In 2020, Apple announced it would transition its entire Mac lineup to Apple Silicon within two years. The M1 processor and three Macs were announced later in the fall, followed by a redesigned iMac in 2021. The transition will be completed when Apple announces its "M1X" and professional-grade Macs.
● All iPad and iPhone apps run on M1 Macs natively
● macOS Big Sur works on Intel and M1
● Thunderbolt still supported
● Rosetta 2, Universal 2, and Virtualization
● MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini first with M1
● Entire transition will take two years
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Apple Silicon doesn't refer to a specific chipset or processor, but to the company's custom silicon as a whole. Its development lets the company focus on performance and vertical integration across platforms rather than needing to optimize software to work with another company's hardware.
Following more than a decade of chip architecture experience gleaned from developing the A-series processors, Apple has prepared the way for Apple Silicon on Mac with macOS Big Sur, Mac Catalyst, and several other developer platforms.
Apple Silicon Ecosystem
Apple made its first custom processors out of necessity because Intel did not want to design chips for the iPhone. Because of this, Apple built custom processors for the iPhone, ensuring complete vertical integration with the software.
The A-series chips went on to become the most powerful and efficient mobile chipsets available, and Qualcomm and even Intel could not keep up. Now the Mac has M-series chips pushing beyond what was possible when running Intel on the Mac.
M1: The Mac's Custom Processor
While Apple has already spent well over a decade making powerful chipsets for the iPhone and iPad, the company isn't using those in the new Macs. Instead, there is a specific system-on-a-chip architecture used for Macs and MacBooks called the M1. The first Macs to use Apple Silicon are the late 2020 models of the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini.
The M1 uses a 5nm architecture with 16 billion transistors, four high-performance cores, four high-efficiency cores, and eight GPU cores. Even in the MacBook Air, which lacks external cooling and has one of the GPU cores disabled, the machine still runs faster than 98% of consumer notebooks on the market.
Apple boasts the M1 as the world's fastest CPU in low-power silicon, the world's best CPU performance per watt, the world's fastest graphics in a personal computer, and breakthrough machine learning (ML) thanks to the Neural engine. This adds up to the M1 having a 3.5x faster CPU, 6x faster GPU, and 15x faster ML than previous Macs using Intel.
The GPU is capable of running nearly 25,000 threads simultaneously with 2.6 teraflops of throughput. Apple says this makes it the fastest integrated GPU in a consumer PC.
The webcam used on the new MacBooks remains 720p, but the M1's ML and ISP upgrades improve the overall image.
M1: Rumors and Release
Well known Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo had reported on multiple occasions that Macs with Apple Silicon would start shipping in late 2020. A report in July gave a little more detail:
The report has proven true so far, as Apple announced the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro during its "One More Thing" event in November 2020. The report did miss the Mac mini update, which Apple also unveiled during the event.
Apple is expected to complete its transition in 2022 with the release of a Mac Pro with M-series processor. The powerful desktop will prove to be the most challenging product to bring to the new platform.
A next-generation M-series processor is expected to be used in high-end Macs. The so-called "M1X" could have big performance improvements thanks to a 12-core CPU and 16-core GPU.
iPhone and iPad
During the 2020 WWDC, Apple boasted about successfully bringing 10 billion chips to devices through the years and wanting to bring that expertise to Mac. The company believed that it could hit the sweet spot between power consumption and performance by offering chips that are very powerful while remaining very efficient.
Over the past decade of custom chip building, Apple has been able to increase CPU performance by 100x and GPU performance by 1000x.
Apple also designed new system architectures and technologies to specifically take advantage of its design, like the Neural Engine for machine learning or the Secure Enclave for encryption. Combine those technologies with the existing software implementations like Metal and Swift, and Apple can utilize its custom chipsets far better than with Intel.
Apple is expected to unveil the A15 processor during the "iPhone 13" reveal event in September 2021. Little details have leaked about this chipset, but it is expected to continue Apple's drive to faster chips with higher power efficiency.
Preliminary benchmarks suggest the A15 GPU is 14% faster than the A14. The same benchmarks also suggest it will throttle its speed when necessary, but throttled speeds still exceeded modern Android processors.
The A14 packs in 11.8 billion transistors onto the chip, up from the 8.5 billion of the A13, with the changes enabling Apple to be more precise in how it uses the chip to shape the user's experience. The higher transistor count translates directly into compute power that can be used in games or apps.
The Neural Engine is 16 cores versus 8 cores in the previous generation. This enables things like better computational photography or improved learning algorithms in applications.
The A14 shipped in the iPhone 12 lineup and the iPad Air 4. It has proven to be a powerful chipset, even when paired against the M1 in the Mac lineup.
The Apple Silicon Transition
After the initial Apple Silicon announcement, Apple provided a Developer Transition Kit that developers could order using the "Universal App Quick Start Program." The DTK is a Mac mini running on an A12Z with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. Developers had to pay $500 to rent the machine, which they later had to return.
