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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Apple’s New M1 Chip Could Reshape the Company’s Future

Another month, another Apple event. This time around, we saw three new Macs, all with a shiny new chip inside them. Apple's M1 processor is a great big leap forward for the company. It marks a shift from Intel-made chips to designs that Apple produces entirely in-house, a change that gives the company much greater control over the products it creates.

This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior writer Tom Simonite and WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu come on to talk about Apple's new chips, operating system, and MacBooks, and what it all means for the future of the company.

Show Notes

Lauren Goode is off this week. Read Tom’s story about Apple’s new chips here. Check out everything Apple announced this week here. Stay tuned for our reviews of the new M1-powered Macs, which should publish in the coming weeks.


Tom recommends getting a mesh Wi-Fi router (he likes the TP Link Deco). Julian recommends The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Mike recommends the new Werner Herzog documentary Fireball on Apple TV+.

Tom Simonite can be found on Twitter @tsimonite. Julian Chokkattu is @JulianChokkattu. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

Michael Calore: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED. Lauren Goode is out this week and we miss her terribly, but we're going to try to fill the gaping Laurenless void with a couple of guests. Joining me remotely this week is WIRED senior writer, Tom Simonite.

Tom Simonite: Hello, Mike.

MC: Hi, Tom. And also on the show is WIRED senior associate editor, Julian Chokkattu. Hello, Julian.

Julian Chokkattu: Hello.

MC: Welcome back to the show, both of you. Today, we're talking about Apple. Yes, Apple held its third hardware event of the fall on Tuesday of this week. The event was titled One More Thing, but there were actually several more things. Apple showed off three new Macs and gave a release date for the next version of MacOS. But it's the smallest piece of tech that was the biggest news. Apple has officially unveiled its new custom made silicon chips that will power the new MacBooks and Mac desktops, it's called the M1 Chip. For the past 15 years, Apple has relied on Intel to provide chips for its computers, but now it's moving in its own direction. Apple has developed the M1 entirely in-house, it gives the company an unprecedented level of control over its development process and supply chain. But how will that affect the company's future? And what about Intel?

Tom, you have written about Apple's new M 1 chips for WIRED.com, are these the real deal revolution that Apple says they are?

TS: Well, it's a big revolution to Apple, we'll see if it spreads beyond there. The company has spent years and millions and millions of dollars getting ready for this moment, and if it works out the way the decision to make their own mobile processes for the iPhone and iPad, then I think we could see this really change the future of Apple's laptops and desktops and maybe the whole PC industry.

MC: Yeah. And if you look at all of the things that Apple has put out over the last four or five years, like you mentioned, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, their headphones, the HomePod, the HomePod mini, all of those things have custom silicon in them, so this is just sort of aligning the Macs with the rest of everything Apple makes, right?

TS: That's right, yeah. So the playbook seems to work. When Apple makes the silicon and makes the software and the whole device, it allows engineers to come up with these clever little integrations and tweaks that a company that's buying in components from outside just can't deliver. And on the iPhone, that coupling has helped Apple be first with facial recognition unlock and some really impressive augmented reality features. And so now we'll see what they can do on devices like the MacBook Pro and others as they bring out the M1 and presumably a whole family of new processors.

MC: Julian, what are you most excited about with the M1?

JC: Well, two things. Battery life for the first one. They touted big improvements with battery life with M1 chips, so the newest MacBook Air, for example, they're saying it can go up to 15 hours for wireless web browsing and up to 18 hours for video playback and the MacBook Pro can even go up to 20 hours. So those are pretty impressive numbers and it's about six to eight hours longer than existing MacBooks that run on Intel chips. So, that is definitely something that I think anyone can appreciate, of course. Who wants to have to keep plugging in a charger into their Mac Book? Being able to just have it run for far longer is just going to be something that everyone can appreciate. So that's the first big one.

And the other one is kind of small and it feels like it should have happened a long time ago, but it's instant wake, the fact that you can just open your MacBook and it's ready to go, you don't need to wait for it to boot up or start or anything and it's just right there. And I think that is just something that I've been accustomed to with my desktop PC, which can do that perfectly fine. And now the fact that it's finally coming to MacBooks just feels like, finally this is happening.

MC: Yeah. We got a little bit of the way there with Chromebooks because Chromebooks have a pretty close to instant wake, but yeah, you still got to wait like 10 or 15 seconds for your Mac to boot up.

JC: Yeah. And it just seems like something that you would expect it to have happened a long time ago, but we're all accustomed to how fast phones and tablets can start up these days and it just seems like one of those data techs that was holding laptops and desktops back and now you don't have to wait anymore.

