Apple is taking control, and a risky bet, with its M1 chip


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

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Apple is trying what no other computer company has been able to pull off

Apple’s most widely known product, by a country mile, is its iPhone. It’s the device that has helped turn the company into an empire and pushed its market valuation past the $2 trillion mark in August, a first for a publicly traded U.S. company.

And while the new iPhone 12 lineup is expected to kickstart a major increase in device upgrades and sales, the biggest news out of Apple (AAPL) in 2020 has little to do with its popular smartphone. Instead, the company’s most significant advancement in years comes in the form of its new M1 system on a chip, or SoC.

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced a trio of new Mac products powered by the company's first M1 chip, replacing Intel's processors in its laptops and desktop products. (Image: Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc)
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced a trio of new Mac products powered by the company’s first M1 chip, replacing Intel’s processors in its laptops and desktop products. (Image: Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc)

The tiny piece of silicon, which Apple debuted during a virtual press conference out of its Cupertino, California, headquarters on Tuesday, is the first of its own design to power its Mac line of products. As Wedbush analyst Dan Ives puts it, the chip “has been a vision 15 years in the making in Cupertino.”

With the new chip, Apple isn’t just signaling that it’s no longer willing to remain beholden to Intel’s (INTC) product pipelines and delays. It’s telling the world that it’s about to transform everything from how users interact with their favorite apps to what they should expect of their laptops and desktops.

But it’s a risky bet. Other companies have tried to use Arm-based chips in laptops before, but couldn’t squeeze out the kind of power Apple is touting. If it fails, the firm’s carefully laid plans could crumble beneath the weight of its goals.

Apple is making some big promises

During its announcement, Apple said that its new M1 chip offers improvements over leading PC processors in terms of both CPU and GPU performance, hitting right at the heart of Intel and AMD (AMD). In a statement, the firm said the M1 has “the fastest integrated GPU in the world,” and features “the world’s fastest CPU cores in low-power silicon.”

From a practical standpoint that means, as Apple tells it, that its new MacBook Air will offer 3.5 times the CPU performance and 5 times the GPU performance of the previous generation Air, all while extending battery life from 12 hours of video playback to a whopping 18 hours. What’s more, the Air won’t have an internal fan, so you won’t have to listen to the annoying whir of your laptop as it struggles to cool itself down while streaming Netflix.

The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, gets a 2.8 times faster CPU thanks to the M1 chip and a 5 times faster GPU. That’s a massive gain for a system that professionals rely on for things like high-end video and photo editing. Oh, and it gets, according to Apple, 20 hours of battery life when using video playback.

Apple says the M1 will allow it to make its laptops and desktops more powerful without consuming tons of power. (Image: Apple)
Apple says the M1 will allow it to make its laptops and desktops more powerful without consuming tons of power. (Image: Apple)

What makes this all the more impressive is that Apple is doing this using what’s referred to as a 5-nanometer process, which generally refers to the size of the transistors packed into a chip. Transistors are, more or less, on/off gates on a processor that allow it to perform instructions. The smaller the transistor, the more tightly it can be packed onto a chip alongside other transistors, allowing for greater energy efficiency and power. Apple’s chip, for instance, holds 16 billion transistors.

With the M1, Apple has jumped past both Intel and AMD in terms of sophistication. Intel still hasn’t delivered its 10-nm processors for desktops and, in its latest earnings report, announced delays for its 7-nm chips, sending its stock price plummeting. AMD, meanwhile, is currently using 7-nm chips.

If that weren’t enough, Apple is doing something that no other laptop or desktop maker has done before: using Arm-based processors, which have been traditionally found in low-power machines like smartphones and tablets, to power full-fledged laptops and desktops.

We’ve seen companies like HP and Microsoft (MSFT) use Arm-based Qualcomm (QCOM) processors to power their own laptops before, and while they’ve provided impressive battery life, the performance just wasn’t there.

Apple's current MacBook Pro 16-inch is powered by Intel's processors. (Image: Apple)
Apple’s current MacBook Pro 16-inch is powered by Intel’s processors. (Image: Apple)

That’s what makes Apple’s bet so massive. It’s aiming to do something other firms simply haven’t been able to accomplish: taking its own Arm-based chips and crushing the likes of Intel in terms of performance and power efficiency. If it fails, it will sour some of the company’s most loyal fans and could push them to Intel and AMD-based Windows PCs.

And the three Macs the company unveiled are just the beginning. Apple is going to use Arm-based chips throughout its entire laptop and desktop lineup by 2022.

And what about those apps?

So, Apple wants to make its chips its own secret sauce. But what does that have to do with apps? Well, since Apple is leaning on the same style of chip used in its iPhone and iPad, that means the majority of iOS and iPadOS apps will be usable on Macs.

That opens up Apple’s laptops and desktops to the millions of apps available through the App Store. That could be a game changer for Apple, which would bring users access to their favorite apps to the very laptops and desktops they’re now using more than ever due to the pandemic.

Those apps aren’t just going to be the same version from your smartphone slapped onto your Mac’s display with loads of distortions, either. They’ll function as full Mac apps complete with their own windows.

Apple's newest version of macOS, Big Sur, was designed specifically to function with the new M1 chip. (Image: Apple)
Apple’s newest version of macOS, Big Sur, was designed specifically to function with the new M1 chip. (Image: Apple)

The App Store has been a goldmine for Apple, and to open it up to even more devices could allow for use cases that developers haven’t imagined before.

“We view the chip announcement as the first step of many more on the horizon in our opinion as Cupertino takes the reigns of its architecture and the cross pollination between software and hardware become ubiquitous over the coming years,” Ives wrote in a research note following Apple’s announcement.

Apple is taking control

Of course, it’s important to point out that Apple’s move is also a pragmatic one. Apple coughed up $2.9 billion for Intel’s processors in 2019. By ditching Intel, it cuts out the need to pay the firm for its chips, and allows it to create desktop and laptop experiences more akin to what you’d expect from an iPhone and iPad.

That means a more seamless user experience with advanced features like instantly waking from sleep like the iPhone. How that plays out down the line remains to be seen. But for now, Apple is clearly taking control of its own future — and placing some big bets on it.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor. Follow him at @DanielHowley

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