We thought we were done with the virtual visits to Cupertino, California, after a pair of glitzy launch events in September and October, where a new Apple Watch, a new iPad, a new HomePod, and four new iPhones were all unveiled.
But Apple had one more stash of shiny baubles to unbox. On Tuesday, the company held its third media event of the fall, this time trotting out a newly designed PC processor, showing off three new Macs with the custom chip, and giving some more details about macOS 11 Big Sur, the next version of Apple’s desktop operating system.
Here are the highlights from Tuesday’s presentation.
Apple Silicon Is Here
Earlier this year, Apple announced that it would be transitioning away from Intel processors in its computers and would instead start putting its own chips into Macs. During Tuesday’s event, the first chip for Macs was unveiled. Apple calls this new chip the M1, and the company’s presentation trumpeted a host of performance and power efficiency gains in the new design.
Apple has been designing its own custom chips for about a decade, but their use has been largely limited to the company’s mobile and platform products—iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, headphones, HomePods, and Apple TVs. Today’s release marks the appearance of an Apple chip made specifically for Mac computers.
The company has pledged to eventually transition all of its computers to the new spec, so we should expect the entire Apple desktop and laptop lineup to make the switch over the next year.
New MacBook Air
The first Macs with Apple’s new M1 chip make their debut this month. One is a 13-inch MacBook Air, which goes on sale today for $999. It ships next week.
Apple claims the machine is much faster than the previous Air—with 3.5 times the CPU performance and a 5X boost to the graphics performance—but still offers up to 18 hours of battery life. The new machine is fanless as well, so those performance gains come without the usual penalty of excess heat. The keyboard and display appear to be the same, but the camera quality has been improved, so at least your endless Zoom sessions should look a little better. The computer comes with two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, and that's it for charging and expansion.
Apple just released an updated MacBook Air last spring, and as of today that laptop is no longer available from Apple. If you go to the company’s web store, the only option for a new MacBook Air is a computer powered by the M1 processor.
New Mac Mini
One of Apple’s more surprising announcements is a refreshed Mac Mini. Like the MacBook Air, it goes on sale today and ships next week. The Mini starts at $699 for 256 gigabytes of SSD storage and 8 GB of RAM. The price climbs from there if you want more memory or storage.
The little desktop PC is a silver block with rounded corners, slightly larger than an external hard drive. The new M1 chip inside gives it three times the performance of the previous Mac Mini, according to Apple. The company also claims it sees significant gains for multitasking and for running resource-hungry software—Apple claims rendering video in Final Cut Pro is six times faster, for example.
The Mini has two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, an HDMI connection, and two USB-A ports. It can run two monitors at once, though one has to be connected via the HDMI port, which maxes out at 4K resolution.
New MacBook Pro
Of course, mobile creative professionals get a taste of the new silicon as well. A new 13-inch MacBook Pro powered by an M1 processor (and with a Touch Bar) goes on sale today for $1,299. That’s the same price as the Intel-powered Pro the new machine is replacing. The same claims about speed and power-efficiency improvements Apple made for the other machines also apply to the new Pro laptop. The MacBook Pro with the new M1 chip is faster in CPU and GPU performance, and it has a massive bump in battery life—up to 20 hours, Apple claims. The computer comes with two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports.
Like the Air and Mini, the new MacBook Pro begins shipping next week. The 16-inch MacBook Pro hasn’t gotten the M1 update yet, so the new chip is only available in the more compact machine.
macOS 11 Big Sur
The next desktop operating system for Macs has been in beta for months, and now Apple has given it a firm release date. Big Sur will be available Thursday, November 12, as a free download.
The OS was built with the new M1 chips in mind. Apple says that its silicon makes system software twice as responsive as before while also giving big boosts to programs like Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. It’s important to note that Big Sur will run on Intel-powered machines as well as M1-powered machines, so it’s not necessary to buy a new Mac to get the latest software improvements.
The most noticeable change of Big Sur is its overhauled design. App icons are rounded, like in iOS. Menu bars are transparent, so that you can see the background behind them. Altogether, Big Sur’s new design signals a unification of Apple’s three operating systems: macOS, iOS, and iPadOS. The goal is to streamline the process for users and app developers alike. Desktop apps will be able to work on mobile and vice versa, making switching between devices a (hopefully) seamless experience. To that end, Apple also unveiled “universal apps,” which were built to work with Apple Silicon and Intel processors simultaneously. These apps should be backward-compatible with MacBooks from 2015 or newer.
As usual, Apple’s focus on privacy is on display in Big Sur as well. The company touted several of these features earlier this year when it announced the OS at its summertime Worldwide Developer Conference. Overall, users gain more control of the information collected by third-party apps and websites. For example, Big Sur’s new "Privacy Report" actively tracks the ad trackers that pop up in Safari and keeps a log to inform the user of just how many times websites try to collect their data.
We’ll have more about the move to Apple Silicon and a deeper dive into macOS this week. We’ll also publish reviews of the new M1-powered Macs as soon as we get the opportunity to test them.