Apple has made a “huge leap forward” on its Mac computers, three of which will soon pack “the most powerful chip” the computing giant “has ever created” to make them faster, quieter, and in some cases even cheaper.
The world’s most valuable company saved its biggest announcement for last as it headed into its third product event in as many months.
Wednesday’s event was to announce the company’s first custom-designed computer processor in more than 15 years: The Apple M1.
At June’s WorldWide Developers’ Conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced the company’s computers would start using its own silicon, with the first Mac containing the chip to be available before the end of the year.
It turns out there’s actually three of them.
Apple’s hugely popular thin and light MacBook Air ($1599) laptop is now completely silent, with the lower-power consumption of the M1 chip enabling designers to take the fan out.
The MacBook Pro ($1999) has received an efficient boost of power, and now boasts the longest battery life Apple has ever had in a computer (up to 17 hours of wireless web browsing and 20 hours of video).
The Mac Mini desktop, which hasn’t been updated since 2018, is now more powerful and cheaper to boot, losing $200 and now coming in at $1099 (cheaper than the iPhone).
The new computers are available to order now and will be available next week, so we won’t need to wait too long to see how well Apple’s claims stand up to reality.
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Mr Cook said today was a “huge day for the Mac” and the new chip was “a bold change that was years in the making”.
Apple has been using Intel processors in the Mac since 2006, but has reportedly grown frustrated with a lack of progress from the chip maker and decided to forge its own path.
Those reports were backed up by the charts Apple wheeled out to demonstrate how powerful its new chip is and how little power it uses.
Compared to the older chips, Apple claims the M1 has the world’s best per watt performance and more efficient graphics processing.
Apple also claimed the title of having the first 5nm chip in a computer, packing more transistors onto a smaller chip. Intel has been struggling to get its 10nm chips out and has also delayed a shift to 7nm chips to 2022. Its desktop chip rival AMD has been selling 7nm chips for months.
While Apple has claimed the M1 blows older chips out of the water, it is different in the sense that it actually contains several processors: What’s known as a “system-on-chip” (SoC).
The M1 SoC combines an 8-core CPU (with four cores for performance and four for efficiency), a GPU and memory into one chip, with additional partitions for security and machine learning.
There are also specific optimisations to improve the storage performance and security, boosting encryption and making the solid state drive up to twice as fast. Image quality on video calls will also be improved by the inclusion of Apple’s image signal processor on the chip.
Apple senior vice president of hardware technologies Johny Srouji said the M1 “is by far the best chip we’ve ever created”.
He said it “builds on more than a decade of designing industry-leading chips for iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch, and ushers in a whole new era for the Mac”.
SoCs have been used in smartphones and tablets for years and it’s just one of the ways the new Macs have been heavily influenced by what the company has already done on the iPhone and the iPad.
The most obvious example of this is the ability for the M1-powered Macs to run iPhone and iPad apps, but new M1 SoC also inherits what Apple calls the Neural Engine – which is “designed to excel at machine learning”.
Macs have always been marketed as a popular tool for creative types, but the Neural Engine’s advanced machine learning capabilities expand it to number crunchers too.
The new Mac Mini has been said to offer 15 times faster machine learning performance than the previous model, and Apple thinks it has a lot to offer “developers, scientists and engineers”.
Like it does with iOS and iPadOS, Apple has also tweaked its macOS software to get the best out of the new M1 chip.
The macOS Big Sur update lands on Thursday and has been given a mild redesign, but under-the-hood changes have been made as well.
Apple said the operating system will be able to leverage the new M1 chip by efficiently prioritising tasks to the power or efficiency-focused cores depending on the task at hand.
Apple has also optimised all of its software, including the programs that come free and pre-installed on Macs, as well as more advanced industry darlings like Final Cut Pro (for video editing) and Logic (for audio production).
The M1 uses a different processor architecture with a reduced set of instructions than the old Intel processors, and this means developers have had to redesign apps (though a selection of developers provided by Apple during the event reported that translating their programs didn’t take long).
There is also new “Universal” apps that will run on the M1 as well as the old Intel chips. This includes things like the popular Adobe creative programs, with Lightroom to be the first of its universal apps, and Photoshop and others to follow next year.
For those developers who haven’t been able to or don’t want to rewrite code, Apple has announced Rosetta 2, a program to run other programs.
The original Rosetta was created the last time Apple made a similar transition, from PowerPC chips it designed with Motorola and IBM to Intel chips in 2006.