M1 Craziness

The M1 Chip

For a few days now, a few lower-end Macintosh models are available with the with the new M1 chip. The chip, developed by Apple in-house, is a system on a chip, which replaces a whole plethora of chips found in the former models, among which the most prominent is the Intel CPU. In addition, the M1 chip also comprises a graphics processor (GPU), a neural engine, the RAM, and more. The M1 is based on an ARM architecture, and makes use of many components also found in the iPhone and iPad. Apple have been making their own chips for these portable devices for many years, and have now created the M1 to power the Mac. Apple’s clearly stated intention is to make use of their own chips in all Macs models within a few years.

So What?

Why should we even care? Most users don’t even know what a CPU or system on a chip is. The Mac works, right?

Two points:

  • performance
  • power consumption, or battery life

Performance? Sure, a new generation of processor of course has some more of it. Nice, I take it.

Nothing to write home about, though.

But this is different. It’s a new world. I’ll give some links below if you want to go deeper, so let me just quote Marco Arment, the developer of the iPhone podcast application Overcast. On his iMac Pro, which is quite a beast of a machine with a beefy ten core Intel workstation processor, and a capable cooling system, it takes close to 60 seconds to compile and build Overcast. On his brand new M1-based MacBook Air, it takes less than 40 seconds.

For clarity, the MacBook Air is an entry level portable device, without any active cooling. It is some 30% faster than a top-of-the-line desktop computer. A friggin' MacBook Air.

Marco’s specced-out Air costs 1,500 USD, his iMac Pro some 7-8 kUSD.

Furthermore, Marco had installed all he needs for development on the MacBook Air, including Xcode, and also what he needs to edit podcasts, including Logic – and had yet to unpack the charger.

It’s mind-boggling.

Reviews and benchmarks show that with single-threaded loads this lowly portable processor blows more or less every currently available Intel and AMD processor out of the water, even the ones for desktop computers, which require strong cooling systems. The latest AMD processor, based on their brand-new Zen 3 architecture, the Ryzen 9 5950X, can just keep abreast in some tasks (in fair comparisons with the same number of CPU cores for multi-threaded benchmarks). With at least three times the power consumption, and with the related heat generation. The M1’s integrated graphics processor’s performance even scratches at the lower end of discrete GPUs with their dedicated cooling fans.

The new M1-based Macs can also run programs developed and compiled for the Intel-based Macs, a technology called Rosetta 2 translates the “Intel-program” to run on the M1. No, not a run-time emulation, the actual code gets translated into M1-compatible instructions. And here’s the crazy part: Rosetta runs these programs faster than on the older models with an actual Intel chip.

Did I say it’s mind-boggling?

A New Era

I’ll leave it to others to present and explain the benchmarks. It is a new era. Yes, Apple will have to demonstrate that also higher-end models get this enormous boost, but already now the CPU-cores in this first generation M1 are the fastest on the planet. So I am pretty confident, even though we probably will not see the same insane multiplication of raw performance as with the low-end models now introduced. But after what I have seen in the past days, nothing can be simply ruled out.

It’s also a new era for me. I have described my woes with my MacBook Pro, and my reluctance to purchase a newer model, simply as I don’t trust their thermal design. Before the shift to Apple Silicon was announced mid this year at WWDC, I had considered purchasing an iMac Pro, simply as this machine has an appropriate cooling system which is highly relevant in the tropical climate here, as my problems with the MacBook Pro have aptly demonstrated. But the current iMac Pro is an 2018 design, and I was sort of awaiting an update of the model line – which didn’t happen as of yet.

Now it seems my wait is over. No, there’s no new iMac model, but together with two notebook computers Apple also introduced an M1-based Mac mini. Which is more performant than an iMac Pro, see above. My current MacBook Pro is a 2013 model, so even a new Intel-based MacBook Pro would be so much faster – hence I expect an M1-based Mac mini to blow my apartment’s ceiling off. I had considered a mini before, but their graphics system was pretty weak, and I need some oomph for my photography work. I don’t expect gaming-level graphics performance, but I don’t play games on my Mac.

For now, I plan to use my old Apple Thunderbolt display, which is only 1,440 x 2,560 pixels. Not ideal, but let’s not get overboard. I still hope Apple will offer a standalone 5k display in the near future.

Bottom line, I guess I’ll purchase a Mac mini now. Yes, I know, there will soon be M1-based iMacs with even beefier performance, but as said, the mini will already be a major improvement over my ancient current machine. The mini obviously does not have a battery, and sports a silent fan – ideal for the tropical climate here. No more bloated batteries. Yay!

  • Ars Technica’s interview with Craig Federighi, Johny Srouji, and Greg Joswiak.

  • Daring Fireball’s MacBook Pro review.

  • Anandtech’s Mac mini review

  • Anandtech’s report on the A14, with the A14 being the processor in the latest iPad Air and iPhone. The M1 is based on the same chip components, such as CPU cores. Look at the nutty parallelism in the processing pipeline.