Apple announced three new Mac computers on Tuesday powered by its all-new M1 chip, a custom Arm-based system-on-a-chip. But despite the performance and efficiency gains the M1 chip allows, there is one notable constraint: memory. According to Apple, customers who are interested in buying a new Mac with more than 16GB of RAM will need to purchase an older, Intel-based model. Right now, the M1 cannot support more memory.
That may be disappointing to some professional users interested in switching to a new Arm-based laptop or Mac mini, given that the older Intel-based model can carry as much as 32GB of RAM. It also echoes complaints about the MacBook Pro refresh four years ago when Apple said restrictions on memory options were to conserve battery life.
Another insight to learn from this memory limitation is that future Macs may require newer Arm-based processors. It would be ridiculous for Apple to sell a new iMac, 16-inch MacBook Pro, or Mac Pro with an M1 chip if that meant limiting the configuration to 16 GB of RAM, something that won’t fly for the machine-directed professional community. (We already know, thanks to a report ahead of the event from Bloomberg, that Apple is targeting a full Mac refresh using new Arm-based chips, including a new iMac and a potentially downsized version of the Mac Pro.)
There are some other key limitations with the M1 worth mentioning. Macs with the new chip will not work with external GPUs, Apple says. That’s a particularly tricky constraint for the new Mac mini, which is already hamstrung by its memory ceiling and can’t be used with a more powerful graphics chip and enclosure combo, as some of having done in the past with Apple laptops and the 2018 and earlier Mac minis. Apple also says the RAM on M1 models is not upgradable — it’s integrated into the system-on-a-chip, so you can’t upgrade an 8GB model with another stick of RAM.
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All of this suggests there’s a good reason why Apple is, at least for now, keeping its older Intel-based MacBook Pro and Mac mini up for sale (the MacBook Air is the only current model only for the Arm). They may not be as efficient or performance-friendly, but they allow for more memory, more versatility, and in some cases contain, more ports. We may not see these other capabilities until Apple’s silicon is more mature.