Does the Apple m1 chip mark the next generation of personal computing?

If Apple's bold claims for its m1 chip are true, what should we look forward to?

by Justin Choo

It’s no secret that Apple’s been consistently churning out the best silicon for mobile devices over the past number of years. Fortunately, processors alone aren’t the be-all and end-all of the smartphone experience and that market remains diverse and healthy.

But now Apple is making perhaps its most daring move in a long time. Desktop and laptop processors have long been the almost exclusive domain of a two-party club – Intel and AMD – and Apple is threatening to turn it into a nasty three-way of sorts, of which there can be no happy ending for at least one party. To be fair, Apple has been telegraphing this move for the longest time, so Intel and AMD have no reason for a surprised Pikachu face.

That day is here: the Apple M1 system on chip (SoC) is now available on the Mac Mini, Macbook Air and Macbook Pro. Based on the A14 platform, the M1 is built a 5nm process, which is something that Intel isn’t close to doing yet. We could argue that the die shrink race is not showing better performance returns but Apple has always prioritised power efficiency more than anything else. While PC vs Mac is ultimately a choice driven by usage cases, the one true advantage that Apple has is that they have far more control over their ecosystem. This is made even more telling after perusing its latest releases – efficiency is the common narrative amongst all.

New SoC

Apple m1 chip

Will Apple’s approach change the face of computing forever? Image: Apple

The M1 chip features a unified memory architecture to maximise bandwidth and minimise latency. It consolidates the CPU (4 high-performance cores, 4 high-efficiency cores), GPU (8-core GPU), neural engine (16 cores), Thunderbolt controller, RAM (in this case, DDR4), Secure Enclave, I/O chip into one package.

Apple claims that the four high-efficiency cores alone deliver the same performance as the current generation MacBook Air with one difference – you guessed it; it is far more power-efficient. They claim to match the performance of current generation solutions for a third or a quarter of the power, with headroom to deliver twice the performance.

Apple m1 CPU performance

Numbers look good, but let’s wait for more real-world benchmarks Image: Apple

No absolute benchmarks were stated at the keynote, but Apple claims Logic Pro (all these on Big Sur, of course) can run up to three times more instruments and effect plugins, while final cut pro can “render a complex timeline” up to six times faster.

Big Sur

Apple Macbook Air with M1 chip

A laptop that feels and responds like an iPad? Sounds good. Image: Apple

But every hardware needs the right software to click and Big Sur is Apple’s key to their vision of a unified computing world. Big Sur OS is touted to bring the mobile experience to desktops – instant wakeup, the instantaneous opening of apps, snappy response, and more efficient power management. You can even run iPhone and iPad apps on Macs now [expand].

The elephant in the room of course is: will the software transition to the new architecture be more complicated than that of Trump handing over the reins to Biden? OK, probably not the best analogy because we know that’s a definite no. Like in 2006, Apple is relying on a new version of Rosetta (Rosetta 2) to do the translation for Intel-based apps.

The truth is that we don’t know for sure how it fares in the real world. But Apple has certainly laid down some bold markers: “Thanks to Metal and M1, some of the most graphically-demanding apps actually perform better under Rosetta than they did running natively on previous Macs with integrated graphics,” said Craig Federighi, SVP of Software Engineering. That’s quite a big claim and we’re not doubting it, but it would be nice to know the conditions for that to happen.

Vs Intel Evo

Inevitably, they will be compared against Intel’s new standard for ultraportables, so how do they stack up? Intel stipulates the following benchmarks Intel-based laptops must meet to receive the Evo branding:

  • A minimum of 9 hours battery life with a 1080p display
  • Fast charge a minimum of 4 hours battery life in 30 minutes
  • Ability to wake from sleep in less than one second
  • Wifi 6 and thunderbolt 4 connectivity

Apple did not mention how much time it takes to charge the battery of the MacBook Air but it seems to be using the same battery (well, the same watt-hour anyway) as its predecessor. So presumably, a quick charge to about a quarter of its projected battery life should not take too long if we reference the previous generation charge times. One thing that the new Apple ’loses’ is that it’s only using Thunderbolt 3. Of course, this does not mean that Intel-based devices cannot outperform this standard since there is no cap on what manufacturers can try to achieve with their designs.

MacBook Pro

Apple MacBook Pro 18 hour video playback

The MBP with the longest battery life can play videos for 18 hours straight. Image: Apple

Who would have thought that of the three new devices, the MacBook Pro would prove to be the most ‘boring’ of the lot? However, it does have one feather in its cap: Apple hails it as having the longest battery life ever in a MacBook. Apart from some amenities like a better quality microphone and improved computational thingamajigs for the video camera (ultimately for a better Zoom experience), Activation Lock, and Pro Display XDR at 6K resolution support, the MacBook Pro is pretty much the same laptop that we have come to expect of its class – it kind of feels a bit like an update with better performance figures; not that it is a bad thing.

Mac Mini

Apple Mac Mini

Still svelte as ever, but it certainly packs a punch now. Image: Apple

The Mac Mini is an interesting one because typically it is not the Mac that comes readily recommended – its size automatically assumes that it is ultimately a compromise. But when it is 3x faster than the previous generation, up to 6x faster graphics, 15x faster in ML computation, there might be enough of a jump to make this viable in more use cases. The Mac Mini is also powerful enough to support Pro Display XDR 6k resolution. It’s also priced cheaper this year, so we definitely have to keep an eye on how it fares now versus the competition.

MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air for video editing.

Apple is not shy in trumpeting the MacBook Air’s video editing capabilities. Image: Apple

Possibly the most popular MacBook in the world, and not just because it’s the cheapest – its feature set is what people really want in a portable laptop. Mac Product Line Manager Laura Metz’s presentation of the MacBook Air centred around it being used by photographers and the ability of Lightroom to handle “huge RAW libraries”.

The new machines supposedly boast up to 3.5x faster than the previous generation, with up to 5x faster graphics performance. For context, you are supposedly able to edit multiple streams of full-quality 4K ProRes video without dropping a frame. Other quality-of-life improvements include improved performances in machine-learning-based features like Smart Conform in Final Cut Pro.

But for all its tech, the Macbook Air is ultimately the everyday joe’s Macbook and will be judged for that everyday-use experience. the battery life – up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing, 18 hours of video playback – will definitely be what most consumers will be looking at, and the fact it is fanless will no doubt be key advantages (barring unforeseen downsides).

What do we think?

It might be two or three years before the words Intel become a thing of the past, and that’s assuming there’s no fatal flaw waiting to happen; not that there’s a high chance it will happen, though. The fate of the platform lies with mainstream users because ultimately professionals are not likely to rush into an unproven platform. The package looks compelling enough to pick one up for casual use. Ease of use and battery life are right up there with performance, so it looks like Apple has to trip up spectacularly to fail.

If the seamless integration of running iPhone apps on your MacBook is without any major niggles, we will be witnessing a major shift in how we pick and choose our mobile devices in the near future.