MC: There are some really good tangible benefits for everyday users but beyond that, their presentation this week was filled with a bunch of reasons why the M1 chip is so revolutionary. And Tom, I have to ask you, is there any reason why people who don't care about computer chips should care about the M1 beyond things like battery life and a more responsive boot up?

TS: Well, I think everyone likes their computer to be ready when they were ready to use it, so there's a good reason to care about instant wake. We will have to see how Apple delivers on the promises it made. Will we hit those battery life figures? Maybe, maybe not everyone will get that. Longer term, Apple gestured at some new types of application that might become possible on laptops and desktops. It talked about how like the iPhone chip, the M1 has this dedicated neural engine to help power machine learning algorithms. It's not really clear to me why I want machine learning algorithms on my laptop, I guess if they're free, I'll take them. But the only real example they gave of how that might be useful was for editing photos and videos and things like that which maybe that doesn't feel that relevant to many people right now, but down the line, it could be very important for gaming and new experiences on the desktop.

I got a sense that there's a lot of potential here and we'll have to wait and see if Apple can make it work out, which will depend as much on software developers, outside software companies as it will on Apple.

MC: All right. I want to talk a little bit about the machines themselves. Julian, you pointed out that you've been reviewing Macs for us for a while and there were a couple of machines that came out earlier this year that were replaced by the new machines that were announced this week?

JC: Yeah. So I reviewed the MacBook Air, which came out, I think, in March and that is gone. Then they came out with the MacBook Pro, in May, and that is also gone, at least the based models, the Intel based Core i7 version is still available. So I think that's about the fastest turnaround for an Apple product lifecycle, like it's just gone from the site. I'm sure you can find it at other retailers. But it's kind of baffling, I think, and I would feel a little bummed out if I bought one of those two devices, especially because these newer ones are supposed to be so much faster and give you all those other benefits like better battery life and instant wake. So it is a very strange move that Apple had done this, where they released these upgraded, souped up versions earlier this year and now suddenly the same two models have been even more upgraded later in the year.

But it put them in a very good position for the pandemic. Those two devices came out right at the early start of the pandemic when people were shopping for computers and laptops and well Apple profited from that, for sure. And, I guess, they are still good laptops so I don't think that people are necessarily disappointed in the fact that those machines are now being outperformed, but just maybe a little sad.

MC: So Tom, what about Intel now? What do they do?

TS: Intel has some things to work through, which is why Apple wanted to make this change. And, I think, although it's taken years to deliver on this since Apple made the decision, it's looked more timely as the years have gone on. So Intel has struggled to get its last two generations of chip technology out the door, these are the big upgrades that allow more power and performance and battery life out of all our devices. And the last two known as 40 nanometer and 10 nanometers have just been late. And so by switching to M1 for these devices, Intel's problems are no longer Apple's problem, which must feel pretty good. It allowed them to switch to the technology that TSMC, which is the company that makes iPhone chips and now the M1, the technology they have. Their latest generation which is called 5 nanometer came out on time, Apple was the first to move on to it, so they've just sort of stepped ahead in a sense.

Apple doesn't make up a big chunk of the PC market, so Intel hasn't suffered like a devastating loss of revenue from this, but I think it's a signal that adds to this picture people already had that Intel's in a bit of trouble,

MC: I can always look back to about 10 years ago when Intel was really left behind in the smartphone revolution because they didn't make really good smartphone processors. For several years, you would go to CES in Las Vegas in January and the Intel booth is this massive booth and it has refrigerators that talk to you and it has robots and it has drones and it has cameras that can follow you around, all of this great demonstration of technology, and I really feel like the booth needs a big neon sign that says, "Look at everything we make that is not a smartphone." Because it really feels like they were just sort of trying to prove their worth in the mobile market. And, like you said, Apple's not a huge chunk of their processor revenue, but it just shows sort of one more way that they're behind the people who are really leading the push towards better technology.

TS: Yeah. And Intel, ultimately, gave up on making mobile processors, and last year it's sold the last vestige of mobile business over there which made modems, WiFi and selling emotives. They sold that to Apple, so Apple has that now. And so the question is, will this happen again with desktops and laptops and such? There have been other companies that tried to build PCs around mobile style processors, Microsoft has some versions of the Surface that are based on chips made by Qualcomm, there have been experiments by other companies. They haven't really gained a lot of traction, they've been seen as a bit weird and kind of not worth the trouble but now we have Apple's marketing budget behind this idea. And maybe that will convince more of the industry to start going that way.

MC: Right. And real quickly, we should note that we are going to test these machines as soon as we get the opportunity to, so you can look forward to Julian's reviews of all the new Macs as they hit the market this fall and into next year. And right now we're going to take a break and then we're going to come back and talk about Big Sur.


