Apple’s transition to its own processors is almost complete. The company’s recent spring event saw the debut of the Mac Studio and its M1 Ultra processor — the most powerful piece of silicon yet. But it also revealed what the future of Apple’s computers might look like.
For the first time, all Apple chips are on the table.
The first crucial conclusion is that Apple is now a factor to consider when it comes to chips (if it wasn’t already). The incredibly positive reception of the first wave of M1 computers, along with the comparable success of its M1 Pro and M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro laptops last year, established the company’s bona fides. But the M1 Ultra saw Apple take its biggest hit yet, boasting what it boasts is the “world’s most powerful chip for a personal computer”.
These chips are already becoming selling points for computers. Buying a Mac isn’t just about Apple’s software or aesthetic design anymore – it’s about the kind of performance and battery life that no one else offers.
Apple fired shots at Intel’s flagship processor, the Core i9-12900K, claiming a 90 percent improvement over its M1 Ultra in multi-threaded performance at the same power level and the ability to match Intel’s best numbers while running at 100W. consumes less power. The company took a similar round of victory over Nvidia’s RTX 3090 GPU, which Apple claims to beat in performance while consuming 200W less power. (Obviously, we’ll be testing those numbers for ourselves in the coming days and weeks). The Apple Silicon transition is no longer an experiment — it’s Apple’s future and one that PC manufacturers will have to pay attention to in the future.
Then there’s the way Apple builds out its chips. Right now, Apple has four different models of its Arm-based M1 chips, which blur the line between product form factors in a way we don’t normally see with semiconductors. Apple has taken a different approach – instead of building chips for specific devices, Apple has in fact built only one really good chip: the A-series processor. And all it has done is scale it up, seemingly without limit. From a phone, to a laptop, to what is said to be the most powerful desktop, Apple’s secret sauce seems to be nothing more than doubling the size of each of its chips and adding more cooling with every step. But it’s remarkable because no company has ever succeeded before — and because it allows Apple to create an entire portfolio of computers from $430 to $8,000 (and beyond) around a single point in its silicon architecture — road map.
The M1 in a MacBook Air or iPad is the same chip found in Apple’s iMac and Mac Mini desktops, with roughly the same speeds and efficiency. The M1 Max from a MacBook Pro laptop makes the leap to a desk with the Mac Studio. And even the company’s ultra-powerful M1 Ultra isn’t a purely desktop-focused design, as it’s basically just two M1 Max processors in a trench coat. Devices are differentiated based on specific features or form factor, not necessarily just how powerful they are.
It’s that scaling pattern that we’re likely to see with Apple’s upcoming Mac Pro, which Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reports coming later this year with up to 40 CPU cores and 128 graphics cores on a chip (the equivalent of four M1 Max processors together, or two M1 Ultra chips). It’s doubled again – presumably more cooling will be added to compensate.
In the same vein as Apple differentiates the Mac Studio from the Macbook Pro with different form factors, ports and feature sets, we’ll likely see a similar shift to make the new Mac Pro stand out from the Mac Studio. Today’s Mac Pro is Apple’s most powerful (and most expensive) product, and it’s one that fits into a very different niche than some of its other computers—and one with a significant share of the company’s missteps over the years. years, as Apple misjudged the power users need from their hardware.
An M1-powered Mac Pro would probably need more than just doubling the core count of the M1 to satisfy professionals; it needs scalability, modularity and customization. Things like PCIe cards, user-accessible memory slots, and compatibility with discrete graphics cards and external hardware accelerators — the same factors that made the recent 2019 refresh a success (and whose lack almost immediately doomed the 2016 “trash can” model). None of Apple’s Arm-based designs have offered any of those things, and it’s still an open question whether Apple is interested in offering them at any level.
The sheer power of Apple’s CPU and GPU cores could mean it can beat an RTX 3090 today; a 128-core GPU in a Mac Pro would provide an even bigger cushion for a longer time. But without user-upgradeable parts, Apple would force a prospective Mac Pro buyer to anticipate all of their needs from the get-go. However, we’ll have to wait for a more official announcement to see if Apple can get around the trap of leaning too heavily on non-upgradable systems again or not.
The increasingly blurry line between products also applies to the chips themselves – while the number of cores and the distribution between efficient and performance cores varies from model to model (and even within processor families, where Apple offers a variety of configurations), the cores are The most important thing is the same: a Firestorm performance core on a $999 M1 MacBook Air is almost the same as on a $3,999 Mac Studio’s M1 Ultra, up to the clock speed of 3.23GHz, although the more powerful chips do have extra caches and DRAM have bandwidth. From a technical standpoint, the M1’s Firestorm cores aren’t much different from those found in the A14 in an iPhone 12 either, although the iPhone cores are clocked a little slower.
Intel’s latest 12th-generation processors are built with a similar scaling approach, with a blend of performance and efficient cores, from the most powerful desktop chips to the most battery-friendly models for lightweight laptops. But Intel’s chips don’t scale quite the way Apple does here, with products still more traditionally split into multiple buckets for different laptop classes and desktop models. Intel’s desktop chips (for the most part) don’t make the jump to laptops or tablets in the same way Apple’s does.
The M2 question
Finally, there is the future of Apple’s processors. Apple Silicon is clearly here to stay (at the moment, Apple only sells a few Intel-based machines: a legacy Mac Mini with very outdated hardware and the soon-to-be-replaced Mac Pro). This means that at some point – possibly as early as this year – we will The next wave of processors, whether they have an “M2” name or some other name.
Whatever the next generation of Apple chips, it probably won’t be the same huge leap forward as the Intel-to-M1 switch. Instead, it will likely be a more gradual, incremental upgrade — akin to the changes from one generation of A-series iPhone processors to the next.
When it comes to upgrading processors, there are basically two ways to do it. You can use a new (or revamped) architecture that introduces more powerful or efficient CPU or GPU cores, or you can move to a smaller production node so you can pack more transistors into a comparable space or shrink comparable hardware even further.
We know Apple already has better silicon designs: The company’s A15 chipset has more advanced, high-performance Avalanche cores and energy-efficient Blizzard cores, which are (at least on paper) better than the Firestorm and Icestorm cores they have. replaced (which Apple originally debuted back with the A14 chip in the iPhone 12 series). Historically, Apple has tended to focus on improving its individual core designs with its A-series chips on the iPhone, but the dividends are smaller from year to year.
A future “M2” could follow in that vein, revamping Apple’s chip lineup with Avalanche and Blizzard cores, with potentially similar gains in performance or efficiency as the iPhone 12 to iPhone 13 upgrade. At least one rumor from 9to5Mac indicates that Apple wants to do that for its M2 lineup, along with adding additional GPU cores to some of its chip models.
Apple could also – as several rumors suggest – make a more modest upgrade and move the existing M1 designs to a more advanced manufacturing hub. That’s something that could happen as early as this year, with reports that Apple may be shipping a new MacBook Air with a largely identical chipset built on TSMC’s 4nm node, rather than the 5nm node it currently uses for its M1 chips – allowing Apple to increase performance and/or power efficiency.
Barring some calamity with the Mac Pro, though, it’s clear that Apple has managed to come up with a stunner of first-generation computer hardware. But its competitors aren’t sitting still either: Intel is finally delivering its own next-generation laptop chips, and AMD’s products are better than ever, too. Not to mention Arm-based competition, such as Qualcomm’s looming plans to compete with Apple in 2023 with its Nuvia-designed chips.
Apple Silicon was a fresh start for the company’s computers, giving them an edge over the competition. But now that the transition is nearing completion, Apple needs to do more than impress just once — it needs to maintain that momentum for future products as well.