Apple presented the first Macs based on the new M1 chip in a broadcast on 10 November 2020. The new Macs included a new MacBook Air, whose performance and battery life are skyrocketing thanks to the new chip. The company also unveiled a new MacBook Pro and a new Mac mini.
It was the third virtual Apple event of the autumn and the most technical - high-quality clips were there to keep the viewer happy, but the theme made the focus on technical details inevitable.
What is Apple's M1?
The M1 chip is Apple's first computer chip and three Macs are now equipped with it. These Macs include the popular MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro (which apparently accounted for the majority of Mac sales in 2020), and the Mac mini (which is likely a popular choice due to its low cost - which is now £100/$100 lower than it was).
With a structure width of five nanometers, the M1 is currently one of the world beating in terms of technology. Intel is thus left behind for the time being, because even the current generation of mobile chips manufactured by Intel has a width of ten nanometers, while AMD is using seven nanometers.
A smaller structure width means more transistors per unit of area, and the M1 has an impressive 16 billion transistors. That is almost five billion more than the A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12. And they are cleverly used in the Mac.
The M1 works with eight CPU cores. Four of them are so-called performance cores, which are designed for pure computing power. The other four are power savers that should consume a tenth of the power that the performance cores need under full load. macOS decides for itself which cores are used. This is called asymmetric multiprocessing and it ultimately leads to longer battery life (more on that below).
Another benefit of Apple's new chip is the unified memory architecture, which ensures that all components access the same RAM storage technology. Be it the graphics unit, the main CPU or the various auxiliary processors. Loss of performance due to the reshaping of memory access cannot even occur here.
Ultimately, however, it is about motivation: "performance per watt" and we can see clear parallels here with the 2006 switch from PowerPC to Intel chips. Back then, too, the reason was that the PowerPC architecture did not perform well and consumed too much power. The G5 was a great 64-bit chip, there is nothing to be doubted about that, but compared to the Intel architecture of the time, it was a power hog and radiant heater.
The situation today is similar with Intel chips: compared to the ARM architecture (on which M1 is based), the x86 microcode needs a lot more transistors to provide a similar performance and thus of course more power. ARM is much more economical.
But that's just one reason for the change. The move from Intel has significantly more advantages. Apple can now integrate the main processor in the Mac seamlessly into the rest of the hardware - just as they have been doing for years with the iPhone and iPad. In addition, they can now scale the chip as they see fit, i.e. equip it with more cores or other special functions that the market demands. All that without taking another manufacturer and its roadmap into account.
This will make the Mac the most flexible notebook and desktop PC on the market for years to come.
And what Apple promises in terms of performance and battery life will make the hearts of every Mac user beat faster.
Apple is not being modest when it comes to the performance of the new M1 chip in the MacBook Air. The new chip is said to offer 3.5 times the CPU and 5 times the graphics performance, as well as up to 9 times faster processing for machine learning.
Apple is silent about clock frequencies. It can be assumed that the cores in the fanless MacBook Air are clocked at around 2GHz, while in the 13in MacBook Pro and the Mac mini they are likely around 3GHz. Only our own benchmarks will show the performance differences between the systems.
Early benchmarks for the MacBook Air are promising though.
Apple promises up to 3.5 times CPU power, the "up to" is important. The addition tells us that this comparison was made with the weakest model in the previous series. That would be the MacBook Air with an i3 CPU from Intel, a processor with two cores. So a quarter of the number of cores of the new M1 processor, a significant increase in performance seems almost logical in this context. But this realization does not change the fact that you get a laptop with a lot more power for the same price. Read more: Apple's M1 - is it really '3X as fast'?
It will get really interesting when the M1 competes in benchmarks against mobile chips from other manufacturers with the same number of cores. For now we can only speculate about the actual performance of the Apple chip as we have no benchmarks.
Apple makes some pretty bold claims about how fast the M1 chip is. In fact Apple claims that the M1 is faster than 98 percent of all PC laptops sold in the past year. This is a bold claim - we were initially convinced that they were just making the claim in regards to laptops in the same class, but Apple's 98% claim is repeated on the press release where it states that the “M1 is faster than the chips in 98 percent of PC laptops sold in the past year.”
Apple's footnote clarifies that "Testing conducted by Apple in October 2020 using preproduction 13in MacBook Pro systems with Apple M1 chip and 16GB of RAM. Performance measured using select industry-standard benchmarks. PC configurations from publicly available sales data over the last 12 months. Performance tests are conducted using specific computer systems and reflect approximate performance of MacBook Pro."
