In this post, I would like to give a short overview over yesterday’s announcement at the Apple Event about Apple Silicon. For an explanation about Apple Silicon, you can read yesterday’s post. There are some speculations in that post which will be cleared up here.

Apple M1

The M1 chip is Apple’s first in-house chip design specifically made for the Mac. It is based on the same 5-nanometer process as the A14 used in the iPhone 12 line and the iPad Air. However, instead of 6 CPU cores in the A14, the M1 has 8 cores. These cores are divided into 4 high-performance cores and 4 high-efficiency cores. The latter only use one tenth the power and still deliver good performance, so depending on the workload, the system can assign tasks to certain cores to have the best of both worlds (high performance, but also high power efficiency when it matters). Apple markets a 3x improvement in performance per watt over the previous low-power chips used in Macs.

The M1 also contains an integrated GPU with up to1 8 cores which also consumes much less energy than comparable graphics chips. According to Apple, this is the “world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer.”

The M1 has the same 16-core Neural Engine as the A14. This is used for machine learning tasks. And it has (presumably) the same ISP (image signal processing) as the A14, thus improving the image quality for Mac cameras.2

Apple also emphasized how well their new OS, macOS Big Sur, works together with the M1, leading to even better perceived performance and energy savings. More on that later.

While Apple did not specifically mention this, I believe that the M1 is still a variant of the A14. The designs look very similar, the M1 simply has more CPU cores and more GPU cores. Here is a side-by-side comparison between the two chips, and you can see that there are only small differences.

Personally, I’m very excited about this chip. It looks like it’s a performance beast while still being very energy efficient. I can’t wait to see it in action.

There seem to be a few limitations though. I will touch on these limitations after a short overview of the newly announced Macs which all use this new chip.

Apple has an overview of everything you need to know about the M1 chip here. You can find some more resources at the end of this post.

MacBook Air

The first Mac with the M1 chip that Apple announced is an upgraded MacBook Air. It has the same design as the previous model. Apart from slight keyboard changes3, I don’t think you can see the differences if you had them side by side. However, when it comes to performance and battery life, the M1 beats the shit out of the previous MacBook Air. I won’t get into details here, but Apple said that just the 4 high-efficiency cores have roughly the same performance as the previous Intel MacBook Air, but now it has another 4 high-performance cores as well. The graphics chip also seems to be worlds beyond what the Air previously offered. Additionally, it now has the Neural Engine, making any machine learning tasks an order of magnitude faster than before.

Since the new chip is so power efficient and the battery size did not change, Apple emphasized that the battery life in this new MacBook Air is 1.5 times as long as the previous model (up to 18 hours vs. up to 12 hours).

The biggest update, however, is that this new MacBook Air is now fanless and completely silent. I think this is huge, as long as it still lives up to the promises that Apple advertised.

Two more minor differences to the previous model: The new model now has Wi-Fi 6, and the two USB-C ports are now Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports instead of Thunderbolt 3 ports. The rest of the device is exactly the same as the previous model.

Honestly, it does not surprise me that they did not change the design. If you followed the rumors, it was pretty clear that the first Apple Silicon Macs will have the same design as before, only with the new chip and other small internal changes.

In my opinion, this update to the MacBook Air is massive and it is absolutely the new default option for buying a new MacBook.

(Here is Apple’s comparison between the new MacBook Air, the previous Intel MacBook Air, and the 2017 MacBook Air.)

Mac mini

I was surprised that Apple also announced a new Mac mini with Apple Silicon. As I said in my previous post, I could imagine them shipping this device because they already shipped the Developer Transition Kit as Mac minis with an A14X chip. This is now what they have done.

However, there are now some serious limitations to this new Mac mini, all caused by, I assume, the new M1 chip. I guess this is only the first generation and the next one will alleviate some of this things:

  • Instead of going up to 64 GB of RAM, the new Mac mini (as well as both MacBooks announced) only go up to 16 GB of RAM. For professional users, this will be a big limitation and will likely prevent some people switching right now.
  • While you can now use a 6K display with the Mac mini (before it could only go up to 5K), you can only attach a maximum of two monitors, despite the resolution. The previous model could drive three 4K monitors.
  • The new model has only two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports instead of four Thunderbolt 3 ports.
  • You can’t add the optional 10Gb ethernet port to the Mac mini anymore.

