How Apple made its new M1 chip, the latest MacBooks – and used its past to decide its future

Exclusive: Apple’s hardware, software and marketing chiefs explain how the company’s new processors came to exist

Andrew Griffin
Friday 13 November 2020 16:57 GMT
Apple unveils first Mac computers powered by its own chips

Apple’s new M1 chip is a lot of things. It’s much faster: computers with it are as much as three times quicker than their predecessors at most tasks. It’s a lot more efficient, with a battery that can last twice as long as the Intel-powered MacBooks the new laptops replace.

It’s also the future, Apple’s most senior engineers tell The Independent. It is not just a futuristic design, but the foundations for all of the following technologies that are to come. And it’s the past, too, bringing work that has been ongoing for years – since the beginning of the iPhone, at least, but arguably back to the first Macintosh in 1984 – together into a chip that perhaps represents Apple’s idea of what computing should be better than anything they’ve made before.

There are other things that the M1 is not. It’s definitely not an abandoning of the Mac, Apple says – the company is regularly accused of leaving its computers behind in favour of its bigger revenue items such as the iPhone, and it has denied it every time. It is also not an effort to change what the Mac means, the company says, but rather to propel it even more quickly down the path it has begun.

Apple really wants you to know that it loves the Mac just how it is. Or perhaps more accurately, as embodied in its latest computers: just how it is, but a lot, lot faster.

The company’s representatives kept stressing that fact throughout the announcement of the M1 and the three new computers that have it inside: they love the Mac, and they love these Macs. Soon after that event finished, some of Apple’s most senior executives – marketing chief Greg ‘Joz’ Joswiak, software boss Craig Federighi, hardware engineering leader John Ternus – spoke with The Independent to explain exactly why.

It is hard for Apple to make its claims about the performance of the new M1 chip without them sounding like hyperbole. (Only Apple itself has used the new computers, so nobody else can make those claims for them; they’ll be put to the test next week, when the machines start shipping to customers.) Usually, a major advance in computing performance might add 20 or 30 per cent faster processing speed – but the new computers multiply that number by 10, with numbers showing that the computers as much as three times more powerful generally and up to 11 times faster at some tasks.

That might sound fairly unbelievable. Apple knows this, since it wasn’t actually expecting these computers to be quite such a step up: even when he got his hands on the new computers, Joz says he “couldn’t believe it”.

“We overshot,” says Federighi. “You have these projects where, sometimes you have a goal and you're like, ‘well, we got close, that was fine’.

“This one, part of what has us all just bouncing off the walls here – just smiling – is that as we brought the pieces together, we're like, ‘this is working better than we even thought it would’.

“We started getting back our battery life numbers, and we're like, ‘You're kidding. I thought we had people that knew how to estimate these things’.”

Ternus says that as momentum built, it became more clear that the chip was doing things they hadn’t expected. “This was just building momentum within the teams who were so passionate and excited about this product that they just wanted to keep pushing, keep optimising: ‘How much better can we make it? How much better we can make it?’”

Again, that might sound like wild hype, and Federighi knows it. “We are so eager for everyone to get these in their hands and have the same experience that we all had because I think it will speak for itself but we are legitimately positively surprised with the outcome of our work, and really happy we're able to give this to customers,” he says.

The three make much the same appeal to actually using the computers when pressed on the idea that it can be worth skipping on Apple’s first iteration of a product, since it can take one generation for the problems to be fixed and the potential to be reached. The new chip has the number one in the name – there’s no getting away from the fact that the company is asking people to trust an entirely new piece of hardware with some of the most important things in their life.

Joz points to the fact that he had “no problem pulling the trigger and buying a system yesterday”, and Federighi jokes that the the “ordering website was overwhelmed with Apple employees”. “No one is worried about the V1 of this system.”

Apple is of course famed for its marketing: it seems unusual that the chip has such a straightforward name. (Federighi jokes that it took a year of work by the company’s crack marketing team to come up with the name.)

“I think M1 makes a lot of sense for a Mac chip,” says Joz. “’A’ was started for the phone chips at Apple, and since then we’ve tried to use letters that make sense: the chips for our headphones use H, you start to feel the trend there. We’re brilliant marketers that way.”

M1 also has the advantage of making fairly clear that there will be an M2, an M3, and so on; the name invites speculation about what the Macs of the future might look like. Apple of course won’t be drawn on what might be coming in those chips – it said during its unveiling that the new processor is the start of a family of chips, but nothing more – but there are clues to what they might do in the first computers.

The M1 arrives at first in three different products: the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini. The latter occupies its own place in the line-up, but given that the Air and Pro now have the exact same chip, how can they stay distinct?

“Thermal capacity,” says Federighi decisively. The Pro has a fan – Apple calls it an “active cooling system” – while the Air doesn’t, and the rest of the performance flows from there.

Federighi starts sketching out a graph that will be familiar to anyone who watched the event. The thing that is really holding these chips back is heat: as you give them more cooling to play with, they become even faster. The MacBook has some other things, too – such as even more battery – but it’s that extra headroom that really allows them to roar.

If that’s the difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro – where even in the bigger computer everything is still tightly packed – imagine the kind of performance that might be possible in a computer like the Mac Pro, a large tower with three vast fans. Apple won’t be drawn into laying out that vision, of course, but if they’re not going to speculate then we can; those computers, once they’re ready, could be very fast indeed.

For now, however, those products at the more professional end of the market look left out. Apple has said explicitly that the M1 will be coming for them next, and that the full transition will take two years, leaving them in a strange limbo where they are still on sale but already look a little dated. (Apple hasn’t said what needs to happen before the full line-up can be moved, but it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the lower power, battery-intensive chips that are functionally more like iPhones that have moved first; that’s where the expertise is.)

