The Apple M1 Chip : Just getting started.

Wow.

That’s it.

But seriously what Apple unveiled at their special event yesterday is nothing short of impressive. Since WWDC earlier this year when Apple announced the transition away from intel processors to their own custom silicon, we’ve been wondering what kinds of performance benefits we might actually see. Now Apple has begun to answer that question and it all begins with their first new chip for the Mac, the Apple M1.

You can have your cake and eat it.

Typically with increased performance, comes unfortunate consequences for battery life and power management. The same is true in reverse. A focus on improved battery life, typically comes at the expense of speed and capability. What Apple has achieved with the M1 is nothing short of impressive. The M1 not only improves performance dramatically, but offers unthinkable gains in battery life. Now moving away from the chip for a moment, Apple announced three new Mac’s yesterday all featuring the new M1 chip. The new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13” and the Mac Mini. More on these later but for now lets use the MacBook Air as a reference point.

Compared to the current intel version of the MacBook Air, the new machine featuring Apple’s M1 silicon, is up 3.5 times faster in CPU performance. And up to 5 times more powerful GPU performance. That alone is impressive. But it’s more than that. Not only has the performance increased dramatically, battery life has increased by 6 hours!! Oh and to top it all off it does this without a fan. Yep. The new MacBook Air doesn’t even come with a fan in the machine and yet still delivers insane multi generational leaps in performance and battery life. This is just unheard of. From year to year you might expect improvements of maybe 20% in performance. Not 350% and most certainly not with dramatic improvements to battery life. At best the same battery life.

How did Apple achieve this Wizardry?

At the most basic level the impressive M1 chip can do what it does for three reasons.

1. Apple has designed and engineered a custom chip for its own custom operating system. Rather than using off the shelf parts as it the case with current intel chips, the M1 is a custom designed chip that is heavily optimised to work in harmony with the operating system. The M1 and MacOS were designed not as separate products, but designed together. This enables very tight control over power consumption and rapid shifting between the M1 chips high performance cores and low power efficiency cores.

2. The M1 chip contains many of the key components in one SoC (system on a chip). In other words inside the M1 you’ll find the CPU, the GPU, the RAM, the neural engine for machine learning, the image signal processor, performance controllers and a number of other components. In other computes, typically most of these parts are separated rather than integrated together. With the M1 integrating these parts into one chip, it means that data doesn’t need to be copied across multiple pools of memory. Every part of the M1 chip can access the same unified memory at the same time. And the benefits speak for themselves.

3. Like the A14 Bionic chip in iPad Air and iPhone 12, the M1 is based on a 5 nanometre architecture. This means it packs billions more transistors into the same space and even closer together. So energy doesn’t have to travel as far between each transistor and less energy is lost in the process. Not only does this speed up performance but it saves battery life.

The benefits don’t end there.

The M1 chip contains a number of other important technologies that once again are integrated into the same SoC. Once again this improves performance and efficient. For example:

  • Apple’s latest image signal processor (ISP) for higher quality video with better noise reduction, greater dynamic range, and improved auto white balance when using the camera for video calls.
  • The latest Secure Enclave for best-in-class security.
  • A high-performance storage controller with AES encryption hardware for faster and more secure SSD performance.
  • Low-power, highly efficient media encode and decode engines for great performance and extended battery life.
  • An Apple-designed Thunderbolt controller with support for USB 4, transfer speeds up to 40Gbps, and compatibility with more peripherals than ever.

Summary

To wrap it up Apple has achieved something remarkable. A multi generational leap in performance for both CPU and integrated graphics. Huge gains in battery life without compromise. To achieve this Apple has created the fastest single CPU core in the world and the most power efficient single CPU core in the world with the M1. When combined with custom hardware and a custom designed operating system, the M1 chip showcases Apple at its best.

When the original iPhone was announced, Steve Jobs shared this great quote by Alan Kay “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware”. And now with the M1 and the move to Apple silicon, finally that vision for the Mac is complete. And it’s just getting started.

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