The New M1 Chip From Apple Heralds A New Era For Macs
Bold claims, bold design choices, all centred on a game-changing ARM processor
Apple just finished their Macintosh-focused live event, and it's proving to be their most ambitious announcement this year. With the new M1 processor designed in-house with ARM-licensed architecture, the newest-generation Macs promise a revolution not seen since the move from PowerPC to Intel x86.
INSIDE M1 and the TRANSITION TO BIG SUR
Thanks to Taiwan Semiconductor's 5nm process, Apple's new M1 system-on-chip silicon is showing much promise, with claims of "up to" double the performance of the current laptop chip (which may refer to either Intel's 11th-generation Tiger Lake CPUs or Ryzen 4000U APUs) while staying within the 10-watt power requirement for the MacBook air.
Featuring four big cores for heavy lifting and four smaller cores for efficiency in light loads as well as a 16-core Neural Engine, Apple claims its place in performance-per-watt leadership for both CPU and GPU, though it remains to be seen how this translates to real-world work and synthetic benchmarks, so you'll have to wait for embargo lifts later in the week to find out. At the least, the new M1 chip lets MacBooks instantly wake up once you lift the display open.
Equally important is Big Sur, the first macOS version to run on Apple Silicon. This jump is significant, as it allows iOS and iPadOS apps to run on Macs, while a translation layer called Rosettta 2 lets x86 programs run on the M1 chip if a Universal version (that synergizes x86 and M1 versions of software).
Once again, Apple makes lofty promises, with the new architecture purportedly letting Final Cut run "six times faster on M1 than on previous x86 processors", while Rosetta 2 and Universal allows standard computer programs to run on the M1 chip.
THE LAPTOPS: Thin, Silent...Powerful?
The cheapest of the current lineup is the MacBook Air, starting from $999 (or $900 if you're a student like me). It seems thinner than the Intel unit I'm using to write this article but retains Thunderbolt ports (now a Gen4 connector) and a headphone jack. And it seems poised to make my poor laptop obsolete immediately.
Look at these stats! And even more remarkably, the Air is doing this without a cooling fan inside, which worries me a bit but isn't too terribly surprising. It's also claiming as much as 18 hours of video playback on battery alone, as well as 5x graphics power compared to whatever I'm using. It can be specced with up to 16TB of DDR4 memory and 2TB worth of solid-state storage. Apple also touts a new camera sensor for video calls, USB 4 connectivity and neural coprocessing.
The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, is stuck at 13 inches for now but promises to be "faster than 98%" of Windows laptops in use today. Starting at $1300, the 13er MacBook Pro boasts "up to 18 hours of wireless web browsing and 20 hours of video playback", Pro Display XDR compatibility and an actual blower fan to cool the SoC.
You may still be a bit hard-pressed to go after this, though, as the base $1300 model only has 256GB of SSD storage and 8GB of RAM. At $1500, however, you get 16GM RAM and 512GB of storage, so choose wisely how you spec this laptop.
MAC MINI: The Real Base Mac
Apple's desktop offering, the Mac mini, also sports the same SoC but is set to supersede the Intel version of this released two years ago -- and be five times faster than the fastest Windows prebuilt all while sporting the M1 chip.
For composers, developers and creators, this may very well be enough of a computer to go into, but again, it comes down to how you play the options game. So far, the base Mac mini only has 8GB of memory and 256GB of flash storage, so going for a maxed-out option may wind up pushing you into workstation PC territory.
Yes, you can order all three of them NOW if you go to Apple's website, while Big Sur rolls out today as well. This is a new frontier for Apple in its quest to unify its devices into a single, seamless ecosystem. Will they succeed? Will I still pine for a Ryzen-powered HP convertible rather than the new MacBook Air? We'll have to wait for benchmarks to see if Apple can follow through.