How Disruptive is the Apple M1?
And how much will we see it affect the market?
I don’t own Apple devices. I could have chosen to buy a number of them over the past couple of years, but I had other reasons to stick with what I bought. Even as someone who does not own anything from Apple, I am invested in the changes the market sees whenever a new product is announced at the Infinity Loop. However, I believe that this sort of reason to be interested in what Apple does gives too many people an excuse to have an uninformed opinion on their products. And yes, this includes me too. This is to say that non-Apple users tend to have a negative bias for Apple, and it's all too frequent for the PC and Android user spaces (me being a part of both) to have a lot of resentment against Apple. And that makes me quite a terrible authority to report on Apple doing something new, regardless of how it pans out for them. But I have to say: Apple Silicon is different.
Apple talks a lot about being “revolutionary” and making major strides in areas that have something similar already present, and it shows in their product launches a lot. Their own commentary on how <feature> is unique and new is consistently undercut by them following it up with something like “for the first time on <product>”. As an Indian, it was downright hilarious to hear Apple boasting about introducing Dual-SIM support on their phones back in 2018, because the Indian market simply does not have a single-SIM phone apart from the iPhone, and still, it was just eSIM, instead of just having support for two full modules. But that’s Apple for you, and while they do give in themselves to becoming the butt of jokes (headphone jacks, Dual SIM, phone widgets, folders) all too often in the communities I am part of, they are nonetheless good at making things. I know, surprising! And sometimes, their revolutionary moves actually make a mark. And none quite so soon as the M1.
Let’s get introduced better
Apple has manufactured several products over their long history. But their start was with the Mac, and Mac computers have been through a lot of changes. The change to watch, for now, is the CPU in them. Of late, Intel and AMD are what come to mind when you so much as utter the word “CPU” in terms of a computer. And Apple was on that very well-adopted x86 platform as well, with Intel CPUs powering every single product that ran macOS. But Apple chose to move on from this arrangement for several reasons, making in-house CPUs for their Mac devices like their iPhone and iPad chips. This eliminates their need to rely on Intel, whose Skylake and subsequent architectures and CPUs based on those architectures were a sticking point for Apple. With Intel hardware showing stagnating performance gains and increasing thermal output on powerful mobile devices like the MacBook Pro, Apple decided to make the move.
Not their first rodeo. Their third, actually
Now, Apple has been on this road before. They made a similar transition to Intel CPUs from IBM PowerPC chips back in 2005. As well as yet another one from Motorola 68000 CPUs to PowerPC even before that, but that was a bit too long ago, so we’ll skip over that for giving the proper context for this transition without inducing tedium.
The transition to Intel helps us understand what Apple’s coming from in the current transition too. We can draw a lot of parallels between both these transitions: from the reasoning that Steve Jobs (and in 2020, Tim Cook) gave in one of his signature keynotes, performance-per-watt, to the fact that rumours were afoot of Apple working on such a transition internally years before the final reveal. Even the reveal at the end where Jobs and Craig Federighi both tell the crowd that the Mac presenting the whole presentation from the start was actually an Intel/M1 device, thus emphasising their readiness to make the transitional jump.
Over at the backend, Apple introduced Rosetta, a dynamic binary translator that helped run apps meant to run on the old PowerPC hardware, on Intel hardware. And since Apple makes their own hardware for their own software, they could make sure that all third-party software will run only on Intel hardware in the future, and developers could focus on just one version of their app by then.
To see the similarities, replace PowerPC with Intel and Intel with Apple Silicon, and you’d get exactly what Apple is doing right now. They just called it Rosetta 2.
Apple now gains full integration of the main parts of their most popular products. They always designed iPhone and iPad CPUs in-house, relying on external semiconductor manufactures (or “fabs”) only for manufacturing, but it was still their design running with their software on top of it. With the Mac now under that very product philosophy, it is a much better experience using the native Mac apps. They seem to take full advantage of the new ARM architecture, and using them is a breeze on an M1 device. For native apps, the M1 is superlative, until Apple releases another CPU to put in the more powerful Mac devices.
