Apple M1 Chip Powers New MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini

Originally published at: Apple M1 Chip Powers New MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini - TidBITS

Apple has unveiled its first Apple silicon Macs: a new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. The new M1 chip gives them impressive performance and remarkable battery life, but Apple made few other notable changes.

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Nice summary, @ace. I like the questions you raise at the very end and look forward to hearing Apple’s answers in 2021.

The 7-core model was likely Apple’s way to reach the $999 price point and still maintain healthy margins. As you suspect its M1s are likely just binned parts and hence cheaper.

Personally, I’d also stay away from it. What’s $50 on such a purchase? But for a very price-sensitive customer I guess it’s nice there’s a cheaper option to get a Mac that will under most circumstances perform just as well. In the future, refurbs will offer 8-core options for less than the 7-core MBA costs now. :slight_smile:

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I had hoped for a new 16" MBP, but the line of evolution in Apple Silicon is now showing; low performance processors first and the more powerful ones later. I hope that will mean spring 2021 for the M 16" MBP.

I like the first showings.

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Starting at the bottom of the line makes sense. No question these are a better value vs PC laptops, if you just need a computer and the basic round of software like Office, Adobe, etc, which will certainly be out shortly. This should quickly amp the volume while more powerful chips are geared up along with the professional software that goes with them.

Excellent writeup!

We’ll really need to see how the thermal throttling shakes out in the fanless Air. I also hate fans, so I was pretty excited about that announcement. But the last fanless Mac, the 12-inch MacBook, choked horribly when trying to do anything more than open a document. I know it’s apples and oranges, so to speak, and I have no reason not to be optimistic, but I’d still like to see how the Air does under stress. (And I also want a tiny Mac again!)

I know I keep harping on this, but I still do not understand the need for the two-port MacBook Pro at all when the MacBook Air exists, other than to meet Every Possible Price Point. Especially now that they have the same processor (as opposed to Intel’s Y line in the 2018-2020 MacBook Air, once branded “m3/m5/m7” to distinguish them from the higher performing “i3/i5/i7”). The Air and Pro are practically the same size and weight, and I don’t think it does Apple any favors to cheapen their “high-performance” product by also offering a “fancier low-end model” with the same name and appearance. But, Apple gonna Apple. I imagine they perceive there exists a market for people who just want something called Pro, but doesn’t want to pay top shelf money. That, or they just have a hard time letting products die. Based on the last decade, I actually suspect the latter. (Or, maybe the fan really does make a significant performance difference…though that still leaves the two-port Pro a neither-here-nor-there product, to me.)

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Exactly right. Most likely, all M1 chips have an 8 core GPU. Selling a version of the M1 chip with only 7 working cores lets Apple use any M1’s where one core fails test, rather than tossing all those chips. It’s a common strategy to improve useful yield.
Apple did the same thing with the A12 iPad chip, selling the A12X with 7 working cores, while the A12Z has 8.
Intel and other chip makers have done this for years, although they usually bin parts based on the maximum clock speed a part can attain, charging more for parts that work at higher speeds.
It would be interesting to know if Apple really builds separate 8 GB and 16 GB parts, or if there is only one part, and the 8 GB model simply has one bank of RAM disabled.
Back in the days of spinning disks, it was not unusual for a manufacturer to sell several models of the same disk, with different capacities, that were actually the same disk. The smaller models simply limited the accessible size in firmware.

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Thanks @ace, good analysis! The main thing that we can infer about the new Mn System on Chip (SoC) processors —not to be confused with the M co-processors, which stopped being named once they were embedded in the SoC) are the following:

  • All M1 SoCs are created equal; differentiation comes after testing. And yields are good enough that just 8GB/16GB and 7 core/8 core diffferences are met, with the potential caveat also of achievable frequency.
  • M1 SoCs might be differentiated in serial code —something to be tested— to make sure that the right parts are sent to the right assembly lines, but they will always be pin-compatible within the same generation — that means careful soldering/desoldering of a failed board could help with refurbishing parts.
  • For the next years, all Mn parts will share the same microarchitecture for the same number. And for now, An+13 microarchitecture will be the same as the Mn microarchitecture (i.e., right now the microarchitectures of M1 and A14 are the same).
  • For the larger MacBook Pros, and probably iMacs, Apple really wants to give a larger bump, and put more memory in there. This could be an MnX or Z part —similar to the difference between the later iPads and iPhones—, to keep the same microarchitecture, or there could be Pn processors for Pro systems, starting at 16GB and probably reaching 64GB. But it makes sense to really test actual yields for the M processors before committing to something larger.
  • For the Mac Pro, I think this will be the last one to be removed, thanks for the very large number of different configurations. Maybe the Pn processors are SoCs without internal memory, or with a memory bus that can access nearby memory almost as if it was on chip. Also, what can be usefully done through PCIe/Thunderbolt 4?

In any case, exciting times ahead!