MC: Welcome back. Apple's new M1 chips will be at the heart of the next generation of Macs and MacBooks, they will also help power the snappier features in the Big Sur operating system. So let's dig into everything else that Apple announced and separate the big changes from the routine updates. So Julian, I want to start with the OS, Big Sur dropped this week, we're recording this on Thursday and people can start downloading it now, how big of an update is it?

JC: Well, it looks very different. It looks a lot more like an iPad in terms of the interface. It's a lot more flat, maybe a little more colorful, just not as maybe dated as what the previous version looked like, it looks a little more modern and clean. There's a new control center, very similar to the one that you can access on its mobile devices. And there's widgets, they're kind of bringing that back and you can add those widgets on this little pane on the right side of your home screen and access them whenever you want. And everything else is more or less a quality of life improvement. For example, the Messages app, finally is a bit more usable. It's a lot more like what you can get on the Messages app on the iPhone with the ability to do group texts with it, you can pin to the top, you can call people out, threaded messages, send them emojis.

And another big one is Safari has got a bit of a speed bump and there's new tricks like the ability to preview tabs, there's this new privacy blocker that shows you how many trackers Safari's blocking on a website, a little more privacy friendly, giving you the heads up on a lot of those features and you can port extensions from Chrome and Firefox. And of course the other big one is Maps, Maps is a lot more like what you can access on the iPhone and iPad. It now has Look Around, which is Apple's version of Google's Street View and there's also the ability to find cycling routes and things like that. So a lot of small quality of life updates for a lot of those apps and overall just an interface change, but this is a pretty sizable update and it looks and feels very different especially if you have a MacBook or you're going to get a MacBook with the new M1 chip, you get the benefits of running iPhone and iPad apps on the same system as well.

MC: Yeah, that to me is really interesting, this meshing of iOS and iPadOS and MacOS. It feels like it's probably the most significant step towards the far future and I'm just curious if you guys have any observations about how this could possibly work.

JC: Well, developers have to choose whether they want to bring their app to the Mac. So if they have an existing iPhone or iPad app, they have to basically say, "Yes, I want this app to also be available on the Mac App Store." And there are notable companies that don't exist on the Mac Store already, so they're probably not going to bring their apps at least immediately. So there might be a long period of time where you might not really notice that much of a difference, you might not find those apps that you use on your phone available on the Mac yet, but I think this is one of those things that it is up to the software developers.

But it would only benefit them to bring these apps to the Mac because it just enables the person that's using their devices and software to have a richer experience, I think. At least that's what it would feel like, a richer experience, going from all of your devices when you're picking up or putting down your iPhone, you're transition to the Mac, maybe it's a much more seamless integration of you're picking up right where you left off just because all of this hardware is basically the same. So I think that's one of the more exciting things, it's just something that we're not going to see immediately the benefit of right now.

TS: Yeah. I think that could be the longest lasting shift from this transition. And the smartphone really started out as the poor relation of the PC, right? It was pocketable and strokable but it was much less powerful, you couldn't even cut and paste on the iPhone until I think last week. But now the tables have turned and our idea of what a personal computer is, is more defined by the iPhone and the iPad than it is by a laptop or a desktop. So Apple is doing what you might say is the logical thing, looking at this ancient artifact, the PC, and saying, "Well, why doesn't this work more like what we really think of as a personal computer. It should turn on faster and behave more similarly in all these ways."

The details are so tricky though, aren't they? You talked about where the developers choose to make their mobile app available on the laptops, we don't have touchscreens on these devices yet so it raises lots of issues. Maybe Apple will go that way, I don't know. Maybe they would try some different form factors like being able to flip the device around and fold it back and just use it as a tablet, there are lots of decisions that they'll need to negotiate going forward and loose ends to tie up.

MC: Yeah. And as far as Macs not having touch screens, that's been a rumor and people have pooh-poohed it for years. But I think you can look at mouse support on the iPad as a way of how a mobile app would work on a desktop. It's just there are certain mobile apps that just will not translate because they rely on specific gestures like pinching and things like that, that you can do on a track pad but just don't have the same effect as doing it actually on the screen. So I'm thinking of like creative apps like music making apps and specific drawing apps that use the pencil, those would be probably the most difficult to translate over, so I'd be most curious to see those.

I also would like to ask you guys how you feel about having covered three Apple events in the fall, instead of just one or two.

JC: I am not a fan. I think you cover it one month, then you get the devices and you test it and then you think you're done and then right again, it starts the next month and then rinse and repeat for a third month. I think it is better in many respects in that it's much better than having this one bombardment of all these announcements at the same time which may have happened if the pandemic didn't happen or maybe at least two events rather than three, but it just feels like there's just no end to these new devices. And it kind of feels weird with the pandemic cases surging and not really much economic relief for people in this time and here's Apple just third month in a row, "We've got more devices for you to buy." It just feels a little weird and it feels for me weird to test because I'm just getting these $1,000 devices and it just doesn't seem right in a way, it's very awkward.

