The combination of the Windows operating system and Intel chips was once so successful that the duo was referred to as “Wintel.” Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops, revealed Monday, show just how much things have changed.
At the core of Apple’s new 14- and 16-inch computers is a pair of custom chips—the M1 Pro and M1 Max—that demonstrate the benefits of designing your own silicon—especially when you also make the software to run on it.
Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said the MacOS and software apps had been recrafted to get the most out of the new chips and at the same time use less power. And because Apple’s chips share design features with its tablets and smartphones, it’s possible to run mobile apps on the new laptops too.
Apple announced just over a year ago that it would switch from using Intel chips in its laptops to ones of its own design based on an architecture licensed from ARM, whose designs are more commonly found in smartphones. Indeed, Apple has long designed the chips inside its iPhones, giving it the ability to integrate snappier graphics and artificial intelligence capabilities.
The M1 chips for Apple’s PCs are made by Taiwan’s TSMC, which leads the world when it comes to etching infinitesimally small components onto an area of silicon using its “5-nanometer” manufacturing process.
“Today was a good representation of what a company can do when they have the whole tech stack,” says Patrick Moorhead, chief analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. He cites Apple’s claim that the new chip can boost the performance of its video editing software Final Cut Pro 10-fold as an example of the benefit of codesigning software and silicon.
The M1 Pro and M1 Max chips feature several upgrades and changes compared with Apple's first custom laptop chip, the M1, announced in November 2020. The Pro has 33.7 billion transistors, more than twice as many as the M1, while the M1 Max has 57 billion transistors. Both new chips have 10 central processing units (CPUs), which Apple says results in a 70 percent performance boost compared with the M1.
Using shared memory, the new chips integrate the CPU cores, which perform general-purpose programming instructions, with graphics-processing cores that render imagery, thus removing a bottleneck that apps usually face when working between the two.
This kind of system-on-a-chip architecture is common in smartphones but is not common in laptops or desktops. Because Apple controls both the chip and the operating system, it can support more memory and faster transfers, says Dan Hutcheson, CEO of VLSI Research, who follows the chip industry.
“This is supercomputer-levels of bandwidth,” Hutcheon says. “It is a pretty revolutionary move from Apple.”
The 16-inch MacBook “is geared towards more creative productivity, video editing, sound mixing, animation graphics, and so forth,” says Wayne Lam, senior director for research at CCS Insights.
But not every feature Apple adds to its computers is a success. “Whatever happened to the Touchbar?” Lam asks, referring to a feature conspicuously absent from the new MacBook Pros . “It’s one of these evolutionary dead ends that Apple creates every now and then.”
The M1 Pro and Max are, of course, more bad news for Intel, which is trying to stage a comeback after years of missteps. Speaking to Axios on HBO, Pat Gelsinger, Intel's CEO, said he would aim to put the company's chips back in Apple's products. Intel's forthcoming 12th-generation CPU, codenamed Alder Lake, will feature more integrated components following a similar design logic to the M1 Pro and Max.
"Apple decided they could do a better chip themselves than we could, and they did a pretty good job," Gelsinger said. "What I have to do is make a better chip than they could do themselves. I would hope to win back this piece of their business."
Other laptop makers may follow Apple's lead in embracing custom chips based on ARM. In March, Qualcomm completed the acquisition of Nuvia, a startup specializing in ARM-based chips for laptops. It’s telling that the three founders of Nuvia all previously worked on silicon at Apple.