So we know what Apple has done so far to make this move, and with help from the previous transition, we can predict parts of the future for this process. And with that down, let’s compare the last MacBooks powered by Intel to the newer ones.
Intel vs The M1: Not a one-sided battle?
It is fair for Apple to advertise their M1-powered MacBooks like this in their presentations and press releases:
With the M1 chip, MacBook Air speeds through everything from editing family photos to exporting videos for the web. The powerful 8-core CPU performs up to 3.5x faster than the previous generation. […] The [MacBook Pro’s] 8-core GPU is up to 5x faster.
These multipliers do not make much sense on their own when looked at a little carefully. How is the GPU 5x faster? How did you measure it? Did you test that by running a game or by running a GPU-reliant Final Cut Pro render? It’s really not clear neither by looking at the press releases nor in their presentations. This lack of transparency has been a sticking point for many against Apple’s marketing, but it works for them. Thus, we have to rely on independent reviewers to put the machines to the test, faring them against an Intel MacBook to really figure out what these numbers mean. And real-life testing shows an all-around improvement in just every facet of laptop computer usage.
For one, without a change in the battery size (hence, thickness and weight), the MacBooks the M1 shipped with initially have become endurance kings. Reviewers have reported absolutely not plugging in their laptops and still managing multiple workdays with that single charge. The Air does fall shy of the claimed 18 hours of video playback by around a few hours when tested by Linus Tech Tips, but the Pro beat its 20-hour claim by lasting another hour after the 20 it was guaranteed to do. That is an astonishing number, especially when we can compare this directly with the Intel-based MacBooks because the batteries are the same. The Intel MacBook Pro went only 11 hours, a full 10 hours less than the M1 MacBook Pro. The Intel MacBook Air stayed quite close to the M1 MacBook Air, but it still was not as long-lasting. And that’s still a huge improvement because the M1 MacBooks embarrass their predecessors in raw speed.
Speaking of “speed”, Mac users and developers had to contend with the new ARM architecture of the M1, which could have been seen as a challenge for all, as a new architecture means that a lot of work is required for every app to work as it did before on the Intel Macs. There was Rosetta 2, though, that eased the transitional period, and it worked wonders in avoiding users, or developers, feel compromised while Apple executes their transition. Looking at benchmarks of popular applications, there were very few instances where one could even feel like anything has changed, or if there has been, it’s worthy of being called a downgrade in any way. In this manner, Apple had outdone even themselves, as they did better than last time.
The M1 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air was pit against the Intel Macs they succeeded in applications that had to run using Rosetta 2 because developers weren’t finished with bringing native ARM support to their macOS apps. The M1 proved to be so good with emulation that whichever apps ran, ran better than on the native machines! Now it is certain that developers will move fast to support the M1 natively without Rosetta 2, but it will not be a painful wait for any users who already have the newer CPU in their still shiny new machines. Most observers have said that if M1 isn’t “ready”, it definitely is “almost ready”.
This is Apple pretty much completely eliminating the “early adopter tax” for people who have already bought the newer machines, letting them move immediately to the new paradigm Apple is shifting towards, without much inconvenience. Benchmarks show that the Intel-based MacBooks are being outrun by their successors, as one would normally expect. Most games supposedly run, although not many people are gaming on a Mac anyway. Apple has managed to improve on raw performance while also redefining the roadmap of the Mac on their own terms with a lot of potential to improve further.
Apple has made fanless laptops before, with the 2015–19 MacBook being the most recent example. But they always came with a lot of compromises. To get the noise reduction that comes with being fanless, one had to leave behind any semblance of decent performance, because the Intel CPUs in the fanless MacBook were just 4.5W parts. For anything even remotely stressing on the CPU, that MacBook was a poor performer. Apple knew it though, and they intended that laptop to be a more premium and more compact version of the MacBook Air of that time. Regardless, having that laptop was a heap of compromise, with mostly just the fanless design and minuscule weight to speak for it.
