Picking Apart Apple's "One More Thing" Announcements

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Intro

Today, Apple held what is probably its final live event of the year: "One More Thing". True to its title, this announcement consisted of one thing: the M1, Apple's first custom chip, and the new Macs that will be powered by it.

If you regularly read my summary articles, you'll know that I'm not afraid to editorialize a bit. Well, be ready for more of that than usual. I'll tell you what Apple said, as well as some details other media outlets have found since the big announcement. I'll also be explaining what I feel was absent from what Apple told us, and why, more than almost any other Apple product launch I can think of, you should wait for the reviews before you buy one of these Macs. Oh, and remember that all the numbers given are what was claimed by Apple. No one in the world outside of Cupertino can verify any of this.

We're going to be talking about processors a lot, because that was the focus of today's event. It's important that we cover some terms first, so you know what's going on.

When I talk about a "chip", I'm referring to what's known as an SoC, or system on a chip. This refers to a set of components that are all housed on a single piece of metal. The M1 chip is an SoC, because it houses two types of CPU core, graphics cores, neural engine cores, the security enclave for Touch ID and encryption, and other bits and pieces. Often, such a setup is called a processor, even if that's arguably not correct. As you read, remember that the M1 (which I might call a chip, processor, or SoC) is basically the brain of the Mac, and handles all the math the computer has to run in order to do anything. Parts of the M1 are made for specific tasks, which is why there are three types of core.

By contrast, the Intel chips that power the Macs you might be used to are less complex. Most of them include CPU and graphics cores, but that's it. There is no neural engine, and the security chip is separate from the Intel chip.

Finally, many Macs include what is called a discrete graphics card. This means that the CPU handles the general computing tasks, while the graphics card, which is a physically separate component, does all the graphics work. In general, discrete graphics chips take more power and can put off more heat, but they make graphics-intensive work much faster.

That should be enough to get you through this article, I hope. Ready? Okay, let's do this.

The M1 Chip

Apple has revealed the heart of its newest line of Macs. It's a new chip called the M1. The company has applied its years of developing top-performing chips for iPhones and iPads to the Mac, and if their claims are even close to true, they've hit this one out of the park.

The M1 is built on a 5NM architecture, just like the A14 in the latest iPhones. It has eight cores, split into four high performance and four high efficiency. The former handle the heavy lifting during intense workloads, while the latter are meant for lighter tasks, as they use only a tenth of the power. Sixteen neural engine cores are next, allowing the M1 to chew through machine learning and AI tasks with ease. Eight graphics cores (well, up to eight) round out the processing, making up a graphics package that Apple says is faster than the integrated graphics of any processor on the market.

The M1 is crazy fast, according to Apple. Just its high efficiency cores are almost as fast as all the computing power available on a dual core MacBook Air, and those are the low-power cores that aren't meant to do the heavy lifting. Add the rest of the cores, as well as the neural engine and graphics, and the M1 leaves Intel in the dust. Apple said that the MacBook Air with the M1 inside can be up to 3.5 times faster in computing than the dual core Air, and up to six times faster in graphics. Despite this massive leap, the M1 uses a quarter of the power that an Intel-based Air does, letting it get up to fifteen hours of browsing, or eighteen hours of video playback--and it does it all without a fan.

Other claims about the M1 include that it has the fastest integrated graphics of any processor in the world, that it is faster than 98% of the laptops sold in the last year, that it is the most efficient processor ever made, and that it is the fastest low-powered processor out there. As mentioned in the intro, all of these claims have yet to be verified, and there's more to consider than theoretical numbers when we're talking about using an M1 in the real world. Still, it can't be denied that if the M1 is even close to the claims made today, Apple has done some incredible things.

New Macs with M1

Now we come to the part you really care about: the new shinies you can actually buy. The M1 SoC is included in three Mac models, all available to pre-order right now, to be shipped next week. The MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini are all getting the M1 treatment.

The MacBook Air has fewer graphics cores, and may have its M1 clocked at a slightly slower speed, but Apple is excited about all it can do. We've already talked about this machine's battery life, and that it doesn't use a fan to keep itself cool. What I haven't mentioned is that it includes two USB-C ports, an enhanced screen, and an improved camera sensor. Note that the camera itself is still the 720P module that many users are desperate for Apple to improve, but the thought is that the better image processor and AI power of the M1 will let macOS use software to improve the image. The Air starts at $999, just like its Intel-based cousin.

