Apple’s big Mac event features three new computers — the new MacBook Air, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the new Mac mini. But really, it does convey one thing all three computers have: the M1 chip. It’s the official name for Arm-based Apple Silicon to which the company will move all of its Mac computers.
In the run-up to the event, I made a list of ten things to watch out for, and going through Apple wasn’t as deep as I’d like it to be, at least strafing all but two of them.
Here’s my conclusion: Apple has a lot of confidence in this chip, this computer, and the software it has developed to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
First, Apple made a battery claim that I would consider “bombastic at best” when applied to a laptop with an Intel chip inside. With this M1 chip, I have no frame of reference at all except for Apple’s claims — substantial ones.
Apple claims 18 hours of video playback on the MacBook Air and 20 hours on the MacBook Pro. Video playback is a lower metric (especially since modern chips had optimized for it), so the real thing to note is that the claim is significantly higher than what Apple claims on its Intel-based predecessor: 6 more on the Air and almost twice as much on the Pro.
But frankly, I expected big battery claims from Apple. We already know it’s capable of extracting more performance per Watt than Intel, and that translates directly to battery life. What I didn’t expect was how bullish the company was about performance.
Since the M1 based on the Arm architecture, Apple needs an extra software layer to run apps designed for Intel chips — it’s called Rosetta 2. The very idea of emulated x86 apps on an Arm processor gives me hives. The experience of emulated Intel apps inside the Arm on Windows is not great. But Apple says that for certain graphically-intensive apps, it can get better performance on an app running through Rosetta 2 than it did on an equivalent Intel chip.
More than that, after the event, I expected to hear warnings about certain apps not working or heavy apps running a little slower when translated through Rosetta 2 — Or at least a small lowering of expectations for performance on those apps. When Steve Jobs introduced the original Rosetta back in 2005, the slide behind him said it was “Fast (enough).”
This year? No such caveats. Apple is boldly putting forth an “it just works” message on these kinds of apps — which will make up a majority of the third-party apps I think most people will be using in the first year or so of this transition.
Most of all, the fact that Apple has ceased selling the Intel version of the MacBook Air is what astonishes me. The Air is Apple’s best-selling Mac by far, and it is coming off a quarter where Apple made more money on Macs than it ever had before. Rather than hedge its bet, it’s replacing its most popular computer with this new system.
I have to admit I made an error in my thinking ahead of the event about the base, 2-port 13-inch MacBook Pro. It wasn’t moving, the Pro to the new chip that would signal confidence, it was the Air, Apple’s most popular laptop. My mistake is that I think of it more as an entry-level Pro machine when it’s probably better to conceptualize it as a beefier version of the Air. That’s certainly true with the new M1 version — the only significant performance difference is that the Pro has a fan. Apple continues to sell Intel versions of it, as well.
There’s a lot more to say about these systems. The fact that they cap out at 16GB of RAM and two Thunderbolt ports doesn’t phase me, for one thing. Apple is starting at the lower-end of its Mac lineup, so it felt there wasn’t a need for more. I am confident future Apple chips will be able to support more.
I’m less sure what the plan will be for graphics. The M1 chip has an integrated GPU, and on Intel machines, that usually means sub-par graphics. We’ll need to see what the reviews for these machines say, but again Apple is exuding confidence. However, I do wonder whether discrete GPUs are in the cards, especially since Apple is also touting the benefits of sharing RAM across both the CPU and GPU in its integrated system.
Those are all interesting questions, but Apple has two years to answer them — that’s how long it says this transition will take. Right now, the company is already selling and will soon be shipping these new computers. I can’t wait to see if Apple’s confidence confirm by the performance and battery life of these computers. If it is, the M1 chip will be a high indictment of Intel, Qualcomm, and even Microsoft — each for different reasons.
It’s been a long time since no company has promised and then provided step-by-step repair in laptop computers. For now, we have big promises, now let’s see if Apple can make it happen.