iPhone Life Magazine
Is the M1 the one? What Apple's New Processor Brings to the Mac
A pple has officially launched its first line of laptop and desktop processors with the M1. The M1 offers an exciting vision of a different kind of computer experience. The processor is faster (aren't new processors always faster?), offers better graphical performance, delivers a long battery life, and translates Intel-based apps remarkably well with Rosetta II. It also promises better integration with iOS and iPadOS apps, but so far, the delivery is half-baked at best. Apple is gambling big, trying to unify all its products, but what about you? Should your next upgrade be an Apple M1-equipped Mac?
APPLE’S DECISION TO BUILD THE M1
For the third time in the company's history, Apple is switching who builds its central processor units—the brain which does all the computing. This is a big change since software designed for one processor type does not necessarily run on a different processor type. Since 2005, Apple has been using Intel-based chips in all its Macs, iMacs, and MacBooks. Intel also supplied the processors for the majority of Windows PCs and many gaming consoles, allowing you to install Windows on your Mac if you wanted to. No more! Starting in November of 2020 and for the next two years, Apple will be gradually switching to its own line of processors based on the same technology Apple uses in the iPhone, Apple Watch, and iPad. The first of those processors is the M1, featured in the 2020 Mac mini, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and 13-inch MacBook Air. Getting a new laptop is typically as easy as deciding how much of a faster, cleaner, upgraded experience you can afford. Not this time. While the M1 processor is faster than the 2019 Intel chips in early benchmark tests, the choice isn't that simple.
THE M1 AT A GLANCE
The M1 is a combined processing system for Mac computers and is what is called a system on a chip or SoC, which combines its central processor and graphics processor, as well as other elements, on a single chip. This reduces how much space the components take up (important when it's designed for a phone) and increases how quickly they can talk to each other. It is comparable to other latest-generation SoCs, offering eight cores in the central processing unit and eight on the graphics processing unit.
Previous Mac's Intel-based chips aren't just from a different manufacturer, they read programming instructions in a completely different language. Intel chips use an x86 instruction set, and the new M1 processors use an instruction set called ARM. Designed to use less power, ARM has become what many would consider to be a better way to do things. Mac is not alone in switching to processors using ARM; Microsoft added an ARM processor to its Surface Pro X but had some problems in making that transition. That's because applications written for x86 will not run in ARM without translation, and translating is no small task. While past attempts at switching to ARM chips serve as cautionary tales, Apple's execution this
time around has been excellent with its Rosetta II translation software, which I'll outline below.
PROS OF THE M1
Apple's M1 has been developed through many generations of iPhones and iPads. This legacy inherited from mobile devices means the new M1 processors use much less power than comparable Intel processors, granting longer battery life to laptops. Improved efficiency also made it possible for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro to run much cooler even when executing high-powered tasks—so much cooler that the Air doesn't have a fan at all, for near silent operation. They also come equipped with built-in graphics processing that improves on what the old Intel chips could offer.
The other major benefit of the new M1 processors is the hardware. The M1 has eight processor cores, including four optimized for speed and four for efficiency. Apple brags that even the efficiency cores are comparable to the last generation of MacBook Air processors and that the high-speed cores are a whole different ballgame. It uses techniques similar to the latest gaming consoles to improve visual performance and speed. In addition, it integrates the same Secure Enclave—a separate and isolated processor specifically for encryption and security-related tasks—as the iPhone and Apple T1 chip, bringing better device security. Another element of the integrated architecture is the iPhone's dedicated machine learning chip, which made Night mode photography possible on the iPhone. All of this is integrated in a system built into a single chip, which can increase the speeds at which the components talk to each other, especially for certain visual graphics tasks. Apple promises that the MacBook Air can render multiple streams of 4K video simultaneously and without dropping frames, for example. These advancements are substantial, not just as improvements over previous generations of MacBook Air and Mac mini, but over competing products from other companies.
These claims are not all hyperbole. Tests conducted by PCMag and MacRumors demonstrate the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro with an M1 processor significantly outperforms the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro with an Intel processor on most tasks. It is also faster for most common tasks than comparably priced Windows laptops. The degree of speed gain is app specific, but the M1 offers a much faster, smoother user experience.
CONS OF THE M1
Applications designed for Intel processors will not function on the M1 processor without translation. While major brands like Microsoft and Adobe are likely to make their most important products available quickly, smaller companies may not make their product available soon or ever. However, Apple offers a tool called Rosetta II, which allows Intel-based software to run on the M1 without you ever noticing any difference (except at first launch, when you'll be led through a quick installation). Note the ‘II' after Rosetta? That is because the company has tried this before. When it switched to Intel-based processors back in 2005, Apple managed to make some older software work on the then-new processors but at vastly reduced speeds. Consumers were not thrilled, to say the least, and many small businesses had serious trouble changing their software for the new processors. This time around, however, early benchmarks find that Rosetta II is much more functional than the original. While software must be redesigned to take full advantage of the M1, commonly used apps translated with Rosetta II are more than serviceable, still running at slightly faster speeds than on comparable Intel-based Macs. This is good news and reason for optimism for anyone whose workflows rely on mainstream apps. Those apps will only get faster if and when they update to support the new processors.
What's touted as one of the M1's biggest benefits is not yet ready for prime time. The M1 Mac can run software designed for the iPhone and iPad with little or no modification. This could allow for a more unified experience, where you could, for example, use your favorite photo-editing app on both your iPhone and on your Mac. While thousands of mobile apps are already available on M1 Macs, the user experience of most is rudimentary and needs a lot of work.
Initially, the M1 Macs will appeal to two types of people: the enthusiastic early adopter who wants to get started with new things (full disclosure: this is me) or the casual Mac owner who uses exclusively big-name software (Microsoft Suite, Google, Zoom) and does not plan to upgrade their Mac again for more than two years. If you're one of those, then you might want an M1based Mac, because in 2022 we expect to see support for Intel-based Macs taper off. Though it won't be gone for good for a long while yet, it still doesn't seem like a great time to invest in an Intel-based Mac. Enthusiastic tech nerds might also like how all the new features and major updates will be aimed at M1 and its descendants.
My verdict: if you can afford it, I would suggest a wait-and-see approach. The new processors come with some exciting features, but those features are only useful to the degree that developers implement them in software that you actually use. At the moment, there are too many questions about what software will work and what will not. While it is exciting to see a Mac that can run iOS apps, it is a lot of trouble if your software doesn't work on your new computer. Additionally, Apple's first M1 computers are at the low-end of its Mac lineup. Higherpowered MacBook Pros with bigger displays are surely coming soon.