The MacBook Pro has all eight graphics cores and, I assume, a faster clock speed. It gets about two more hours of battery life than the Air, putting it at an impressive seventeen hours of browsing the web using wifi. It also comes with an improved microphone array. From what I can tell, the Pro has two USB-C ports just like the Air, though these support USB 4 speeds as well as Thunderbolt. You can drive an 8K monitor with one of those ports if you want to, and the M1 will handle it without a problem. Like the Air, the price of the new Pro is unchanged: it starts at $1299. Note that only the 13-inch Pro is available with the M1 chip for now.

Finally, we come to the Mac Mini. This machine loses a few ports, and, oddly, now only comes in silver. It received a price drop, starting at $699. That makes it the cheapest way to get into the M1 game.

Big Sur, or macOS 11, will be released on November 12. While it will run on any modern Mac, it has been optimized for the M1 chip. Safari is much faster, apps launch almost immediately, it has an instant-on feature that makes it as fast to be ready as an iPad or iPhone, and all its apps have been tuned to run smoothly and quickly on the M1.

Now, About that M1...

Okay, we've gotten all the claims, details, and products out of the way. What does all this mean, or what could it mean, for you?

There's a lot to like. The M1 is similar enough to the chip in an iPad or iPhone that any iOS app can be run on an M1-powered Mac, Developers can optimize their apps, of course, but right out of the box, you can toss an app on your new Mac and it will at least run. In addition, no Mac has ever had access to the level of machine learning power that the M1 offers, so a lot of small things across macOS are going to run much faster. Plus, Apple's own apps, and apps made specifically for the M1 by other developers, will run quite nicely, giving you that amazing battery life.

My first problem with Apple's claims is that they're comparing apples to oranges, and no, I'm not sorry for that joke. Let's look at this idea that the M1 is faster than 98% of all laptops sold in the last year. Faster at what, exactly? Faster across the board, or in a single benchmark Apple wrote themselves? Faster with what thermal considerations? With what hardware upgrades to the non-Apple notebooks? In what price brackets? Honestly, this is a meaningless claim, since we don't know anything about how it was tested.

Okay, then, what about the M1 being up to 3.5 times faster than a dual core Intel MacBook Air? Again, under what conditions? You see, there's a big issue that Apple didn't talk about: emulation. Yes, Mail or Safari will run natively on the M1 chip, but a lot of apps won't. Those apps were written to run on Intel chips, so macOS will have to emulate an Intel chip to let that code work right. The system that handles this is called Rosetta 2.

When you emulate something like this, you introduce a lot of overhead. The computer isn't just doing what an app tells it to, it's having to constantly translate what the app wants into what the M1 will understand, then translate what the M1 says in reply back to something the Intel-based code can understand. We don't know how big a toll Rosetta 2 will take on the M1's performance. The thing is, at least for a while, most people will be using their favorite apps through this emulator. How much will that cut down on Apple's performance numbers? If most of someone's work is done in apps that run in Rosetta 2, and those apps aren't likely to be converted to work natively on the M1, should that person buy an Intel-based Mac instead?

Then there are the graphics claims. Intel has never been great at integrated graphics, but Apple only compared the M1 to integrated graphics when it talked about performance. Even a modestly powerful discrete graphics card is a lot better than the graphics an Intel chip has to offer. When Apple says the M1 has six times faster graphics, which Intel CPU is it talking about, and how does the M1 stack up to a discrete video processor? Should someone who needs power for video editing or modeling opt for the M1, or a high-end MacBook Pro with Intel and discrete graphics?

Conclusion

I am honestly excited to see where Apple takes the new generation of Mac. Now that iOS and iPadOS apps can run on macOS, and the silicon inside most Macs is almost the same as what's already inside Apple's mobile products, who knows what will happen? Will iPads run macOS one day? Will Macs get touch screens? Will consumers eventually buy an Apple computer, which is sold in sizes from a small iPhone up to a huge iMac, with the only choices being screen size and color? I have no idea, but I can't wait to find out!

That said, today's introduction to this new future was overshadowed by the lack of concrete details, at least for me. When a new iPhone comes out, it gets compared to the previous iPhone, and it's easy to judge whether upgrading is worth it. It's not the same when we're talking about comparing the M1 to an Intel CPU, though, which is fine. The problem is that Apple never said which Intel CPU was being used. They also failed to explain the differences between the M1 in the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini. Oddly, there was no mention of the storage size or other configurations for the new Macs. The presentation focused on the M1, which is fine, but we got so few details that it felt like the new Macs were secondary. I don't expect benchmarking details from Apple, believe me. I know the company prefers generalities in marketing materials whenever possible. For an event like this, though, which seemed aimed at developers and enthusiasts more than the average consumer, a few details would have been nice. Even a webpage released after the presentation, explaining the comparisons and claims, would have been enough.