TS: There's this trend in tech company keynote, which I think Apple really pushed, where there's a bit of presentation from a real life human and they say, "And now we're going to show you a video." And the video is this super slick commercial and is often the least interesting part of the event, you can see everyone in the room, even the employees of the company are just kind of fidgeting, usually. And the remote events this year that Apple has put on is like being trapped inside those commercials, you don't get the real human, most valuable part of the event. But they've put some generation products out of the door, I'm not sure I'm ready to rule out that there may be one more thing. Could there an event in December? Who knows?

MC: I don't think so. I think if they're going to drop any more computers on us, they'll probably do it with a press release.

JC: Well, there is going to be one more small thing that's going to come, ProRAW for the new iPhone 12 Pro and the Pro Max that's supposed to come out sometime later this year, so that would probably leave December into play. I don't think there'll be an event for it, but it is something that is certainly one of the more exciting announcements about those new iPhones as well.

MC: Right. They'll probably brief journalists and put out a press release and another slick video. All right, well, let's take a break and when we come back, we'll wrap up with our recommendations.


MC: All right, Tom, let's start with you, what is your recommendation for our listeners?

TS: My recommendation is a mesh wifi system to replace your traditional router. I used to think these things were overkill for apartments like the one I live in San Francisco. No, I didn't worry about dead spots and I didn't care that my preschooler didn't have a good wifi signal, but this year, she has important Zoom meetings for story time and show and tell, and the dead spots are kind of annoying. So I got a system from TP-Link, it's called Deco, and the coverage is much better and it looks better too. My old router looked like a special ops robot beetle lying on its back, it was black and shiny with all these antennas sticking out, frankly, a bit scary. The new one, these mesh devices are often kind of white, mine is like a landmine designed by Jony Ive, it's this white round discs. You put one in every room and everything hooks up and the WiFi is much smoother.

MC: Yeah. I have an Eero system and it was the same improvement for me. All of a sudden there were no dead spots in my home anymore and it just looked way better. Also, I like how you pronounce the word router.

TS: Yeah. It was a special order from Europe, the one I got.

MC: Well, good thing you didn't order it from Australia because that word means something very different there. Julian, what is your recommendation?

JC: My recommendation is apparently the same as what Lauren Goode recommended last week, The Queen’s Gambit TV show on Netflix. I don't think I've watched too many shows during the pandemic, maybe the opposite of other people, I guess I've been watching more movies but this was one that I kind of gobbled up very quickly over the span of a few days. It's about a chess prodigy and her goal to become the grand master, and she kind of defeats various opponents. It's a bit more than that too, it's looking at her traumatic past and how she kind of reconciles with it. And it's just an overall, really tight polished story and it just really gets you invested in the characters. And as someone who plays chess, it's just really fun, especially trying to play out things that happen in the movie or in the show where everything is also filmed very cinematically and very interestingly. But, I think, definitely will try to get you into chess again and remind you that you are very, very bad.

MC: I also liked the show. I finished it this past weekend and I had to say it's like the most exciting chess show I've ever seen.

JC: Yeah. It was kind of like Searching for Bobby Fisher, which is also a pretty good movie. But, this one, I think is definitely one of my more favorite chess movies, if that's a segment of its own.

MC: Right, there's certainly more drugs than there were in Searching for Bobby Fischer. All right. Well, my recommendation is a movie, it's called Fireball and it drops this weekend on Apple TV+. So if you're listening to the show on Friday or Saturday, it's already up, you do need a subscription to see it. It's a documentary from Werner Herzog, our good friend, Werner Herzog, who's a German filmmaker who makes narrative features and documentary features. This is his latest documentary and it's about space rocks. So it's about meteorites and their physical properties and their metaphysical properties, and more specifically, it's about the people who study them and collect them and obsess over them. And if you've seen a Werner Herzog documentary, you know that his voiceover narration is a big part of the reason to watch it, and also the eccentricities of the people who he interviews in his movies are also a big reason to watch them. So I've been looking forward to this one for a while, it just came out, it's excellent, please watch it. It's called Fireball on Apple TV+, the latest from Mr. Werner Herzog.

JC: That sounds fun.

MC: All right. That is our show for this week. Thanks to Tom and Julian for joining me. Thanks guys.

TS: Thank you.

JC: Thank you for having me.

MC: And thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of this on Twitter, just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth and we will be back next week. Bye.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

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