For the third time in its history, Apple is in the process of moving its Mac computers to a new line of chips. In 1994 it switched from Motorola’s 680×0 chips to AIM’s PowerPC chips, in 2005 it began to switch from PowerPC to Intel’s x86 chips, and now in 2020 it’s leaving Intel behind in favour of its own Apple Silicon, in the form of the new M1 chip.
These three switches have given Apple more organisational knowledge of how to accomplish such transitions than perhaps any other company. You can see this in how they’ve become better at it over time. Moving to PowerPC allowed Apple to compete against Windows/Intel PCs, but the advantages provided were thin and disappeared over the course of a decade. In contrast, Apple secured for itself favoured customer status from Intel when it switched and enjoyed several years of chip designs perfectly suited for its Macs. As for the switch to Apple Silicon? Well, we’ll get to that.
The transition to Apple Silicon was announced in June 2020, but no details were offered at that point. Only with the December 2020 announcement and release of the first new M1 Macs did people get a proper look at what the new chips offered. And though this is just the first step in what Apple has described as a two-year transition of its desktop and laptop line, the early results are very promising.
The three Macs switching to the new M1 chip are the absolute entry level devices in its lineup: the Mac Mini desktop and the MacBook Air and 13” MacBook Pro. These are some of Apple’s best-selling Macs, but they’re also some of the cheapest, so choosing them for the switch to new, faster chips is the opposite of risky—it provides Apple and its customers with a safe and secure first step into a new era.
First of all, the new machines look entirely like their Intel-based predecessors. Apart from a few differences in coloration and port selection (most notable with the Mac Mini), these devices are dead ringers for the machines they replace. For customers looking for reassurance that the new Macs won’t be in some way cut-down replacements more akin to iPads than “proper” Macs, this kind of familiarity will be reassuring.
More to the point, the low-end machines being replaced have the weakest performance in the existing Mac line. If the new M1 chip has any performance gains to offer, it will show best in this setting. And by all accounts, the performance gains are substantial. The M1 chip may be a derivative of the A-series chips to be found in iPhones and iPads, but Apple has been honing its chip design expertise over the past decade and the M1 looks like it’s coming out of the gate competitive with the best that Intel and its main competitor AMD have to offer. And this, remember, is arriving in low-end Apple devices.
More exciting for laptop users, perhaps, is the battery life gains that the M1 chips offer. Eking out battery life gains with Intel chips has forced Apple to make trade offs between speed and power consumption for years, but M1 seems to have broken that deadlock for Apple, with early reviews reporting that both laptops can run for a full 8-hour work day without needing to be plugged in.
Perhaps the most interesting factor about the three new Macs is how little performance differentiation between them there is. Despite their differing form factors, they all use the same CPU, with a simple choice to double the RAM from 8GB to 16GB when buying. The most notable physical difference lies in cooling, with the MacBook Air being entirely passively cooled whereas the MacBook Pro and Mac Mini sport cooling fans of varying sizes. This upshot is that while the Pro and Mini should enjoy better top speeds, the experience in day-to-day use should be much the same.
If the machines aren’t differentiated much among themselves, then they do at least offer Apple some degree of differentiation between Macs and iPads. Especially in the form of the iPad Pro, iPads have been creeping into the territory of Mac laptops for a while, but the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, with their greater RAM, better selection of ports, and larger batteries, not to mention the improved M1 chip, should be able to maintain a comfortable distance for a while.
For Apple users, and even PC fans, considering new machines, these M1 Macs are as safe a bet as Apple could make them. Every indication is that they already run existing Mac software as fast as the machine’s they’re replacing, with software recompiled for the new chips running far faster. They’re arriving in recognisable form factors, so no peripherals will have to be abandoned, and the fact that the M1 is arriving at the low end of the market means that the price is right for those interested in trying the new systems out.
Might Apple be playing it too safe? Maybe, as there were a few complaints that the new machines weren’t exactly exciting and new, but the performance and battery gains of the M1 seem more than enough for now. It’s the second generation of machines when excitement is likely to arrive, in the form of new designs and form factors. There are already rumours of a redesigned slimline iMac in 2021, probably with an M1+ or the equivalent at its heart. Beyond that, it’ll be very interesting to see how PC manufacturers respond to Apple’s new machines.
As for myself, the time has at last come to put one of my old Macs out to pasture and try something new. Not my nine-year-old MacBook Air, which has been mostly superseded by an iPad Pro, but rather my ten-year-old Mac Mini, which has kept chugging away with the benefit of various upgrades but was never a speed demon in the first place. I wavered for a moment before deciding to order in advance of the first reviews, but that’s mainly because I’m expecting the existing Mac Mini form factor to disappear once the full Mac lineup is upgraded. Its size and shape are still based on the DVD drives it no longer sports, after all.
Regardless, I eventually put the order in and will have my new Mac in a few weeks. It’s the cheapest of the M1 Macs at the moment (cheaper even than the Intel Mac Mini it’s replacing) and I expect it to act as a media server and general purpose PC for many years to come. Life’s too short to spend it waiting for the next big thing to come out. Sometimes you just have to enjoy yourself while you can.
Too grim a segue? Maybe, but please allow me my fun. I’m as locked down as anyone is these days, so apart from watching people pass by my ground floor window, the days are not full of entertainment.
Last week was particularly stressful, as I had a CT scan to check on the progress of my treatment and a meeting with the doctor to find out the results of said scan two days later. This usually causes a spike in my worrying, during which any minor complaint becomes a potential symptom. My head was not in a good space creatively, and my NaNoWriMo output was knocked out for a week. (And if that isn’t the most bourgeois whine I’ve ever made, I don’t know what is.) Luckily, the scan results came back positive, and the medicine I’m on continues to do its job.
As a result, locked down though I may be, I’m in a much better frame of mind this week and doing my best to catch up from my NaNoWriMo lapse. As long as this excessively mild winter persists, I’ll get out into the sun when I can too, and hopefully before too long I’ll get to visit my family again. Until then, and until vaccines start rolling out, keep safe and keep strong.