November 12, 2020
Apple launched its first Arm-based Macs with bold claims that its new generation of computers can outpower most Windows PCs. At a virtual launch event Tuesday, Apple introduced three Macs that will ship next week.
The new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and a Mac mini are the first Macs powered by Apple’s own chips. Apple revealed in June that it would begin transitioning the Mac architecture from Intel processors to its own chips. The move from Intel processors to its own silicon is a significant transition for Mac users and Apple’s partner ecosystem. Intel CPUs have powered Macs for the past 15 years.
Apple’s new Arm-based Macs share the same system-on-a-chip architecture (SoC) used for Apple’s iPhones, iPads and watches. Apple’s inaugural chip for the new Mac lineup is the M1. According to Apple, The M1 is the fastest chipset it offers with a Mac to date.
Most notable about the new generation of Macs is that they run iOS and iPadOS apps. The new macOS and emulation software, called Rosetta 2, will further let ISV partners convert apps built for existing Macs. Apple believes that the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on the new Macs will draw first-time buyers.
“Advancements of this magnitude only come from making bold changes,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at this week’s launch event. “The M1 chip is by far the most powerful chip that we have ever created. It makes these Macs dramatically faster, provides all new capabilities with extraordinary battery life, and enables the Mac to run more software than ever. This is exactly why we are transitioning the Mac to Apple silicon.”
Moving Multiple Chips to Integrated Apple Silicon
The new MacBook Air
By moving to its own chips, Apple is introducing a new architecture and approach to how Macs process software. The current generation of Macs based on Intel processors have separate chips for the processor, I/O, memory and security. Apple’s new SoC architecture brings those functions to an integrated chipset.
“With M1, these technologies are combined into a single SoC delivering a whole new level of integration for more simplicity, efficiency and amazing performance,” said Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior VP of hardware technology.
The M1’s unified memory architecture (UMA), brings high bandwidth, low latency memory into a common pool, according to Srouji. As a result, the SoC can access the same data without copying it among multiple memory pools.
“This dynamically improves performance and power efficiency,” Srouji said.
“I have watched Apple transition to three other chip architectures over the last 30 years, but this move to their own Arm chipset may be its biggest processor move ever,” Creative Strategies principal analyst Tim Bajarin noted in a Facebook post.
Apple’s new Arm-based Macs can offer higher performance because M1 is the first PC chip built using 5-nanometer process technology. By comparison, Intel uses a 10nm process and AMD builds its latest CPUs and GPUs with a 7nm process. Both chipmakers have road maps to get to smaller process technologies in the coming years. The 5nm process capability enabled Apple to include 16 billion transistors on the M1 chip, according to the company.
Apple claims its M1 offers the fastest low-power CPU core, performance per watt and most power per watt.
“When you compare MacBook Air to the best-selling Windows laptop in its class, the new Air is up to three times faster,” said Mac product line manager Laura Metz. “And what’s even more amazing is that with M1, the MacBook Air is faster than 98% of PC laptops sold in the last year.”
Apple also claims that its new MacBook Pro runs three times faster than Intel Core i7-based Windows laptops with Intel Iris Plus graphics.
Performance and Compatibility Claims Not Yet Proven
Despite the leap in performance touted by Apple, its claims about the Arm-based Macs are yet to be independently verified. Moor Insights & Technology principle analyst Patrick Moorhead and Futurum Research analyst Daniel Newman emphasized that point in the podcast below.
“You can see big claims here,” Moorhead said. “Quite frankly Apple has to prove to its buyers – because they are paying a premium on this – that this isn’t low-end silicon with low-end performance.”
Likewise, the two analysts warned against …
… expecting the smooth and seamless transition that Apple is promising. Apple only released the macOS Big Sur and its new Xcode 12, a toolkit with SDKs for building Universal apps, in June. The company defines Universal apps as software that can run natively on Macs with Apple silicon and Intel x86/64 CPUs. Apple’s Rosetta 2 translates apps designed for older apps developed for Intel-based Macs so they can run on Apple silicon.
Besides performance, it remains to be seen if Apple’s ecosystem of developers find the transition as smooth as Apple describes.
“What Apple is embarking on isn’t new — Microsoft started this over a decade ago,” Moorhead said, referring to Surface PCs. “But I cannot imagine this being a smooth transition for consumers or developers. Apps will break. Peripherals will break. Customers will be disappointed at some point in their journey. Developers will need to support two sets of apps — those for X86 and those for Arm, and they’re going to have to figure out how to migrate x86 VMs to the Arm architecture.”
“These are all going to be things that are going to dictate the future path,” Newman said. “My prognostication is there are much higher quality PCs out there. Lenovo, Dell, HP [are] all making a much better machine. Some of them are Intel, variants, some of them are AMD variants. You and I both got to play with the Microsoft Surface Pro X, we played with Lenovo, we dealt with Arm — and there are some very cool things about those machines. But we also had some things that weren’t great about those machines, and both companies are actually very forward in acknowledging that.”
Apple’s Big Bet
At this week’s launch, Apple signaled it is also taking another stab at trying to woo more Windows PC users. The company closed the event with a new spot of the PC Guy portrayed in a popular ad campaign during the mid-2000s (see below).
Like the commercials back then, John Hodgman sniped at Windows PCs. Apple hasn’t said whether it intends to revive the ad campaign, or whether it was a one-off for the launch.
Despite its single-digit share of the PC market, sales of Macs are on the rise. Mac revenues of $9 billion for the quarter ending Sept. 26 grew 29% year over year, Apple recently reported. According to IDC’s latest PC Tracker report, Macs held an 8.5% market share in the third quarter, up from 7% this time last year.
At this week’s event, Cook said, “Mac is having its best year ever.”
Half of Mac sales are from first-time customers, according to Cook.
“More customers than ever are choosing the Mac,” he said.
For managed service providers, that’s a trend worth noting, said Ryan Denehy, CEO of Electric AI.
“Between that and the market share trends of the past few years, there’s a new narrative emerging that Apple could finally become a major force in the enterprise computing market,” he said.
So far, the new Arm-based Macs have prices similarly to the old ones. The MacBook Air starts at $999 for a base configuration with 8GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. A similarly configured MacBook Pro, which has the same processor but includes Apple’s signature touch bar, starts at $1,299. The least expensive option is the new Mac mini, which costs $699, $100 less than the version launched in 2018. The new mac Mini includes two Thunderbolt/USB-C 4 ports, two USB-A ports, a single HDMI input and an Ethernet port. It also supports Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi 6.
“While the MacBook Air and MacBook Pros will be Apple’s best sellers, the Mac Mini with the new M1 chip in it could be a sleeper hit,” Bajarin noted in a column published this week. “In fact, it has come out at a rather opportune time given the COVID-19 pandemic and the work-at-home trend. The Mac Mini already has a solid following in the developer community, which has provided developers a low-cost PC for creating apps.”
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