Thanks to its better cooling performance, the MacBook Pro can probably use the M1 chip much better than the MacBook Air, which lacks a fan and relies on passive cooling. The important point though is Apple's not making the 98% claim about the MacBook Air, the claim relates to a more powerful MacBook Pro.
It's no surprise that the PC press (like our colleagues at PC World) is jumping on Apple's ridiculous claims - after all there are plenty of PCs and other Macs that are surely going to be faster than the entry-level MacBook Pro, let alone the MacBook Air.
We'll give Apple the benefit of the doubt and assume that 98% of PCs sold are low powered and that these new Macs can beat them as Apple claims.
There should also be noticeable differences in the graphics area, because the integrated graphics unit runs with eight cores (although there are only seven in the smallest model of the MacBook Air). That's still twice as many as in the iPhone or iPad.
In practice, this will mainly affect the frame rate of games, but professional applications such as Final Cut Pro X or Logic Pro X should also benefit from this and, for example, be able to calculate 3D effects in videos up to three times faster, according to Apple.
Note that M1 Macs will not support eGPUs - an eGPU does make a huge difference to a Mac with integrated graphics, as demonstrated by a test where the M1 MacBook Pro was beaten by MacBook Pro with eGPU.
For the first time in the Mac, the Neural Engine takes care of image recognition, speech recognition and motion analysis in videos, which was not even available with Intel CPUs. Apple states that the Neural Engine should bring an increase in performance, especially with Final Cut Pro. Video clips should be able to be intelligently restructured more than four times faster.
Even the signal processor from the iPhone is available in the M1. In the iPhone it helps you take great photos - specialising in real-time image processing. In the Mac, it could lead to higher working speeds in programs such as Lightroom or Photoshop. However, the programs must first be optimised by the developers. According to Apple, Lightroom for the new Mac will come in December and Photoshop in early 2021.
Read more about Apple's graphics plans.
As explained above, Apple's new chip is powerful, but it has yet to prove itself in benchmarks against mobile chips from other manufacturers offering the same number of cores. Until it does the real sensation is not the performance, but the efficiency of the M1.
Apple promises up to six hours more battery life in the MacBook Air, 18 hours in total. This turns the Air into an all-day device, you charge it at night and can then use it for the whole of the next day.
Combined with the increased performance, Apple's new architecture for mobile CPUs could lead the way.
Apple has also donated the secure enclave to the M1 chip. Touch ID in the MacBook Air and 13in MacBook Pro should work faster and more reliably. Previously the separate T2 chip in the Mac was responsible for this, which Apple introduced with the iMac Pro in 2017. It is no longer needed, its function is fully integrated in the M1.
USB 4 and Thunderbolt 3
Even if USB and Thunderbolt cannot be found directly in the M1, the inclusion of these technologies is a decisive step for Apple because both interfaces are based on the PCI Express bus, which was previously not found in the chips of the iPhone and iPad.
Apple has not yet released any details, but the M1 is likely to come with a PCI Express solution, otherwise Thunderbolt would not be possible.
USB 4 is also another big step, because firstly, the Macs with M1 chip should be pretty much the first mass-market computers to be equipped with USB 4, and secondly, the speed of USB 4 catches up with Thunderbolt 3. Both technologies can now transfer data at up to 40 Gbit/s. USB 4 remains backwards compatible with USB 3 and USB 2.
Apple has optimized all of its own apps for the M1 and many large software developers are also working on corresponding versions. You shouldn't have any problems with these programs.
However, it will take time to customize all third-party Mac apps for the M1 chip. Until then, Apple uses the Rosetta 2 framework to create an emulation environment in which programs developed for Intel CPUs continue to work. How well this works and whether it results in a loss of performance can only be assessed after extensive tests.
Apple Silicon is a project that will certainly take a few years to finalize. Keep that in mind as you contemplate getting one of Apple's new treasures.
Prices, specifications and availability
You can order all new Macs from the Apple Store now. Delivery will start from around 17 November.
For more information read: Where to buy Apple's new MacBook Pro, Air & Mini with M1.
The Mac is entering a new age. The M1 will catapult it into a new decade. Apple can finally break away from the mainstream in the notebook and desktop computer sector and offer its own products that nobody can easily copy. And the M1 is just the beginning. Apple now has a whole world of scaling options at its disposal to produce faster and better optimized Macs. The future looks great!
Wondering whether to buy an M1 Mac? Read Should I buy an M1 MacBook or Mac?