But the MacBook Air with the M1 is a regular thin-and-light laptop, with a 13-inch screen, a scissor-switch (the return to the better design) keyboard, and a CPU that can perform about as well as the 13" MacBook Pros’. But without a fan. The laptop is entirely solid-state and thus makes no noise. Yet, it avoids being lacklustre in performance. Compared to the outgoing MacBook Air (which is the same exterior design, but has an Intel CPU and a fan to cool it), it does just as well in heavy applications. And for lighter apps and multitasking, it is generally considered to be a better machine. All the while being the same starting price, and being totally noiseless.
With the Intel MacBooks, the 13" MacBook Pro was generally the better option when pit against the MacBook Air despite the higher price. This was because of the lower thermal budget of the MacBook Air forcing Apple to put different CPUs in these different models. The Air suffered from worse performance because of that. But the M1 MacBooks, as the name suggests, have the same system-on-chip. The only difference is in the GPU of the M1 having one less core in the MacBook Air, which does not create a huge difference when these models are compared. You can also still pay a little more and get the full, 8-core GPU M1 in the MacBook Air. But the base model is just $999 and is a better overall deal than the Intel MacBook Air was, now even over its 13" Pro sibling. So if I was to recommend someone a laptop, I’d just ask them to get the base MacBook Air and save good money.
Intel has responded in whatever ways they had to this upheaval. Their Evo standard of specifications — which in my opinion is just Ultrabook’s second life — and in turn was born out of Windows laptop manufacturers losing out the laptop design battle to Apple’s unibody MacBooks which were new for that time. Additionally, a bunch of first-party benchmarks came from Intel, directly pitting their 11th Generation laptop CPUs with the M1. First-party benchmarks are not worth reporting on, as we all should know. They may be correct, but data has its ways of being unnecessary whilst looking attractive, which is exactly what Intel’s benchmarks have done. We shall stick to what independent journalists have written or said about the CPUs here.
Can we call the laptop wars then?
There’s still a lot to go through.
Now, with the M1 in “hand”, we have a good idea of what Apple might do next, as well as what it is capable of doing with its own silicon. The M1 is a relatively entry-level part, which is the reason why it's in the cheapest Apple computers on the market currently. But this also means that it is only a matter of time until we see more powerful versions of these new CPUs. The rumour mill is already churning out information about a redesigned MacBook lineup, a more powerful CPU for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which hasn’t received the Apple Silicon treatment at all so far. There are even rumours of the Mac Pro getting refreshed with a significantly beefier Apple Silicon GPU (as one would expect from such a high-end computer). But we’ll have to wait for those to come and perform. For now, we can talk about Windows and PCs.
Windows for ARM and ARM for Windows
We tend to forget this, but Microsoft was giving ARM CPUs some attention all the way back in 2012! Windows RT was a variant of Windows 8 that could run on Microsoft’s own Surface RT, the first device that was sold under that brand. However, the reason we do not hear a peep about it was that it could only run “apps”, that one could get from the new Microsoft Store. No other apps worked, not even the regular version of Microsoft Office that you may use on a Windows machine. We know how widely utilised Microsoft Store has been over the years, so it is no wonder why Microsoft abandoned that idea and discontinued the Surface RT less than a year later. Support continued until Windows 10, though, and RT users got the update to Windows 10 nonetheless.
Reviving their plans later, Microsoft also made the Surface Pro X in 2019, this time with their “own silicon”, the Microsoft SQ series of chips. These were rebranded Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx CPUs, but without further context, it does sound like Microsoft did beat Apple to the punch here. Obviously, there is more to it than just this. Back in 2019, when Microsoft (re)introduced ARM-based Surface devices, they were not so keen on letting it run “normal” software that easily. The Surface Pro X could emulate x86 apps, which are 32-bit, just like how a 64-bit x64 CPU (like the ones “normal” PCs have these days) would. That made it fit for any use case that didn’t strictly rely on 64-bit apps. Even if it did, if there was an x86 version of that app, there was no issue. This is obviously alongside any ARM Windows apps you could find. However, say you wanted to run a game or any Adobe app that would otherwise be right at home on a Windows PC, you would be stuck. Microsoft didn’t add x64 app emulation until very recently in 2021 on their ARM machine, likely seeing this as their step towards mainstreaming ARM CPUs while following Apple.
