Apple chips are on the table
Apple’s transition to its own processors is nearly complete. The company’s recent spring event saw the debut of the Mac Studio and its M1 Ultra processor – its most powerful piece of silicon to date. But it also revealed what the future of Apple’s computers could look like.
For the first time, all of Apple’s chips are on the table.
The first crucial takeaway is that Apple is now a force to be reckoned with when it comes to chips (if it wasn’t already). The incredibly positive reception of the first wave of M1 computers, along with the similar success of its M1 Pro and M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro laptops last year, has established the company’s good faith. But the M1 Ultra saw Apple take its biggest swing yet, with what it boasts is “the world’s most powerful chip for a personal computer”.
These chips are already becoming selling points for computers. Buying a Mac is no longer just about getting the software or the aesthetic design from Apple – it’s about getting the kind of performance and battery life that no one else offers.
Apple has pulled Intel’s top-end processor, the Core i9-12900K, claiming a 90% improvement over its M1 Ultra in multi-threaded performance at the same power level and the ability to match top numbers from Intel while using 100W less power. The company scored a similar victory lap over Nvidia’s RTX 3090 GPU, which Apple claims beats in performance while consuming 200W less power. (Obviously, we’ll be looking to test these numbers for ourselves in the days and weeks to come). The Apple Silicon transition is no longer an experiment – it’s the future of Apple and one that PC makers will need to pay attention to in the future.
Then there’s the way Apple builds its chips. Apple currently offers four different models of its Arm-based M1 chips, which blur the line between product form factors in ways we don’t typically see with semiconductors. Apple took a different approach – instead of building chips for specific devices, Apple built just one really good chip: its A-series processor. increase, seemingly without limit. From a phone, to a laptop, to what is allegedly the most powerful desktop, Apple’s secret sauce seems to be nothing more than doubling the size of each of its chips and adding more cooling at each step. But it’s remarkable because no company has ever managed to do this before – and because it allows Apple to create a complete portfolio of computers from $430 to $8,000 (and more) around a single point in its silicon architecture roadmap.
The M1 in a MacBook Air or iPad is the same chip found in Apple’s iMac and Mac Mini desktops, running at roughly the same speed and efficiency. The M1 Max from a MacBook Pro laptop makes the leap to a desktop with the Mac Studio. And even the company’s ultra-powerful M1 Ultra isn’t a purely desktop-focused design, given that it’s really just two M1 Max processors in a trench coat. Devices are differentiated by specific features or form factor, not necessarily by power.
It’s this scaling pattern that we’ll likely see with Apple’s next Mac Pro, which Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reports will come later this year with up to 40 CPU cores and 128 graphics cores on one chip (the equivalent of four M1 Max processors combined or two M1 Ultra chips). That’s yet another doubling – probably adding even more cooling to compensate.
In the same vein that Apple distinguishes the Mac Studio from the Macbook Pro with different form factors, ports, and feature sets, we’ll likely see a similar change to help the new Mac Pro stand out from the Mac Studio. The current Mac Pro is Apple’s most powerful (and most expensive) product, and it’s one that fills a very different niche than some of its other computers – and one without a small share of missteps. from the company over the years because Apple has misjudged how much power users need from their hardware.
An M1-powered Mac Pro would likely need more than just doubling the M1’s core count to satisfy pros; it needs scalability, modularity and customization. Things like PCIe cards, user-accessible memory slots, and compatibility with discrete graphics cards and external hardware accelerators – the same factors that made the recent 2019 refresh so successful (and whose lack doomed the 2016 “trash can” model almost immediately). None of Apple’s Arm-based designs offered any of these things, and it’s open question whether Apple is interested in offering them at any level.
The power of Apple’s CPU and GPU cores could mean it can beat an RTX 3090 today; a 128-core GPU in a Mac Pro would provide even greater cushion for longer. But without user-upgradeable parts, Apple would force a prospective Mac Pro buyer to anticipate all their needs from the get-go. We’ll have to wait for a more official announcement to see if Apple can escape the trap of relying too heavily on unscalable systems again or not.
The increasingly blurred line between products also applies to the chips themselves – while the number of cores and the distribution between efficient and high-performance cores vary from model to model (and even within processor families, where Apple offers a variety of configurations), the cores themselves are the same: a Firestorm performance core on a $999 MacBook Air M1 is almost the same as on a $3,999 Mac Studio M1 Ultra $, up to the clock speed of 3.23 GHz, although the more powerful chips have additional caches and DRAM bandwidth. Technically, the M1’s Firestorm cores aren’t much different than the A14’s in an iPhone 12 either, although the iPhone’s cores are slightly slower.
Intel’s latest 12th Gen processors are built with a similar scale approach, with a mix of efficient performance and cores, from its most powerful desktop chips to its most battery-friendly models for lightweight laptops. . But Intel’s chips don’t fit quite the way Apple does here, with products still more traditionally broken down into multiple compartments for different classes of laptops and desktop models. Intel’s desktop chips (for the most part) don’t make the leap to laptops or tablets the same way Apple’s do.
The M2 Question
Finally, there’s the future of Apple’s processors. Apple Silicon is clearly here to stay (currently Apple only sells a pair of Intel-based machines: an older Mac Mini with very outdated hardware and the soon-to-be-replaced Mac Pro). This means that at some point — perhaps as early as this year — we will start to see the following wave of processors, whether by an “M2” moniker or another name.
Whatever the next generation of Apple chips, though, it probably won’t be the same kind of massive leap forward as Intel’s switch to M1. Instead, it’s likely to be a more gradual, incremental upgrade, similar to changes from one generation of A-series iPhone processors to the next.
When it comes to upgrading processors, there are actually two ways to do it. You can use a new (or updated) architecture that introduces more powerful or more efficient CPU or GPU cores, or you can move to a smaller manufacturing node, which allows you to fit more transistors in a similar space or to further reduce similar material. .
We know Apple already has better silicon designs: the company’s A15 chipset includes its more advanced high-performance Avalanche cores and power-efficient Blizzard cores, which (at least on paper) are better than the Firestorm and Icestorm cores we’ve seen. they replaced (which Apple originally debuted with the A14 chip in the iPhone 12 lineup). Historically, Apple has tended to focus on improving its individual core designs with its A-series chips on the iPhone, but the dividends tend to be lower year on year.
A future “M2” could follow in this vein and begin refreshing Apple’s chip lineup with Avalanche and Blizzard cores, potentially delivering performance or efficiency gains similar to the iPhone upgrade. 12 to iPhone 13. At least one rumor of 9to5Mac says Apple is looking to do this for its M2 lineup, while adding additional GPU cores to some of its chip designs.
Apple could also – as several rumors already suggest – do a more modest upgrade and take the existing M1 designs and move them to a more advanced production node. It’s something that could happen as soon as this year, with reports that Apple could ship a new MacBook Air with a largely identical chipset built on TSMC’s 4nm node, instead of the 5nm node it currently uses. for its M1 chips – which could let Apple boost performance and/or power efficiency.
Barring calamity with the Mac Pro, however, it’s clear that Apple managed to launch its first generation of computing hardware with a bang. But its competitors aren’t idle either: Intel is finally launching its own next-gen laptop chips, and AMD’s products are also better than ever. And that’s not even counting Arm-based competition — like Qualcomm’s impending plans to bring the fight to Apple with its Nuvia-designed chips in 2023.
Apple Silicon was a fresh start for the company’s computers that catapulted them ahead of competitors. But with the transition nearly complete, Apple needs to do more than impress once — it needs to keep that momentum going for future products, too.