Duncan Davidson
Thursday, November 12, 2020

Apple’s M1 arrives

With Apple’s event announcing the release of new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini models based on the M1 system on a chip, the Mac’s transition away from Intel and onto its very own silicon platform is now solidly underway. With initial shipments next week — my order is two weeks away, presumably because I ordered a 16 GB model with a US keyboard in Germany — it will be a few days we get true impressions of how these systems perform.

That won’t stop people from speculating. The best I’ve seen is Andrei Frumusanu’s article on Anandtech, which paints a very optimistic picture. The not so great are the takes that Apple is simply stuffing a mobile phone chip into a laptop and the Mac is heading to the same fate that befell Windows RT.

Then, there are the complaints that Apple hasn’t done enough because the enclosures are the same or whatever. The people making those complaints must not have looked at history. When Apple did the PowerPC to Intel transition, they started by changing the CPUs, leaving everything else the same. After they were safely past the point where customers believed that the transition was going to work, then they fully took advantage of what the new platform could do. The same process will play out this time.

I like Apple has approached the technical specifications for the new machines. Clock speed is nowhere to be seen. And, almost every reference to the performance of the M1 is stated in terms of power consumption — performance per watt — which equals heat. And, if you were watching the presentation closely, you may have noticed they explicitly called out in the event presentation that the MacBook Air has a 10W thermal envelope.

It doesn’t matter how awesome a chip you put into a laptop is, if you can’t keep it cool, it doesn’t make a difference. We’ve seen this in action with the last few generations of MacBook Pros. Better and theoretically faster Intel chips haven’t really moved the needle on real-world performance. Faster SSDs and other system architecture enhancements are where we’ve seen the bulk of improvement in the last few generations. Outside that, the only way to buy a faster computer has been to buy a bigger computer.

The M1 puts us on a new curve. Somebody (that I’d presume works for Apple) ran GeekBench on new MacBook Air, and the single-core numbers come in better the CPU in any available Mac. The multi-core numbers beat out the current top-of-the-line 16" MacBook Pro. Wow.

That promises a lot of potential for the future. Imagine a future 16" MacBook Pro on this performance curve. There’s a lot to look forward to. I’m curious to see the shape of the more powerful variants of the M1. Will they expand the package to hold 32 or even 64 GB of memory on-board? How many high-performance cores will they scale up to? And how will they handle memory architectures with an external GPU or multiple CPU packages? There’s a lot to look forward to.

If you’re going to go ahead and jump in now into the Apple Silicon future, how do you decide between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with the same M1 chip? For me, it was easy. For 110 grams of extra weight and a bit more money, you get a brighter screen, bigger battery, and an expanded thermal envelope which will result in longer sustained performance. Done.