Apple’s new processor promises increased iPad and iPhone compatibility for Macs, but reduced compatibility with older Mac generations.
Apple has officially launched its new line of laptop and desktop processors with the M1, announced today. The M1 offers exciting pros and cons and a vision of a different kind of computer experience. The processor is faster (aren’t new processors always faster?) and offers better graphical performance and better integration with iOS and iPadOS, but many familiar applications may not function. Apple is gambling big, trying to unify all their products, but what about you? Should your next upgrade be an Apple M1-equipped Mac?
What to Know Before You Buy a 2020 Mac
For the third time in the company’s history, Apple is switching who builds its central processor units—the brain which does all the computing inside the computer. This is a big change since software designed for one processor type does not necessarily run on other processor types. Since 2005, Apple has been using Intel-based processors in all its Macs, iMacs, and MacBooks. Intel also supplied the processors for the majority of Windows PCs and many gaming consoles, which is why owners of Mac computers could install a copy of Windows on their Mac computer if they wanted. No more! Starting in November of 2020 and for the next two years, Apple will be gradually switching to its own line of processors based on the same technology Apple uses in the iPhone, Apple Watch, and iPad. The first of those processors is the M1, featured in the 2020 Mac Mini, MacBook Pro 15 inch, and MacBook Air. But if you are looking to upgrade, you might want to hit pause. Getting a new laptop is typically as easy as deciding how much of a faster, cleaner, upgraded experience you can afford. Not this time. While the new 2020 M1 processor is expected to be faster than the 2019 Intel chips (we won’t know for sure until we see third-party benchmarks), the choice isn’t that simple.
The New M1 CPU at a Glance
The M1 is a combined processing system for Mac computers, adapted from the systems used in iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. Like in those systems, the M1 is what is called a “System on Chip” or SoC, which means that it combines its central processor and graphics processor, as well as other elements, on a single chip. This reduces how much space they take up (important when it’s designed for a cell phone) and increases how quickly they can talk to each other. It is comparable to other latest-generation SoCs, offering eight cores in the central processing unit and eight on the graphics processing unit. Apple’s announcement of the M1 made a few grandiose claims about how its speed compares to competitors, however, they did not say which competitors they were comparing to, so we will have to wait until third-party analysts get their hands on the M1 to find out how fast it really is.
Previous Mac computers used Intel-based chips, which aren’t just from a different manufacturer, they read programming instructions in a completely different language. Intel chips use an x86 instruction set, and the new M1 processors use an instruction set called ARM. ARM was designed originally to use less power, with cell phones and laptops in mind, but it has grown out of that specific niche and become what many would consider a better way to do things. Mac is not alone in switching to processors using ARM; the Microsoft Surface Pro X uses an ARM processor, but Microsoft had some problems in making that transition. ARM and x86 are not compatible without translation; applications written for x86 will not run in ARM, and that means that apps you are accustomed to using may not be available.
Pros of the M1 Processors
Apple’s M1 has been developed through many generations of iPhones and iPads, which means they are functional and reliable. This legacy inherited from mobile devices means the new M1 processors use much less power than comparable Intel processors, granting longer battery life to laptops. They also come equipped with built-in graphics processing that improves on what the old Intel chips could offer.
The M1’s biggest benefit is probably that they can run software designed for the iPhone and iPad with little or no modification. This means that iOS apps and iPadOS apps are likely to enjoy much greater integration with Macs using the M1. What exactly that means is yet to be seen, but I might speculate that it would allow a more unified experience between the systems, where familiar interfaces smoothly move back and forth between iPad, iPhone, and Mac. You might, for example, be able to use your favorite photo-editing app on both your iPhone and on your Mac.
The other major benefit of the new M1 processors is their hardware. The M1 tightly integrates different kinds of processing to make things possible that were not possible before. It has eight processor cores, including four optimized for speed and four for efficiency. Apple brags that even the efficiency cores are comparable to the last generation of MacBook Air processors and that the high-speed cores are a whole different ballgame. It uses techniques similar to the latest gaming consoles to improve visual performance and speed. In addition, it integrates the same Secure Enclave—a separate and isolated processor specifically for encryption and security-related tasks—as the iPhone and Mac T1 chip, bringing better device security. Another element of the integrated System on Chip architecture is the iPhone’s dedicated machine learning chip, which made night-mode photography possible on the iPhone. All of this is integrated in a system built into a single chip, which can increase the speeds at which the components talk to each other, especially for certain visual graphics tasks. Apple promises that the MacBook Air can render multiple streams of 4k video simultaneously and without dropping frames, for example. These advancements are substantial, not just as improvements over previous generations of MacBook Air and Mac Mini, but over competing products from other companies.
Cons of the M1 Processor
Applications designed for Intel processors will not function on the M1 processor without translation. While major brands like Microsoft and Adobe are likely to make their most important products available quickly, smaller companies may not make their product available soon or ever. We don’t know yet which software works and which does not. Apple does offer a tool called Rosetta II, which is supposed to allow Intel-based software to run on the M1, but note the ‘II’ after Rosetta? That is because the company has tried this before. When it switched to Intel-based processors back in 2005, Apple had the same problem and offered the same solution: The original Rosetta managed to make some older software work on the then-new processors but at vastly reduced speeds. Consumers were not thrilled, to say the least, and many small businesses had serious trouble changing their software for the new processors. So will Rosetta II actually work, or will it repeat the problems of the past? We don’t know yet. One important piece of bright news is, as I mentioned above, transitioning apps from iOS and iPadOS to the Mac environment will be much easier than before, so there will likely be lots of software options available to get a job done, even if the app you’ve used in the past isn’t available.
Should You Buy an M1 or an Intel Mac?
Initially, the M1 Macs will appeal to two types of people: the enthusiastic early-adopter who wants to get started with new things (full disclosure: this is me) or the casual Mac owner who uses exclusively big-name software (Microsoft suite, Google, Zoom) and does not plan to upgrade their Mac again for more than two years. If you’re one of those, then you might want an M1 based Mac because in 2022, we expect to see support for Intel-based Macs taper off. Though it won’t be gone for good for a long while yet, it still doesn’t seem like a great time to invest in an Intel-based Mac. Enthusiastic tech nerds might also like how all the new features and major updates will be aimed at M1 and its descendants. Finally, the increased compatibility between your Mac and your iPad and iPhone is especially helpful for the casual user, who is also less likely to be negatively affected by the loss of backward compatibility with old Mac software.
My verdict: if you can afford it, I would suggest a wait-and-see approach. The new processors come with some exciting features, but those features are only useful to the degree that developers implement them in software that you actually use. At the moment, there are too many questions about what software will work and what will not. While it is exciting to see a Mac that can run iOS apps, it is a lot of trouble if your software doesn’t work on your new computer.