This October, Apple held its traditional fall event where it presented the features of the new iPhone models set to be launched later in the year. The event was unsurprising – most of the features presented were already leaked online weeks, perhaps months before the official announcement. The real surprise of the year was the event the Cupertino giant held in November where it presented its first home-grown desktop CPU since 2006 – the M1. The new CPU is not only innovative but may also be the start of an entirely new era.
The Apple M1
Apple has used its own processor designs in the iPhones for quite some time – but the Apple M1 is the first ARM-based system on a chip (SoC) they designed with desktop computers in mind. With it, the company claims several “firsts”, including the M1 being the first desktop processor built using a 5nm technology.
Built by TMSC, the Taiwanese semiconductor business also responsible for the iPhones’ processors, the M1 is an octa-core processor with four high-performance “Firestorm” cores and four energy-efficient “Icestorm” cores (kind of like the SoCs usually found in smartphones). This allows power-users to make use of the high speed of the processor (up to 3.2GHz) while also adding valuable hours of battery life to an M1-powered laptop. The SoC is energy-efficient enough to offer the best performance-per-watt currently available.
The SoC also comes with an integrated eight-core (seven-core in some models) GPU, plus neural network hardware in the form of the 16-core Neural Engine.
At the November event, Apple presented three products that will receive the new M1 chip: the fourth-generation MacBook Air, the sixth-generation MacBook Pro, and the upcoming Mac Mini. Hands-on reviews of the first one have proven that Apple’s claims about the chip were not overstatements: the MacBook Air lasted almost 12 hours on one full charge in official battery tests and offered impressive performance in pretty much every benchmark imaginable.
The big issue with switching to a new CPU architecture is the compatibility of the software run on it. To prevent issues of this type, Apple introduced the Rosetta 2 binary translation engine with macOS Big Sur, a piece of software that enables users to run x86/x64 software on Apple’s ARM chips. When testing the performance of the new system, the testers didn’t notice any significant difference between using the software on an Intel CPU and on M1.
The start of a new era?
While there were several laptop models with ARM-based CPUs already available, it’s Apple’s switch to such a configuration that will likely push the switch into the mainstream. Manufacturers like Asus and HP have launched their ARM-powered laptops as early as 2017, powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 SoC, while Microsoft released its first ARM-compatible version of Windows 10 around the same time.
Now, in turn, we can expect entire generations of ARM-powered devices to hit the market, further blurring the lines between portable computers of different types.