This is almost certainly a case where those who buy an M1-powered Mac are going to be beta testing the platform for Apple. That's fine, but you should know that it's the case before you buy. I strongly recommend waiting at least a few weeks, until the reviews and real-world benchmarks come in. Maybe the M1 will be a dud, but I suspect the truth will be much more complicated. I'd guess that it will wildly out-perform Intel in some areas, and be soundly beaten in others. I'd also guess that Rosetta 2 will impose a noticeable, but not severe, performance penalty. Basically, I expect the M1 to live up to the claims more often than not, despite the lack of details today.

In short, be excited and intrigued by the M1, and be ready to try it out once the reviews are in. Don't believe the hype from today's announcements, though, until we know more about how Apple got those numbers. If you want to know whether to buy an M1 Mac or an Intel one, hold off three or four weeks and see how things shake out.

Now that you've read this rollercoaster, how do you feel? Are you itching to be the first to try the M1, or will you give it a month or two? Will you skip this first generation entirely, and wait for the M2, or whatever comes next? Do you plan to stick with Intel Macs?

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Comments

Submitted by Matthew Whitaker on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

First of all, amazing review of the entire event! :-)
I am personally excited for the Mac mini. I have a 2018 model... I love it and use Logic Pro X. I'm also super excited about the M1 chip as well.
Hope to try the Mac mini out one day. :-)

Submitted by Herbie Allen on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

While I'm not looking to upgrade my Mac anytime soon, I wonder something about their immolator. Would Bootcamp be supported? One concern with the new Macs is they are moving to an Arm based System which would affect standard versions of Window's. Does this Rosetta 2 change that dynamic?

Submitted by mehgcap on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

In reply to by Herbie Allen

As far as I know, Bootcamp will not be supported at all. No one is sure what will happen to programs like Parallels or VMWare, though. No, Rosetta 2 doesn't change the state of Windows. It is meant to run Mac apps that are built for X86 processors. I'm sure people will try to get Windows to work with it, but then you'd have double virtualization. It'll be interesting to see if companies can get their own virtualization software written to run natively on Apple silicon. As with the rest of today's news, I think the best bet here is to wait and see what happens.

Submitted by Chris on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

I've read that Rosetta 2 doesn't support X86 virtualization. This means you can't run Windows or most Linux distributions in a VM. I beleieve only ARM virtualization will be supported. Perhaps ARM Linux distributions can run natively, but we'll have to wait and see. Microsoft has an ARM port of Windows 10, but it's only licensed to hardware manufacturers. It also has many limitations, the biggest being the inability to run 64-bit X86 software. Microsoft hasn't said anything about Windows on the new Macs, so we'll have to wait and see.

I'm not interested in these machines. They've become even more proprietary, and if VoiceOver is still buggy, I'm definitely not investing in a system where I can't run other operating systems.

Submitted by Holger Fiallo on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

If no fan? Where is the heat coming out?

Submitted by Holger Fiallo on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Forgot to add. What about finger print scan or face ID? Is the old keyboard that people were complaining in the new mac? People talking about how it will handle games. What is a Mac Mini? If she related to iPhone mini or mini mouse?

Submitted by mehgcap on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

In reply to by Holger Fiallo

Heat will be dissipated through the chassis on the Air, just as it is in an iPad. The Pro has a fan. I believe the Mini is cooled passively, like the Air. The M1 will be tuned to not run so hot that this becomes a problem.

Touch ID is included on both M1-powered MacBook models. Both also have the new keyboard introduced in last year's MacBook Pro upgrade, and this year's MacBook Air. They don't use the butterfly keyboard that was so disliked.

The Mac Mini is a desktop Mac that has no keyboard or monitor. It's Apple's version of a standard computer tower, though it's very small by comparison to most desktops.

Submitted by Rixon Smith on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

My subject does say it all. I would love to have this type of processor on the Mac except for one thing, how to upgrade products from other blindness companies such as the Braille orbit writer when you cannot use windows on a Mac. since Apple is going towards this type of machine, I believe that it should be required for them to make software that works better on a Windows platform to use with the iPhone or at least make their iCloud services more accessible through the windows environment.

Submitted by Bruce Harrell on Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Trade magazines indicate each of the new computers comes with 16g ram period. There is no option to increase ram in the new models.

There are also 2 new keys on the Air keyboard but not on the Pro because Apple intends customers use the Touch Bar.

