first time ever, you can run iPhone and iPad apps directly on your Mac. If you’ve ever wished there was a Mac version of an app you love on iOS or iPadOS, your wait is over.
So Should You Upgrade?
Excited as we are about the new Apple Silicon M1 processors and the new Macs, there are a few things you must take on board before deciding whether it’s time to upgrade. First of all, it’s important to remember this is only the first batch of Macs to move over to the Apple Silicon chips. Over time, the entire Mac range will make the transition, but for now, only low-end Macs have M1 processors. The entire MacBook Air range, the lowest-priced 13-inch MacBook Pros and all but the most expensive Mac mini have been refreshed, but over the next two years, Apple Silicon will come to the iMacs, 16-inch MacBook Pros and the rest of the 13-inch notebook and Mac mini range. If the lower-end Macs are enough for you, by all means upgrade now, but if you’d prefer a higher-end Mac with an Apple Silicon chip, you won’t have long to wait.
Another factor you need to consider is the main limitation of the M1. It’s limited to 16GB of memory. This is undoubtedly because the memory is integrated into the chip instead of being installed separately, but it’s a limitation Apple is bound to overcome with the next release of its Apple Silicon Mac processor. Is 16GB enough for you? It probably is, but some high-end users need more. If you’re one of those users, the decision is an easy one; wait. A new processor with more memory will arrive soon, and find its way into the more powerful models in Apple’s Mac range.
If you’re buying a notebook, look closely at the specs for the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. They’re very similar, aren’t they? Same processor, same storage options, same screen, same memory options… We could go on, but you get the idea. There’s little to distinguish the ‘Pro’ laptop from its ultra-portable sibling, though it does have a marginally better battery life and an internal fan to keep the processor cool, and therefore running at top speed even when running processor-intensive tasks. Note that the cheaper MacBook Air has seven rather than eight GPU cores too. Are these differentials enough to justify the extra cost? If you’re planning on getting a new MacBook Pro, take a look at the Air too.
Finally, although Apple was keen to tell us about how the new M1 chip and the new Macs out-performed equivalent Windows-based PCs, we weren’t told which ones. This matter will resolve itself as reviewers and users get their hands on Apple Silicon Macs and run their own benchmark tests, which will soon be all over the Internet. If you question Apple’s claims, wait a little.
So should you upgrade? If you’re already in the market for a lower-spec Mac and 16GB is enough memory for your needs, there’s no reason not to – enjoy your new Mac, and all the benefits Apple’s amazing M1 chip brings. If you’d prefer more memory, higher specs, a bigger notebook screen or an Apple Silicon-powered iMac, wait. These things will come, and they will come soon.