The M1 is one small step for the Mac, but one giant leap for Apple.
There are two reasons why the M1, Apple’s first custom silicon chip, is making its debut with a new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini. One is the obvious. Apple is testing the waters with the M1. The other reason is, the M1 isn’t technically built for “pro” users, even though I have absolutely no doubt in saying that it’s clearly ahead of its time – despite its many limitations.
Apple doesn’t normally like to talk about clock speeds. It is not the one to boast about the number of cores either. Rather, it will tell you how capable its products are, how they are the best in the business, so on and so forth. But this strategy does not work well in the computer space. Users — especially the pro users — demand numbers. The industry demands numbers.
And that is why, Apple also has some numbers for you.
The M1 is an ARM-based system on a chip (SoC) built on a 5nm manufacturing process. It packs 16 billion transistors. It has an 8-core setup with four high performance cores and four high efficiency cores. This is paired with an 8-core integrated GPU and a 16-core neural engine. A 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple M1 chip and 16GB of RAM can theoretically deliver up to 3.5x faster CPU performance, up to 6x faster GPU performance, up to 15x faster machine learning, and up to 2x longer battery life over the previous generation.
In the words of Apple, we’re looking at the “world’s fastest CPU core in low-power silicon, the world’s best CPU performance per watt, the world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer, and breakthrough machine learning performance with the Apple Neural Engine.”
The MacBook Air refresh, launching alongside, has the same silicon but performance and battery life would vary because a.) it does not have a fan, and b.) it has a smaller battery. To what extent though, is something that only time will tell.
Aside from the aforementioned differences, and a couple of more less intriguing ones, the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are virtually the same machines. Just to add some more context, Apple has already discontinued the Intel-powered MacBook Air it had launched in March even as it continues to make the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac Mini with Intel inside giving “pro” users two options to choose from depending on their use case.
So, let’s talk about some of the pressing limitations of Apple’s M1 chip.
M1-based MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini top out at 16GB RAM. Meanwhile, you can get an Intel-based MacBook Pro with up to 32GB RAM, while Mac Mini with Intel inside is available with up to 64GB RAM.
Since the RAM is integrated into the SoC, you can’t upgrade it in case of M1-based MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini.
Discrete GPUs are a no-go.
All that’s aside from the fact that it’s still early days for Apple silicon. The biggest concern would be app compatibility though I have higher hopes from Apple in this regard as opposed to say, Windows. Apple says most iPhone and iPad apps will work natively on its M1-based Mac computers and it would take only a matter of days for developers to build apps for the “new” platform. Lightroom for instance will be available later this year, while Photoshop is coming early next year. The latest and greatest version of macOS, aka Big Sur, that was built keeping ARM-based Macs in mind also comes with an emulator called Rosetta 2 for “translating” apps not optimized for the M1 yet.
The M1 is one small step for the Mac, but one giant leap for Apple. It has delivered on the first promise. The first wave of Mac computers with Apple silicon is indeed ready to ship this year. But it’s just the start and Apple isn’t making any bold claims. A full transition away from Intel will take another two years, Apple has confirmed, and it will continue to support existing devices for years. Apple has history and products like the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch all powered by its home-grown silicon on its side. An M1Z for more power-hungry users could well be in the making. It should be if Cupertino wants its class-leading pro Macs to continue to lead the pack.