Submitted by Khushi on Thursday, November 12, 2020

I'll go for windows for now. I'm using windows right now. but some day I'd love to own a mac. they might be way too costly right now and I think I can use windows for 4-5 years now and then look again at the macs if things will improve in that period.
by the way, I never knew that Mac Mini was a desktop! all this while reading the comments I was wondering how do you use a laptop without the moniter! :)

Submitted by Pepper Fox on Thursday, November 12, 2020

I might as well put my two cents in here. I'm happy that Apple is finally showing the Mac some love. That said, I do have some criticisms.

For starters, I'm disappointed in the lack of a redesign. Perhaps this first generation's goal is to get the hardware into consumers' hands and out of the lab. That's a good start, but Apple needs to do more to prove that it actually cares about the Mac.

I'm also confused about their decision to include the same chip in all the new Macs. This is a bad idea for consumers since they'll see "M1" on every Mac and just go for the cheapest one, not considering that a MacBook Air will have considerably less cooling (and less performance due to throttling) compared to a MacBook Pro or Mac Mini.

The fact that all Macs will have 16 gigs of RAM is also a little odd. It's more than enough for Mx. Average Consumer, but that's going to get limiting for anyone looking to do heavier workloads... like opening more than three Chrome tabs. I kid, but it's still a concern.

Lastly, I didn't leave Mac OS in a good state. That includes Catalina and the Big Sur betas, and this website has taught me that the deficiencies in Voiceover for Mac OS go back many, many years. A developer friend tells me about her struggles in reporting accessibility bugs to Apple, only to be told "Meh. We might fix it. Figure it out yourself in the meantime".

All that said, I think most of these problems will be ironed out over the course of the transition. Apple will probably differentiate the Mac tiers in other ways, and I imagine they'll produce SKUs with more memory options in the future. If I were a 2 trillion-dollar company (possibly bent on world domination) who was switching away from the industry-standard, damn-near ubiquitous, x86 PC architecture, I'd be careful about it too. I'd get one product out there at first to seed it to users and developers. Then I'd branch out and fill the product stacks. My only real worry is Mac OS itself. My previous experience was poor, despite my best efforts and intentions. Once the honeymoon period wore off, I found a lot of frustration and an experience that was simply not satisfactory. I hope Apple's engineers fix bugs. I hope their accessibility team gives the Mac the love it deserves. I want it to succeed, hard as that may be to believe with all my whining. Right now, I'm skeptical that they can polish Mac OS, but I'm also that one grumpy lady who swears loudly at everything. The silicon team (probably) pulled through. Maybe the software and accessibility teams will too. I've seen the dev kit benchmarks. If the M1 chip is as good as that, and they can sort out their software, Macs will be pretty nice. No way I'm going near any Macs for the next two years though. Keep your Rosetta and universal binaries. I'll wait.

Submitted by Carter Wu on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Hi All,
I noticed that the new Mac’s M1 chip allows the Mac to have the same neural network engine as the iPhone and iPad.This is really exciting news.For the visually impaired users who use VoiceOver, the screen recognition function realized by the neural network engine is great. If it can appear on the Mac in the future, it is really a very happy thing.So let us look forward to this day together!

Submitted by PaulMartz on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Before I retired, I worked for a couple different computer manufacturers and saw first-hand how the marketing department carefully crafted every word in product rollout announcements to make the product sound as good as possible while simultaneously including as little actual hard data as possible. Apple's marketing hype about the M1 chip and updated products that include it are no different.

I wanted to hear this announcement before I updated my 2012 MacBook Pro. Now that I've heard the announcement, I've decided to buy an Apple refurbished 2018 Mac Mini rather than the new M1 Mac Mini.

Submitted by Ekaj on Friday, November 13, 2020

Ya know that saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well, I'm sticking with this Mac until it croaks. The only problem I'm having is with my external hard drive, and I've got to try some other things and perhaps get some outside assistance. Virtually nobody around here uses Macs it seems, and fewer people still use VoiceOver here. But having said that, I'm looking forward to updating to Big Sur probably tomorrow. One question though. Wasn't there some sort of EchoII Emulator out there? I heard a little bit about it awhile back, and am rather curious about it. Big Sur sounds like it'll be good. I've also got to get back to my parents' place at some point in the next few weeks and work with a sister on this stuff. Perhaps the winter holidays will afford me that opportunity, since I'm unlikely to see relatives in person due to the pandemic. But then again, social engagements here in my building have more or less been demanding my attention. Zoom and FaceTime will perhaps come in very handy during this time.

Submitted by Kevin Shaw on Friday, November 13, 2020

Based on how I use my MacBook Pro, I'll likely upgrade as soon as feasible to take advantage of the M1's battery life. My workload is mostly centred around Apple's ecosystem and apps with a few minor exceptions that aren't that processor intensive.