The company’s answer to why anyone should buy those endangered computers is that it still very much trusts them to do the jobs they are for. Joz stresses that the Mac is “having the best year it’s ever had”, and grew by almost 30 per cent in the last quarter – people like those products.

And they’re not going to be left as the neglected path as the two lines fork, Federighi says – in fact, that fork isn’t happening at all. “These are Macs, they run macOS. Big Sur is a great new release for all Macs,” he says, and that will continue to happen. The operating systems use the same installer, run the same apps, he says, promising that they’ll “continue to be a big part of our focus […] for many years”.

A large part of Apple’s confidence in this respect is that it has done it before: the Intel chips that are being replaced were themselves the future once. In 2005, Apple announced that it would change from PowerPC processors to Intel ones.

“We’ve done this before,” says Federighi. “We’ve watched others in the industry do it in the meantime, not so successfully. But we’ve, I believe, really perfected these sorts of transitions, we know exactly how to handle the tools to make it really easy for developers.”

Those tools include software like Rosetta, which will in effect translate existing apps made for the Intel Macs into something that can be used by the new Apple Silicon ones; the kit that did the same for the previous transition had the same name. The new computers can run apps from the iPhone but also from the old computers; developers only need to make one version. And the operating system appears to users to be exactly the same.

It all suggests that the transition could end up being a little unexciting. When I put to Joz the idea that it could be “boring”, he says he prefers the word “seamless”, but all three agree that the person opening up their new laptop could find their computer mostly the same, just a lot faster.

Of course, the process didn’t work like that: it was years long, the team say, involving work from people with experience in Macs to those making iOS devices, uniting engineers from right across Apple to create a computer that really leans on all of that history.

“So when we stood back years ago and planned it out, we really had this this amazing set of talents within the organisation and experience to work out a plan that's that's intersected so well, in this moment,” says Federighi. “And that's why it's been so exciting for everyone because we've really been able to bring all the best of Apple forward into these products."

But the computers still wear that innovation lightly. When the new MacBook Pro is switched off, it looks indistinguishable from the one it replaces; it might switch on a lot more quickly, but the shell that goes on the outside is the same. Did the company not want to make a computer that more explicitly says: look at me, I’m the new and re-imagined Mac?

“I think these systems do make a statement of like: Look, look at what's possible with M1 and with all our technologies,” says Ternus. “I think they're a tremendous foundation for for this transition, just to start with M1.

“And, you know, we don't usually want to just go and change the design just for the sake of changing a design – we have a great platform here, we have a great new [processor], we can marry them into something really spectacular. And that was that was the thinking behind it.”

But it’s still the case that fans repeatedly speculated that Apple was going to do something more profound to the Mac: turn it into something like the iPad, for instance, or use the transition to radically alter how its laptops work. Apple has repeatedly insisted that it thinks the laptop form factor is valuable and distinct from touchscreens like the iPad, but people haven’t always believed them.

This has led to ideas including the theory that Apple had redesigned its new macOS to make way for touch screen Macs. The Big Sur aesthetic borrows from the iPhone and iPad – buttons are bigger, with more space, which numerous commentators pointed out would make them perfect for manipulating with your fingers – but not because of some secret plan to change the way the Mac works, Federighi says.

“I gotta tell you when we released Big Sur, and these articles started coming out saying, ‘Oh my God, look, Apple is preparing for touch’. I was thinking like, ‘Whoa, why?’

“We had designed and evolved the look for macOS in a way that felt most comfortable and natural to us, not remotely considering something about touch.

“We're living with iPads, we're living with phones, our own sense of the aesthetic – the sort of openness and airiness of the interface – the fact that these devices have large retina displays now. All of these things led us to the design for the Mac, that felt to us most comfortable, actually in no way related to touch.

“I've never felt more comfortable moving across our family of devices as a user, which I do hundreds of times a day than I do now, moving between iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and macOS Big Sur. They all just feel of a family – there's just less cognitive load to the switching process.

“It's just they all feel like the natural instantiation of the experience for that device. And that's what you're seeing not some signaling of a future change in input methods.”

Still, in one sense, those people positing some great convergence weren’t entirely wrong. It has happened after all – just in the total opposite way than many had suggested.

The new computers don’t look anything like iPhones, but the chip that brings them to life borrows heavily from Apple’s portable devices. Apple has long been accused of working towards one device that borrows something from each of its products, or making the Mac into a glorified iPad; the current line-up seems a definitive rebuke to that, with the similarities coming not on the outside but the inside.

That’s clear from the moment you start using it, Apple says – it’ll wake up instantly, just like your phone does. And it’ll be clear when you (don’t) stop using it, since it’s increased battery performance means that you can confidently trust that it will run all day, and move to a charging schedule more akin to an iPhone’s.

Even the battle for speed and processing power – surely the one measure on which the bigger computers should be reliably better – was being won by the phones. Apple didn’t show off about it much, presumably because it embarrassed the Mac, but for many tasks its iPhones have been faster than its laptops. And it does all that while remaining cold like an iPhone.

That can continue to happen in the future, Apple says. Now that the chips are related, any new technologies can be added into both, and they’ll each improve the other.

Even the M1 itself is very similar to the A14 that arrived in the latest iPhones and iPad Air. All of the different chips are lined up now so that they can be developed together, and so it’s far from ridiculous to speculate that the Mac could now be on the same kind of annual, very aggressively improving release schedule that has marked out the iPhones.

As such, it’s a tiny chip that will decide the future and fortunes of the biggest company in the world. But it’s one built out of Apple’s past.

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