Ever since Apple launched its M1 processor and showed it running fast and cool on new MacBooks, the tech community has been abuzz testing the SoC and trying to draw comparisons to see where the M1 stands in terms of performance and efficiency against Intel or AMD counterparts.
Needless to say, it’s not a straight line you can draw when Intel and AMD run x86 applications, and M1 runs native Arm code and can also translate x86. Some will dismiss M1 efforts as being only for Apple devices (true), while others may see “magic” happening when Apple has been able to deliver a fast laptop that gets iPad-like battery life on their first attempt (also true).
In this article, we’d like to share a few of our thoughts on why Apple M1 is a very relevant development in the world of computer hardware. For us, this is akin to Intel joining the GPU wars in 2021. It’s simply the kind of thing that doesn’t happen every day, or every year. And now Apple has effectively entered the mainstream CPU market, to rival the likes of Intel, AMD and Qualcomm.
M1 marks a big architectural transition for the Mac since 2006, when Apple scrapped PowerPC in favor of Intel processors. Now the Cupertino giant is betting its entire future on Arm-based chips developed fully in-house, leaving Intel behind and becoming more technologically self-sufficient.
The first devices powered by the Apple M1 include the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13 and Mac mini. This is relevant because the MacBook Air is their least expensive and most popular laptop. The Air is now also fanless.
Inside the MacBook Air: no fans. Image: iFixit
These first M1 computers are not performance-oriented models. Apple’s breakup with Intel kickstarts a two-year migration process, meaning the entire Mac lineup (MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac Pro) will move to Arm-based custom silicon.
Leaving Intel behind
Intel has been struggling with manufacturing after years of relentless advances. Apple saw this coming years ahead and started working on its own desktop chip before really needing it. The vertical integration that Apple is achieving goes back to its roots and how it’s always perceived computers.
The biggest benefits Apple will get from their switch to Arm is system integration and efficiency. When they used Intel x86 before, they could only choose from a handful of offerings. Basically whatever Intel thought would be a good idea. If Apple wanted to tweak something like adding more GPU performance or removing unused parts of a processor, that wasn’t possible before. Arm on the other hand is nearly infinitely customizable. What Arm creates are blueprints and small pieces of intellectual property. It’s just like going to eat at a buffet where you can pick and choose only the things you want. This switch to Arm allows Apple’s engineers to design chips that perfectly fit their needs rather than having to settle for one of Intel’s off-the-shelf chips.
Intel makes great CPUs, but nothing can match the performance and efficiency of a fully-custom design. Apple was supposedly the “number one filer of problems in the [x86] architecture” according to one of their former engineers. Quality issues with Skylake finally pushed Apple over the edge to decide to just build their own CPUs. The decision will hurt Intel’s bottom line, but not that much. Apple only accounts for around 3% of Intel’s sales.
Not a CPU, an SoC
Not only is the initial M1 hardware capable. It is also very efficient. Plus, it does SoC stuff, so processing + graphics + IO + system memory, all in the same package. It’s likely Apple had a lesser version of the M1 ready over a year ago, but they waited until they could leapfrog the rest of the industry in terms of performance per watt.
Power and cooling has been a big limitation in how fast processors can go. You can only build a chip as fast as you can safely cool and power it. The preliminary performance and efficiency numbers for the M1 are where Apple deserves the most praise. Keep in mind that the M1 is essentially a beefed up iPhone A14, but that’s only the beginning. It can’t compete with high end CPUs in performance, but it isn’t trying to yet. This is the first generation of what will likely be a long line of processors.
The M1’s performance and energy efficiency compared to other low-power CPUs is great and is the biggest benefit of switching Macs over to Apple silicon.