Apple has announced the first in its series of ARM-powered Mac computers with the new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini, as it begins the transition from traditional Intel processors to those that run in the iPhone.
The new machines mark the first stage of Apple’s huge effort to change the underlying technologies of its Mac computers, replicating the switch it made from PowerPC to Intel processors in 2006, but this time to chips of its own design as used to great effect in the firm’s iPhones and iPads.
At the heart of the three new Macs is Apple’s first desktop chip called the M1. It resembles the firm’s A14 used in the latest iPhone 12 and iPad Air. The octa-core chip is the first desktop processor to be built on the 5nm scale and has four high-performance cores, which Apple said are the fastest in the industry, alongside four high efficiency cores for more mundane tasks.
The first new Apple Silicon machine is the MacBook Air, which starts at the same figure of £999 in the UK or $999 in the US. The new laptop has a similar design to the previous version, except for the lack of a fan making it silent in operation. It has a better webcam, an improved 13in screen and can now wake instantly just like an iPhone.
The M1 in the MacBook Air gives it 3.5 times faster processor performance, five times faster graphics performance and significantly longer battery life of up to 15 hours of web browsing or 18 hours of video playback, which is six hours longer than before. Apple also said the MacBook Air will last twice as long while video conferencing.
13in MacBook Pro
Apple also launched an M1 version of its 13in MacBook Pro, which starts at £1,299 in the UK or $1,299 in the US. The new more powerful 13in laptop has a fan for longer sustained performance. It has up to 2.8 times the processor performance, five times faster graphics performance and longer battery life, lasting up to 17 hours while web browsing or 20 hours for watching video, which is twice as long as the previous version.
The MacBook Pro also has an improved webcam, better mics but only two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, as compared with four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports on the previous version. Apple did not update the larger 16in MacBook Pro.
Finally, Apple also announced a new M1 version of the Mac mini compact desktop computer. The Mac mini starts at £699 in the UK or $699 in the US, which is cheaper than the previous version. It too has a fan and produces three times the processor performance and up to six times the graphics performance of the previous version.
All three new Mac computers will be shipping on 17 November.
MacOS 11 Big Sur
Raw performance numbers aside, the new Macs will run macOS 11 Big Sur and with it the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on the Mac for the first time. The new machines will support Apple’s new Universal Apps format, which allows developers to ship one version of their programs that run on both the older Intel Macs and the new M1 Macs.
Apple said all its apps, including professional programs such as video-editing suite Final Cut Pro and music maker Logic Pro, are optimised for the new M1 chip. It also said that high-profile developers were already making Apple Silicon-optimised versions of their programs, including Adobe with Lightroom next month and Photoshop early next year.
Otherwise, Apple’s Rosetta 2 technology will be able to run programs written for Intel Macs automatically, although doubts remain over their performance.
MacOS 11 Big Sur will be released as a free update for existing Intel Macs on Thursday.
Potential to change the industry
The switch from traditional x86 desktop processors to Apple Silicon is potentially game changing. Not only does it remove Apple’s reliance on Intel for performance increases while opening up the ability to run iOS apps on a Mac, but it has the potential to change the whole of the computer market.
ARM-based chips, such as Apple’s A-series processors in the iPhone or Qualcomm chips in most top Android devices, have long promised greater battery life, higher performance and smaller, thinner designs than their x86 competitors. But until now companies have struggled to bring them up to par using desktop software.
Microsoft is also pursuing an ARM-based future with its Surface Pro X line of Windows tablets, but they have been saddled with performance issues compared with traditional Intel-powered versions. Apple’s wholesale switch to its own ARM chip designs will force the change through, bringing with it software and hardware improvements that will undoubtedly filter down to other manufacturers.
That will bring much greater competition in the PC market, which for years has been dominated by Intel, with rival AMD only recently gaining ground.
The move, which the company said would take two years to complete, is not without risk, said Wayne Lam from CCS Insight: “Apple’s vertical integration should make this an easier undertaking but there could still be difficulties and early teething problems.”