With this kit, devs can get started making apps run natively on macOS and Apple Silicon. However, hardware is not all that Apple included to help with the process.
During WWDC, developers could attend virtual sessions or discuss issues with engineers within the forums and the Apple Developer app. Apple also provided day-one documentation on developing and testing Universal apps.
Any app built for iOS or iPadOS runs natively on the Apple Silicon Mac as well.
On macOS Big Sur, there are multiple applications built just for the transition. Apple called out three specific ones: Universal 2, Rosetta 2, and Virtualization.
Third-Party App Updates
In early 2021, AppleInsider ran a survey of 100 of the most popular Mac apps to see how many included native Apple Silicon support. As of February 5, only 53 of the 100 apps had M1 support. The remaining 47 still required Rosetta 2 emulation.
The total with M1 support included apps that only had beta support, making the number with M1-compatible public releases even lower. Some of those in beta, like Adobe Photoshop, are missing significant features found in their non-beta equivalents.
The survey also noted that many developers were saying their apps run on M1 Macs while still requiring Rosetta 2 emulation: a statement that's technically true but also misleading. Developers who had explicitly updated their apps for the M1 touted them as some variation of the term "M1 native."
Prominent apps with early native Apple Silicon support include the Affinity suite, Adobe Lightroom, Zoom, Hazel, Keyboard Maestro, PCalc, and Reeder 5.
Universal 2 is a universal binary that works on Intel and Apple Silicon-based Macs. With the same binary developers can make apps that work on both platforms.
Third-party developers like Microsoft and Adobe have already begun building apps to work on the new chipset. The WWDC demo showed the new apps running easily even while editing 4K video live.
As Rosetta allowed PowerPC apps to run on Intel Macs, Rosetta 2 is fulfilling the same role to allow Intel apps to run on the new architecture.
Instead of a "just in time" (JIT) process that the original Rosetta used, Rosetta 2 does the heavy lifting on installation with the translation of the code, front-loading the processing load. Code in third-party browsers executing Java and similar other technologies are still using JIT technologies for execution.
As demonstrated at WWDC, Rosetta 2 is powerful enough to run some games built for Intel without significant issues.
Virtualization software also runs on Apple Silicon Macs, but the extent of what and how is not fully known yet. Apple has demonstrated Linux use through virtualization apps like Parallels desktop, and Parallels offers an M1-friendly variant of its software that can run ARM-based Windows.
M1 Macs don't support BootCamp for running Windows. Apple's Craig Federighi has said that it's up to you Microsoft whether to support M1 Macs with its desktop OS.
Apple mentioned that other platforms like Docker will also work on Apple Silicon and that devs will be able to take full advantage of the software.
M1 Mac Reviews
Response to the Apple Silicon in the Mac has been positive, both in subjective reviews and objective benchmarks. In AppleInsider's M1 MacBook Air review, we found it to be nearly as transformative as the original 2008 model.
This processor is competent in everyday tasks, but it is more than just launching apps and editing photos. The M1 makes significant changes to memory usage, the SSD, and even the built-in camera.
It makes comparing this Mac to the previous-generation MacBook Air more difficult because it isn't the same. Take memory. The previous machine could go up to 16GB of DDR4 RAM, but the new MacBook Air can have up to 16GB of what Apple calls unified memory. The memory is integrated into the M1 itself rather than being relegated to separate slots. This lets everything from the processor to the Neural Engine to access the shared memory.
As these components share the memory, it allows them to work together more seamlessly and ultimately results in increased performance.
The M1 also has an updated SSD controller, which, as you will see from the benchmarks, is also remarkably improved by more than 100 percent.
In Geekbench 5.3.1, the M1 MacBook Air pulled a 1693 and a 7195 on the single and multi-core tests. The previous-generation machine's base model earned a 1074 and a 2412, which means the M1 is almost 60 percent faster on single-core tasks and nearly 200 percent faster on multi-core tasks. Don't forget, though, the early-2020 MacBook Air was only a quad-core machine.
Looking at graphics, using the Compute benchmark running Metal, the M1 scored a 20284, which is about 250 percent improved over the 2019 model's 5853 score. That 2019 model relied on Intel Iris Plus graphics versus the eight-core M1 GPU. The eight-core GPU on the next-up model is even more capable than the entry seven-core GPU, but both still blow away the old scores.
If we look at disk speeds, the M1 with the T2-assisted storage controller can achieve write speeds around 2689 MB/s and read speeds around 2484 MB/s. Saving, copying, or otherwise manipulating files is blistering fast on this machine.
These aren't minor iterative increases in speed like we're used to. These are incredible jumps in performance that make real differences when using the machine."
We came to similar conclusions in our review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon:
It was even more impressive that this new M1 MacBook Pro could scream through such a task even faster than my year-old Intel 16inch MacBook Pro equipped with an 2.9GHz 6 core Intel i9, and with 32GB of RAM — twice as much as the M1 Mac. Yet the M1 still finished in 4:22 compared to 6:22 on the Intel Mac.
