In June 2020, Apple announced its intention to move away from Intel for the Mac lineup. The M1 is the first ARM-based custom system-on-chip (SoC) designed from the ground up by Apple. Here’s what you need to know about Apple’s custom silicon.
Update, 10/22/21: Apple unveiled the M1 Pro and M1 Max in October 2021. These are even faster versions of the M1 chip designed for higher-end professional MacBooks and workflows. The M1 is still a great choice for the average MacBook, but professionals now have a choice to get a higher-end M1 Pro or M1 Max instead.
What Is the M1 Chip?
The M1 is Apple’s first custom silicon system on a chip for use in its Mac computer lineup. Since 2006, all Macs have shipped with Intel chips. These utilized the x86 (and later, x86_64) architecture that’s also used on Windows PCs.
The M1 is different, though. It uses ARM architecture, which usually powers mobile or portable devices, like Apple’s iPhones and iPads. ARM uses a simplified instruction set compared to x86, which results in lower power consumption.
This is a significant development for Apple, and the Mac in general, as it marks the first time the company has designed its own custom chips for a computer. Apple spent years designing chips for portable devices, like the iPhone and Apple Watch, but, until now, it’s leaned on Intel to power its desktops.
The M1 offers some tangible benefits over Intel’s chips and a few drawbacks. Ultimately though, Apple contends most people won’t notice a huge difference when moving from an Intel machine to one with a custom ARM chip.
What Benefits Does the M1 Deliver?
Since the M1 is a custom design, Apple has been able to make it do exactly what the company wants it to do. The upshot of this is that many separate Mac components, like the GPU and T2 security chip, have been integrated into the M1’s design.
This miniaturization process results in greater efficiency or much lower power consumption. It also allows Apple to do what it does best: design hardware and software in tandem so things “just work.”
The biggest tangible benefit is likely to be power consumption. The new M1 chips consume around half as much power as the previous Intel chips, which means double the battery life. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 is quoted to handle a staggering 20 hours of video playback on a single charge.
This increased power efficiency has led to claims by Apple that it has produced the “world’s best CPU performance per watt.”
And then there’s the GPU: an eight-core integrated graphics chip with a raw power output of around 2.6 teraflops. That’s a bit better than a two-year-old midrange graphics card, like the NVIDIA GTX 1050 Ti (which hit 2.1 teraflops).
Of course, comparing GPUs this way isn’t necessarily reflective of real-world performance. According to Apple, though, the M1 takes the prize for “world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer.” It also has unified memory.
Apple has also shoehorned its Neural Engine into the M1 to deliver some big gains in machine-learning operations. In the real world, this means some applications that take advantage of the technology will function faster. For example, Photos can use it to scan images and recognize objects and faces more quickly.
The M1 delivers a few other benefits, including an improved image signal processor for better video-call quality. Apple’s Secure Enclave is integrated into the chip, providing a secure base for the operating system (and biometric data like fingerprints.)
The M1 includes dedicated hardware for encryption and decryption, as well as hardware encoders and decoders for popular media formats. The Thunderbolt controller is also now USB-4 capable with 40 Gbps transfer speeds.
Apple’s wider ecosystem will also be affected by the change. Since the Mac now uses the same ARM architecture in the iPhone and iPad, porting apps between platforms is much easier. In fact, iOS apps will be coming to the Mac soon.
So, moving forward, not only can you expect to see more iOS apps on the Mac, but likely, some desktop-optimized versions of your favorite mobile apps, as well.
Does the M1 Have Any Drawbacks?
Since the M1 uses a different architecture than Intel-based Macs, they’re fundamentally incompatible with existing macOS software. Fortunately, Apple has a plan for this called Rosetta 2 (named after the compatibility layer Apple used when it first switched to Intel.
Rosetta 2 effectively converts Intel-based apps to ARM at the point of installation. On paper, this means you can upgrade from an Intel to Apple Silicon without a hitch.
Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering, even made the bold claim that “some of the most graphically demanding apps actually perform better under Rosetta than they did running natively on previous Macs with integrated graphics.”
It looks like Rosetta 2 is the bandage Apple needs to complete the transitional period. Moving forward, Apple developers compiling apps with Xcode will also be able to compile the following two versions of the software:
- A legacy version that will run natively on Intel apps.
- An ARM-based version for machines running an M1 or better.
It’s not just Mac software that could suffer from the change, though. The move away from Intel means dual-booting your Mac with Windows is no longer possible—at least not if you’re using an x86_64 version. Microsoft has been hard at work on Windows for ARM, but emulating x86_64 software has held the project back.
This will naturally affect those who use Linux, as well. Many major Linux distributions (including Ubuntu, Arch, and Fedora) have ARM versions already. However, it’s unclear whether Apple will allow you to boot other operating systems on its ARM Macs.
There are two other hardware-related drawbacks to switching to an M1 chip. The first is you won’t be able to use an external GPU enclosure over Thunderbolt, and the second is the current M1-equipped models are limited to 16 GB of RAM.
The First Macs to Use the M1 Chip
Apple has announced three machines that use the M1:
- MacBook Air (from $999)
- MacBook Pro 13-inch (from $1,299)
- Mac mini (from $699)
The MacBook Air is Apple’s most popular and, in many cases, most cost-effective option. It retains the upgrades Apple rolled out previously, including a high-DPI Retina display, Magic Keyboard, and Touch ID. The M1 also improves on its predecessor with eight CPU cores (up from four), and an 18-hour battery life (up from 12.)
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is also seeing a long-overdue upgrade with not only the M1, but also Apple’s revised Magic Keyboard. The big advantage to the M1 MacBook Pro is a whopping 20 hours of battery life—literally double what was possible on the Intel-based Mac.
Finally, there’s the Mac mini—an appropriate choice considering Apple loaned ARM-based variants to developers in preparation for the M1 launch. The Mac mini hasn’t seen an update since 2018. It’s now gained two additional cores, while ditching the Intel UHD integrated graphics chip.
You might have noticed a pattern emerging with the rollout of Apple Silicon. These are relatively low-end models, designed either with portability or light desktop computing in mind. If you want something more powerful, like a decked-out 15-inch MacBook Pro or Mac Pro, you’re stuck with Intel for the time being.
Even More Powerful Apple Silicon Is on the Way
The current set of M1-equipped Macs are capable machines and the chip is perfectly adequate for their workload. However, if you need a Mac for video editing, compiling software, or 3D rendering, you currently don’t have any other options than those that use Intel chips.
However, this means we can expect more announcements from Apple in the coming months as it readies its higher-end machines for the market. Apple has confirmed it intends to transition the entire Mac fleet to ARM within two years.
This is similar to the time frame the company announced for its PowerPC-to-Intel transition in 2005. However, it took Apple less than a year to put Intel chips in all its new Macs.
Don’t expect to see the same M1 chip in the more powerful machines, though. Higher-end Macs typically have more cores, higher clock speeds, and more RAM. They also have dedicated GPUs from the likes of AMD. We’re more likely to see an M1X, or even an M2 chip, that puts more emphasis on performance and less on power efficiency.
M1 Is Just the Beginning
Like the A-series of chips in the iPhone and iPad, the M1 is likely just the first of many. Apple typically introduces a new numbered release every other year, with variants like the A12Z and A14X filling in the gaps. It’s very possible Apple will take a similar tiered approach to the Mac range.
Are you contemplating an Apple Silicon upgrade? If so, here’s more you might want to know before switching from an Intel-based Mac.