As far as I can see, these are the main limitations of the new Mac mini, and most of them also apply to the two announced MacBook models. I would hope and expect Apple to fix these issues in a future model of the Mac mini.

I have to mention though that the Mac mini is much cheaper now than before ($699 vs. $1099). The two MacBook models stayed the same in price.

13-inch MacBook Pro

Before I go further, I need to add that Apple only updated the two port model of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The “actual” 13-inch MacBook Pro with four ports did not get updated yet.

Most of the things I said for the MacBook Air also apply to this new MacBook “Pro”. Its specs are basically the same as the Air. Here are the major differences:

  • The Pro has a fan, thus offering higher sustained performance because the chip won’t have to be throttled. (It is expected that the MacBook Air will start to throttle as soon as it gets too hot.)
  • The Pro has about 2 hours more battery life since it has the same components, but a larger battery. With up to 20 hours of battery life, this device has double the battery life of the previous two port 13-inch MacBook Pro.
  • Instead of a function key row, the MacBook Pro, just like before, has the Touch Bar. Admittedly, I have never used a MacBook with the Touch Bar, but from what I have heard is that most professional users consider having the Touch Bar a disadvantage over the non-Touch Bar MacBook Air.
  • Better speakers and better microphone.
  • It is 0.11 kg heavier than the Air (1.4 kg on the Pro vs. 1.29 kg on the Air).

As far as I can see, these are the differences between the new MacBook Air and the new two port MacBook Pro. Similar to the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro is very similar to the previous two port MacBook Pro. The same differences as described above apply here as well.

To be honest, while this new MacBook Pro is a huge upgrade over the previous two port Intel MacBook Pro, I would not consider this a “Pro” device. Three main reasons:

  • A maximum of 16 GB memory, as described in the Mac mini section.
  • A maximum of one external display, if I understand it correctly. So no dual display setup with this MacBook Pro.
  • Only two ports instead of four ports on the actual “pro” MacBook Pro.

For this reason, I expect that Apple will deliver updates to the four port 13-inch MacBook Pro as well as the 16-inch MacBook Pro next year. Maybe even together with a design update that has been rumored (slimmer bezels on the display in particular).

(Here is Apple’s comparison between the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Intel two port 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Intel four port 13-inch MacBook Pro.)

My Opinion

The verdict is still open whether these new devices deliver the massive performance improvements that Apple promises, but it does look good. If you are in the market for a new MacBook, and you don’t need the professional features that the models are lacking, I would recommend getting the MacBook Air.

One thing to consider, however, is that only those applications which are updated for Apple Silicon can run natively on these new devices. Old software needs to be translated by what Apple calls “Rosetta 2”, which is kind of an emulator for x86 apps for Apple Silicon. Apple says that there will be only small losses in performance when running apps through Rosetta 2, but if you heavily depend on one or multiple of these apps, I would consider holding off on the purchase. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it probably doesn’t matter to you and you should be fine getting one of these new models.

Personally, I will wait to see what Apple announces next year. Admittedly, the MacBook Air looks very enticing and I might still get that, but I am not in a rush to update my 15-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 as I don’t expect I will do any traveling with this device in the near future. In the long run, I do want to upgrade to a smaller and lighter device though, and the MacBook Air looks amazing for that since it offers a much better performance than my 5-year-old device.

I am sorry that this turned into a big piece once again. According to my writing software (I’m using iA Writer on a 10.5” iPad Pro, by the way), I am at just above 1,800 words now. That is way more than I expected to write, but I hope that this is a good overview of yesterday’s announcements and that it clarifies the differences and caveats for these new devices.

What do you think of the new Apple Silicon Macs? Are you getting one anytime soon, or are you holding off for now? Let me know in the comments below.

I will be back tomorrow with a “normal” blog post, both in topic and in length.

Some additional resources about these announcements:

  1. The entry MacBook Air has the 7 core GPU, while all other devices have the 8 core GPU. 

  2. However, all announced MacBooks still have the same crappy 720p webcam as before, and I don’t think their image processing can save that. 

  3. Some keys in the function row were replaced.