Even more impressively, the M1 MacBook Pro never got hot enough to kick on its fan, remaining entirely silent through the entire process. The Intel Mac started up its fans after just a couple minutes, and continued to run for several minutes after it finished the task.
I monitored the surface temperature of the two machines using an infrared thermometer. The M1 MacBook Pro reached a peak surface temperature of 97F (36C), while the i9 MacBook Pro was already at 104F (40C) just sitting at idle, and creeped up to 114F (46C) after 5 minutes into the task.
That indicates that the new M1 MacBook Pro isn't just more conservative with using its fan than previous Intel Macs. Instead, it actually doesn't need it as much. Apple ships the same chip in its new MacBook Air without a fan at all.
The result is not only a quieter computing experience, but also a much cooler back surface. Intel MacBooks can quickly get to the point where they are uncomfortably warm on your lap. In most of my testing, the MacBook remained nearly cool to the touch.
And of course, with less energy wasted on generating heat and turning on the fans to dissipate it away, the new M1 MacBook Pro can also run much longer without being recharged. Apple claims up to 20 hours while watching videos, twice that of its already impressive battery life on existing MacBook Pros.
This new massive jump in battery life really opens up how you can use the machine, making it much more convenient to use on the road and in situations like a remote job site, on a commute, or in a meeting where you might not have access to power.
However, note that while you are running on battery power the system will automatically take steps to conserve it, in some cases dialing back performance and dimming the display.
Even running conventional benchmarks like Geekbench 5, Affinity Photo's new graphics benchmark, and the newly updated Cinebench R23 for Apple Silicon didn't cause the MacBook Pro's fan to turn on.
Apple Silicon Benchmarked
Apple A-series chips have powered iPhone and iPad since the iPhone 4, and the most recent generations have proven to be as powerful as consumer laptops running Intel. While these are designed to be mobile-first with battery life as the primary concern, they still pack a punch.
Benchmarks across different system architectures are not representative of performance for each, but give a good snapshot of how performative a mobile device on ARM can be when compared to the aging Intel chips.
AppleInsider's benchmarks showed that the M1 is faster than nearly every Intel Mac chip. In single-core performance, the MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon outshined all of the Macs on test, with a 54% better Geekbench score than its nearest rival, the 16-inch MacBook Pro. This makes it faster than the Intel Core i9 and the Mac Pro's Xeon, a chip family considered a processing workhorse.
t's a somewhat similar story when you turn to the multi-core test, as the 7,395 achieved by the M1 is very impressive and beats the vast majority of the field. While it narrowly beats the 7,067 scored by the Core i9 in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, the Mac Pro's Xeon-W beat it with a 8,632 score.
For multi-core tasks, the M1 outpaced many Macs available today, and can keep pace with the high-performance processors used in the more premium end of the market. Only the Mac Pro's Xeon beat it in the multi-core benchmark.
These devices run the M1:
- 13-inch MacBook Pro
- 13-inch MacBook Air
- Mac mini
- 24-inch iMac
- iPad Pro
The A14 boasts a 6-core CPU and 4-core GPU in a 5 nanometer process. Benchmarks for the A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12 Pro score about 20% faster than the A13 in the iPhone 11 Pro.
An earlier benchmark claiming to be for the A14 listed a base frequency of 2.99GHz and 3.66GB of memory. It scored 1,583 points for single-core tests, while for multi-core it achieved 4,198 points, under Geekbench 5.2.3.
These devices run the A14 Bionic:
The 2.66GHz, 6-core processor scores 1325 single-core and 3382 multi-core in Geekbench 5. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with an 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor scores similar.
These devices run the A13 Bionic:
A12X Bionic and A12Z Bionic
The iPad-specific processors in the A12 series are unique in the fact that they are the same chipset. The A12Z is a re-binned A12X with the extra GPU core active. Because of this they score very similarly.
The single-core score is 1115 and multi-core is 4626 in Geekbench 5. The mid-range 16-inch MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i7 processor scores similar.
When placed within the Apple Developer Transition Kit, it scores single-core 1005 and multi-core 4555.
These devices run the A12Z Bionic:
The 2.5GHz processor scores 1106 single-core and 2687 multi-core in Geekbench 5. An iMac 4K with the Intel Core i5 scores similar.
These devices run the A12 Bionic:
The first Apple Silicon with a dedicated Neural Engine, thus dubbed "Bionic," scored 917 single-core and 2350 multi-core on Geekbench 5. The 2020 MacBook Air with the Intel Core i3 scores similar.
These devices run the A11 Bionic:
- iPhone 8
- iPhone 8 Plus
- iPhone X
The specs and year-over-year gains in Apple's mobile chipsets may hint at the degree to which the M1 and future Apple Silicon for Mac will improve.