The M1 is here, and, contrary to the speculation of some who thought Apple might be out over its skis, it’s absolutely ready for prime time. There’s really no other way to look at it. Apple promised that its new Macs would be both faster and more efficient, and in real-world use, they definitely are. At least, that’s my assessment after using the lowest-end device, the MacBook Air.
I’m not going to belabor the benchmarks, there are plenty of places you can find those if that’s how you prefer to measure this sort of thing. The short version is that all three of Apple’s latest Macs, the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, are ridiculously faster than the Intel-based machines they replace.
That said, however, I’m not even sure Intel’s processor is entirely where Apple was aiming. I mean, it’s pretty clear that Apple’s new M1 processor is an indictment of Intel. Apple made no secret of the fact it had grown impatient with Intel’s ability to stick to its own roadmap. Specifically, Intel continues to fall behind its stated goal of using 5-nanometer transistors in its chips.
Apple, on the other hand, has been making chips for a decade, the latest of which–the A14, is the fastest smartphone processor ever. It’s also the first 5-nanometer chip used in any mainstream device and it currently powers the iPhone 12 and the fourth-generation iPad Air.
Last month, Apple introduced the M1, which is based on the same processor architecture, though with more CPU and GPU cores. More importantly, it’s made with the same 5-nanometer process. That’s important because that smaller process allows chips to be more efficient, meaning they get more performance for the same amount of energy.
Apple was clearly ready to be done with Intel after years of being unable to build the Mac is really wanted due to the lagging production schedules of the Intel Core processors it was using. To that end, Apple made its point. The M1 isn’t just a little bit faster or more efficient, it’s significantly so. So much, in fact, that it’s a little embarrassing.
But the real shot across the bow here is directed at Microsoft, which has tried to build its own ARM chip, a variant of Samsung’s Snapdragon. I’ve used several ARM-based PCs, including the Surface Pro X, the Samsung Galaxy Book S, and the Lenovo Flex 5G. Each of those has interesting reasons for existing, but none of them are ready for, well, prime time.
The difference between the two efforts is really quite staggering when you consider both Apple and Microsoft are trillion-dollar companies with very smart people who work there. And yet, Microsoft hasn’t been able to get most apps to run well on Windows on ARM. Adobe just released a beta of Photoshop this week. Until now you couldn’t even install it on an ARM laptop.
Photoshop hasn’t been updated for the M1 either, but it doesn’t matter. Apple’s emulation software, Rosetta 2, is so good that it runs as fast on this MacBook Air as it does on the 2020 27-inch, 8-core iMac sitting on my desk.
See, Apple made the M1 chip with its own devices in mind. It made them with its own operating system in mind. As a result, it was able to tailor both to provide the best performance for the things people actually do.
Microsoft, on the other hand, isn’t really a chip company, despite making some really nice hardware. It also has to build software that will work with literally hundreds of variations and system configurations–one of those being ARM. That said, Microsoft is working on an x86 emulation tool that it says will provide a significant performance boost for apps that haven’t been recompiled to run natively on ARM.
Except, as I already mentioned, Apple is doing this at launch for its new Macs. As in, it’s already available, and–aside from a one-time notification that asks if you want to install Rosetta 2–is entirely transparent to the user. Yes, some apps will run a little slower than they would if they were native, depending on which system resources they require, but they’ll still likely be fast enough that the difference will be inconsequential to users.
Apple takes a lot of heat for the control it exerts over its entire ecosystem. There are plenty of people who will tell you why Apple builds an inferior computer because users don’t have nearly as many options as they do with other manufacturer’s machines. Except, it turns out that in many of the ways that matter most to users, Apple’s way is better.
Unless, of course, you’re not a fan of faster, more efficient computers that just work–in this case, much faster than almost every alternative.