What is M1? How Apple says its new chip will change the future of the MacBook

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 11 November 2020 08:24
Apple unveils first Mac computers powered by its own chips

Apple has unveiled the M1, the first computer chip it has designed itself.

The processor will arrive in three new Macs: a MacBook Air, Mac Mini and 13-inch MacBook Pro.

But just as significant as the computers itself are the change of strategy. Until now, Apple has relied on other companies to design the chips that sit at the heart of its Macs – but the new announcement mean that it now controls everything that goes in the computer.

That should allow for not only improved performance, such as speed and battery life, but also allow the company to build software experiences around that hardware, it said.

As such, Apple hopes the M1 changes the future of the Mac, and its place in computing.

What is the M1?

In short, it is a processor designed by Apple to power its computers. 

Previously, those processors were designed by Intel, and Apple just bought them in. That led to a run of problems, as Intel’s development fell behind and Apple was unable to update its computers.

Now Apple designs the processors, just as it does for the iPhone and iPad. Though the actual manufacturing is outsourced, those Apple Silicon chips are otherwise controlled by the company all the way through the process.

What’s so good about it?

Vastly upgraded performance, in just about every way you could care to think of. It’s faster, it’s uses less battery, it’s cooler and it’s quieter. (It’s actually silent.)

In numbers, that amounts to up to 3.5 times faster CPU performance, six times faster GPU performance, and up to 15 times faster machine learning performance. Still, the battery will last up to twice as long, Apple said.

It is able to perform so well for a host of reasons. Apple has made a variety of technical breakthroughs with its chips recently – including being the first to use 5-nanometer technology that allows components to be more tightly packed – but it also benefits from the fact that Apple now designs the whole process, meaning that it can more tightly integrate the two together.

Why is it called that?

Apple names all its chips this way, its usual flair for branding not tending to come to its chip generations. The one in its latest iPhone is named A14, for instance, and its AirPods have the H1 and H2.

On that basis, it’s likely that Apple will call the following chip the M2. Perhaps there might be one in the middle – in the past, Apple has appended letters to the chip’s names, such as the A10X and the A12Z.

Will there be more Apple Silicon chips, then?

Almost certainly. As well as the improved performance, part of the argument behind the transition is that it will allow Apple to introduce new chips when it wants or is able to, rather than when Intel puts them on sale.

It’s not clear how regularly that will happen. But the iPhone’s chips are updated regularly on an annual cycle, and the M1 uses the same basic technology, so it could well be that the company is able to update its Macs at least on a similarly rapid schedule.

Will it come to all of Apple’s Macs?

Probably not: Apple said specifically that the M1 is designed for computers “in which small size and power efficiency are critically important”. The computers it unveiled with it in all clearly fit that description.

All of that suggests that Apple is working on a more powerful chip for its more powerful computers, such as the Mac Pro, presumably with increased capabilities such as a GPU that will match the already very powerful hardware at the higher-end. Apple did not say why only the smaller and cheaper devices got its silicon first, but given its experience is in creating efficient for more similar devices in the form of the iPhone and iPad, it’s probably safe to assume that the hardware for the bigger and more expensive ones requires more work.

So why would I buy one of the Intel Macs?

Apple has promised that it will keep supporting its old Intel computers with software updates and new features in the future. The high-end Intel Macs are still vastly more powerful than the new ones, and so are still going to be the machine of choice for people doing very computationally expensive work.

But it clearly is a technology that’s on its way out, and so if you’re in the market for one of the more powerful computers but can wait, then there’s a good argument to do so. Apple said during its reveal event that the transition would take two years, and said in the latest announcement that it would have more to reveal next year, so new Mac Pros could arrive relatively soon.

What does this have to do with the iPhone and other Apple products?

In the most strict sense, not very much. They’re still very separate products, and Apple has stressed that it sees the different values of both.

But it does nonetheless bring the two together. And they’re likely to get even closer with time, too.

Since they now share similar fundamental technologies, Macs can now run iPhone software.

And the introduction of technologies from the iPhone mean the computers can now run a little more like those iOS devices. They will instantly wake up, for instance, and they will run cool and quiet like an iPhone.

That is likely to continue as both products can now be developed in parallel. Expect any big hardware breakthroughs that arrive on the iPhone to make their way to the Mac, too, if they’re applicable.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments