Apple’s November 2020 event wasn’t a big surprise. We all knew what was coming, the only question was: how good were they? If you ask Hair Force One (Craig Federighi, the VP of software) “this is working better than we even thought it would.” Unless you have been living under a rock, Craig, and we, are referring to Apple’s new ARM Chip dubbed ‘M1’.
The chip, as well as three new Mac devices were unveiled in Apple’s video event on November 10. Way back at WWDC, CEO Tim Cook announced that Apple was making the transition from Intel to its own ARM-based chips. As usual, Apple hyped M1 up with phrases like “best in class” and “blows the competition away”. Are they that good though? Here’s everything we know, and what we don’t.
Meet the M1
Like the A series for iPhone, the M series of system-on-chip (SoC) processors is a custom-built chip for Apple’s Mac line. Like the A14 Bionic processors, the M1 is a 5nm chip, which is in itself an impressive feat of engineering. There are only a handful of chips in the market made using the 5nm process, including Samsung’s Exynos 1080. However, most 5nm chips are currently designed for smartphones, not for laptops.
For that alone, Apple’s engineering team deserves a standing ovation. They have managed to do something very few have. The chip consists of 16 billion transistors, an 8-core GPU and 8-core CPU. Like the A series, these are divided into four high performance cores and four high efficiency cores. M1 is essentially an A series chip, built for the Mac. It contains all of the smarts found in the A14 Bionic, like a secure enclave, advanced image signal processing and a neural engine (16 cores if you really want to know).
The M1 helps Apple’s Mac line achieve 3 key functions: better battery life, ecosystem enhancements and security. Of course, it was battery life that Apple really marketed at the event, because that’s one thing we all need right?
Apple built the M1 to help make the Mac as smooth and fast as its other devices. Of course, we won’t know how accurate these claims are until the devices are in users’ hands, but if you believe Apple, the M1 is truly a “new era for Mac”.
Final Cut Pro is up to 6x faster, Logic Pro can handle 3x the number of tracks and 4k video editing and 3D rendering will all be a breeze according to Apple. Whether these numbers are accurate or not, performance gains are inevitable. Apple’s SoCs are without a doubt some of the best in the business, offering a lot of power and intelligence on the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. There’s no doubt that along with macOS Big Sur, the M1 will provide a much more powerful experience.
2020 13” MacBook Air
There’s no better place to show off those performance gains than a MacBook Air. The 13” model is one of the first to get Apple’s new powerful chip. The MacBook Air is by no means a slow or underpowered device. As a notebook, it was ideal (except maybe the price) for students and some professionals. The M1 though, will challenge that status.
If the M1 is as powerful as Apple claims, then people shouldn’t have any issues editing videos or photos, even in high-res on this new device. A leaked geekbench listing with the name ‘MacBook Air 10,1′ confirms this. The device has a single-core score of 1,687 and a multi-core score of 7,433. It also has a base clock speed of 3.2GHz, a huge leap over the 2.3GHz of the 16” MacBook Pro.
If that is accurate, the MacBook Air should now be the de-facto choice for a majority of people, even at the cost of the MacBook Pro. If the Air can handle all that power, then why go for the Pro?
The 13” MacBook Pro
Almost as soon as I had that question, Apple unveiled the 2020 13” MacBook Pro. Interestingly, Apple is keeping around the 13” models with Intel’s i5 & i7 processors. It’s baffling why they would choose to do that. Anyway, apart from the luxury of that option, the Pro retains the TouchBar and has a fan. That’s it. The biggest differences between Apple’s M1 notebooks is the TouchBar and fan.
Apart from that, you’d be hard pressed to find any major differences between the two devices. There are a few minor ones of course, like a bigger battery and power adapter. The real question is why would Apple upgrade the 13” Pro at the same time, with very similar specs as a 13” Air, and keep around Intel’s processors as an option?
M1 is Just the Beginning
A reason why is that M1 is just the beginning of Apple’s transition. This is very much a first stage product, not aimed at the mass market but the early adopters. Apple followed a similar strategy when it rolled out the iPhone X – alongside the iPhone 8. The company is very much testing the waters here.
Hardware engineer VP John Turnus said as much in his interview with The Independent: “I think these systems do make a statement of like: Look, look at what’s possible with M1 and with all our technologies…I think they’re a tremendous foundation for this transition, just to start with M1.”
That’s why there was no dramatic redesign, or serious upgrades. The 2020 devices are all about the M1, not the devices themselves. The MacBook Air allows Apple to show off its battery gains, and the MacBook Pro its power. If the M1 can indeed edit 4k video, and render 3D models on a MacBook Pro as Apple claims, then that’s a huge step forward.
To that end, that’s why Apple released the products they did. At the end of the day, it comes down to price. By offering two options, Apple is getting the M1 into enough people’s hands to really test the processor. Intel-based Macs are also sticking around to show off those gains. It is a good base for people to judge the M1 chip on.
That’s the real question on everyone’s minds. There’s no doubt the M1 will achieve greater speed, power and battery over Intel’s chips, but that isn’t the whole story. To really differentiate, Apple will have to introduce a beefier version of M1, like the A12Z Bionic on the iPad Pros. That’s where things will get interesting.
Apple won’t judge the success of the 2020 Macs by units sold, but rather on feedback. If it is where the company wants it to be, the next generation of Macs will feature more differences. It would be interesting to see an M1Z SoC on the 16” MacBook Pro, or even the iMac Pro. Maybe that’s why Apple has held off from updating the iMac Pro since it was first launched in 2017.
We’ve already seen how seamless Apple’s ecosystem is. From Continuity to SideCar, Apple has made the Mac feel like a natural extension of iOS and iPadOS. Now, with Big Sur, that takes a huge leap forward. Not only will iPad and iPhone apps come to the Mac, but so will their technology.
Before you get excited, it is not a touchscreen. That much is clear. Rather, I am talking about features like FaceID & LiDAR. Who knows, maybe even offline Siri? So far Apple has been held back by Intel’s processors, but now that it is creating its own, anything is possible.
That is a major reason why Big Sur received the redesign it did. If you want to know more, stay tuned for my review of macOS Big Sur, and what it means for the future of the Mac.
The M1 processor and Apple’s 2020 Macs (they even announced a Mac Mini) are truly the start of something exciting. Unless you are a real geek like me though, they probably aren’t for you.