A clear consequence of all this was that when Apple introduced M1, most people thought that this was an entirely new approach towards making CPUs. This even includes me, as I had totally forgotten that the 8cx existed too. The Surface Pro X always stood out as a niche product that could run basic tasks, had a great battery typical of ARM-powered PCs, but lagged behind hard in anything CPU-intensive and was hard to work with due to compatibility issues with x86–64 apps. But the fact that Apple did the same thing as Microsoft after them and still managed to capture a way better mind share of the industry and market stands out as a major missed opportunity. Not just for Microsoft, they are just an example. Other brands too, like Samsung, made the same mistakes and marketed their ARM laptops as nothing more than glorified Chromebooks that will hinder most workflows.
[E]mulation [on Windows for ARM] is steadily improving to support a broader — if not complete — range of software.
-Mary Branscombe, TechRepublic, “Windows on Arm: This is how well 64-bit emulation is working”
I believe that Windows will catch up eventually. It is just a matter of time when brands like Lenovo will come out with a ThinkPad X1 with an ARM CPU inside it and so the cycle will begin. But it has to be Microsoft that has to first make sure that they have an answer to Rosetta. It doesn’t have to be as good or smooth, especially because the install base of Windows is frankly insanely diverse in hardware, but it has to exist first. It is in their Insider builds for Windows for ARM, so it is clear that work is being done. It is even making good progress, it seems, but time will tell how good it eventually gets.
Winners and Losers
There are two massive elephants in the room in the discussion about moving away from x86–64 that haven’t been given the spotlight here, until now. Intel and AMD are the only two manufacturers of CPUs for all computers we see around us. But the open nature of ARMs license is in direct opposition to the x86 duopoly. The limitations that this put on manufacturers like Apple were bound to have such consequences, and now here we are. As mobility becomes more and more important, ARM is the perfect package for it. High battery life, low thermal overheads, it really is a paradigm shift over x86 on mobile machines. x86 will not leave the enthusiast/DIY segment for now, though, but that’s another niche (a vocal one, sure) where it will be impossible to shake Intel and AMD’s domination. But again, it’s a niche they do not benefit from too greatly.
On the other hand, these two behemoths sure will not take this lying down. But it is hard to say what they will do to counter ARM. Without being accusatory, Intel will have its ways to keep manufacturers tied to them for sure. But if they don’t compete at all with ARM in the coming future, then what will save them from losing a massive chunk of users? AMD on their end was just starting out a resurgence in the laptop market, after ridiculing Intel for the past 3 years in the desktop and server markets. They have put some stock in ARM again, directly as an answer to the M1 in fact, but those are just leaks. Only a product announcement can tell what AMD’s goals are. To keep it all concise, both AMD and Intel will surely manage. This is a new challenge for them, but they aren’t the giants they are by fluke.
As for winners, well it has to be the buyer. Finally, FINALLY, there is an answer to “What, if not Intel or AMD?” It has been an incredibly long time coming, too. The market isn’t cornered anymore. It will take a little while to actually realise these developments, but like when AMD stepped up the game with Ryzen, it is a good thing overall for the user. A good product is developed under competitive conditions.
Back to Apple
To wrap this all up, Apple’s play here seems to have a lot of potential in the future, and the fact that it is Apple who did it drives the industry to also respond. Apple buyers are sure to get a lot more from their computers from here on, and it also seems likely that Windows users will also see some progress in a similar manner. We must wait, but what we have already seen is that Apple has pulled a brilliant move, and even people not usually convinced by Apple (me) are turning heads in marvel. It even can put a dent in the Intel-AMD duopoly over the CPU market, and cause further competition in the industry to thrive.
But for now, Apple has made a much-improved product after a few years of stagnation and seems to be on a further upward trajectory.