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Judging from the Event - the M1 chips are quite snappy - You know the old adage, “oh you just need more Ram”(or ssd), worked for a long time in speeding up workflow and using multiple apps - and i wonder if the new architecture won’t require as much ram since the hard work is done on the chip. Thattis to say, I work in audio and have always have 12-20 gig of ram. Would I be ok with 8? Is ram now more like /tmp these days?

I recall from lectures on this a very long time ago that RISC instruction sets usually end up occupying more memory simply because they use many individual commands whereas x86 chips (I hesitate to call them CISC because they’re more complicated internally) have a much more complex instruction set exposed to the outside. That set can encapsulate what would have been several RISC instructions in one compound command. In that sense I would expect the CISC CPU to require more L2/L3 cache footprint, but the RISC CPU to require more space in RAM and on disk (the latter being a given anyway due to universal binaries including several compiles). Of course I learned all of that a long time ago and I’m not at all up to date on modern ISAs like ARM so maybe this is totally outdated information.

Yes, I was an old Ram Disk guy back when you could impress Speed Demons by stuffing everything in to 4 mbs of ram! The description of the M1 (i’m not in the dev program anymore so i don’t "dig"in to chip architecture these days) - But the offerings are 8 or 16 g and I’m wondering if i need that extra ram to do what i do on a 2011 HS iMac with 20 g. When the iMacs come out, I hope to get one.

AnandTech has a quite extensive article on the M1 and the new AS architecture. Really interesting read.

They make the interesting claim that Apple had no choice but to abandon Intel in light of their Ax CPUs making such gains compared to x86 every generation. A13 seems to have been the crossover point.

Howard Oakley has a nice article about unified memory. I still don’t have a sense of whether Big Sur running on an M1 will require less memory or not.

I agree. Apple needs to ship something and the M1 almost certainly had a simpler development process than what is (I assume) in progress as a future Mac Pro processor (which will almost certainly require more cores, extreme amounts of RAM or support for DIMM sockets, and extreme amounts of PCIe lanes)

By starting at the low end, they can ship a SoC quickly and start recouping some of their (presumably substantial) R&D costs for the M-series SoCs while development on the high-end models continues.

On an A-series chip, there are DDR4 DRAM chips in the package that are not part of the CPU die. They’re on a secondary board that is soldered to the main part of the package.

If the M-series chips are doing the same thing (don’t know if the unified memory architecture allows this), then there could be multiple versions of the M1 with different RAM sizes using the same die.

BTW, the RAM (at least on an A10) can theoretically be removed and replaced if you’re really really good with microsoldering. Here’s a YouTube video showing the removal process: https://youtu.be/nbEaKWm5vY4

I’m thinking that they may use 8 or 16GB of on-module memory as an L4 cache to an external memory bus where normal DDR4 (or 5) can be connected.

There are many different ways Apple can scale up the architecture. It will be interesting to see which direction they choose. If there are any people here with the knowledge to intelligently comment on what the options might be, I would love to read their opinions.

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Airs have been aimed at different price oriented targets than Pros, primarily students and teenagers, road warriors, casual users and couch surfers/gamers. Also important are potential “switchers,” converting PC users that are already locked in to iPhones. I think that emphasizing this was one of the reasons Apple resurrected the nerdy PC guy at the very end of “One More Thing.”

One of the biggest reasons Apple became the world’s most valuable company was the halo effect it created by creating a line of premium priced, exceptionally user friendly products that work seamlessly and beautifully together, and are miles ahead of the competition.

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“…some tasks, like running Windows in a virtual machine, may not be possible for some time, if ever. More generally, despite the Rosetta 2 translation environment, it’s possible that Apple anticipates some compatibility issues in the first year or so.”
Oh dear - a show stopper for me. In effect it makes it an iPad Pro without a touch screen!

Well, no. It makes it a Mac that can’t run Windows right away, or possibly in the ways we’ve become accustomed to.

The VMware Fusion team said they’re working on it.

And Parallels says it has a version of Parallels Desktop in development too, which should be able to run Windows for ARM.

First, let me say I much prefer discussing stuff like this here than on Reddit. They are so fussy in the Reddit Mac discussion area that I’ve never gotten a post past the moderator! And here I actually get replies. :slight_smile:

Anyway, time to upgrade my 7 year old MacBook Pro? But… even the Pro versions of the new Apple Silicon CPU computers apparently have only 2 Thunderbolt ports and a max of 16 GB RAM (which I have now). So not sure what the merit would be other than a larger SSD.

Any thoughts?

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Longer battery life, speed, extended performance, and at prices that are significantly lower than expected. I’m blown away. And I’m in love. My problem is which one of the three new Macs will be the right match for me? If a 16 inch M1 Pro or Air had been announced, it would be my choice.

A question…it was announced that the Air is fan free, and lightweight and quiet, which would be a plus for me. Nothing was said about the Pro not having a fan was said, and nothing was mentioned on the website, so I guess it will have one?

I’m reluctant to go to an Apple Store as Covid numbers are increasing rapidly, though I’d really like to get hands on with the different models.

Wait. There will be a higher level MBP 13 and 16, with more ports.

It does have a fan, as does the Mini. They throttle the M1 in the Air to keep the machine cool.

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