Apple has recently released the new 2020 MacBook Pro, and the reception of it so far has been very positive. Apple’s new M1 chips have allowed their flagship line of laptops to operate at a cooler temperature while not compromising on performance. Indeed, it’s easy to see why many are considering this to be a solid release. However, many people may view it as little more than just that, when in fact, this is an undoubtedly major milestone for Apple. In fact, this is arguably their most important ideation of the MacBook Pro in over a decade. But why exactly is it such a big deal? Why is there so much talk about it in the tech world, and what sets it apart from the 2019 MacBook Pro (or even their earlier 2020 lineup)?
Before we talk about the new MacBook itself, we need to go over some brief history to discuss how we got to where we are today, and why this new release is such a big deal.
15 Years Earlier: Apple Switches to Intel Processors
At the 2005 Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would be transitioning their Macintosh line of computers from the PowerPC CPU architecture (which they had been using for just over a decade) over to the more common Intel x86 architecture. While this wasn’t the first time Apple had switched CPU architectures, it was still extremely big news, in part because Apple had actually helped to create PowerPC in the early 1990s in a joint venture between themselves, IBM, and Motorola as an alternative to Intel’s x86 architecture. However, by the early 2000s, Apple and PowerPC were beginning to drift more and more apart, and Apple was beginning to have a hard time seeing a future with the architecture.
The biggest influencing factor in this decision was arguably the PowerPC G5 CPU, which was featured in Apple’s own PowerMac G5 and iMac G5 systems, released in 2003. The G5 was an incredibly powerful 64-bit CPU for the time, and the aforementioned Apple systems were the first ones to include it. And this, by extension, actually made these systems the first 64-bit consumer-grade computer hardware on the market. But while the G5 may have worked extraordinarily well in these machines, Apple was having a much more difficult time trying to figure out how the chip would work in their line of laptops. Due to the G5’s design, Apple would need to retrofit their machines to be larger, heavier, and noisier (due to more powerful fans being required to cool the chip). But a loud, bulky laptop sounds like the exact opposite of the thin, streamlined products that Apple is known for, and they themselves had no intention or interest in releasing such a machine. The G5 was simply not going to work on a laptop, so Apple needed to find another solution.
It was also around this time that AMD was gearing up to release the first x86-64 CPUs for PCs. These chips were notable for being the first 64-bit processors that included full backwards compatibility for the traditional Intel x86 architecture. This was one of the main things that had been preventing 64-bit from being adopted in the PC, and AMD had figured out a way to address this problem without compromising on performance for 32-bit applications. While this backwards compatibility was not really important to Apple, what they did care about was that these new chips were powerful, and could easily be adopted into a laptop form factor.
So Apple began to strongly consider the idea of shipping their computers with these new x64-based CPUs, and they eventually settled on the Intel Core Duo, which was released in 2006 (it was with this release where they rebranded their products, renaming the PowerBook to the MacBook and the Power Mac to the Mac Pro). These machines performed decently well, and ultimately proved that x86 was up to the task for Macintosh (at least for the time being).
However, as time went on, issues started to pop up with Intel CPUs on the MacBook Pro, and these issues were becoming more and more difficult to ignore. The biggest problem was that these chips were getting hot. The MacBook Pro started to get a reputation for producing a lot of heat, as Apple’s slim design did not allow for adequate airflow for Intel’s CPUs. This problem got so bad in fact that Apple was forced to adjust the clock speed of the processors they were using in order to prevent them from overheating. But this was not an ideal solution, as the heat would eventually take its toll on the machines over time, and it also meant that a PC laptop of the same specs was objectively faster than the MacBook Pro.
So Apple once again found themselves in need of another solution; however they did not have to look very far to find it. Despite its incredibly compact form factor, the iPhone was not experiencing the same overheating issues as the MacBook Pro, and this could be largely attributed to its ARM-based processors. And so, Apple began plans to switch the Macintosh over to the same ARM architecture as the iPhone, further unifying their two product lines.
Present Day: A New Architecture Once Again
Going back to today, Apple has finally brought their vision of an ARM-based Mac into fruition. These new machines feature a chip of their own design: The Apple M1. As previously mentioned, this new silicon is built on the same ARM architecture seen in the iPhone, except it has been retrofitted and designed specifically for desktop devices. Despite the fact that they are essentially using a mobile chip for their desktop line, they are not compromising on performance.
The M1 is an 8 core CPU with 12 MB of shared L2 cache, 128-192 KB of instruction cache, and 64-128 KB data cache. In addition, the chip uses a 5nm process; making these new MacBooks the first laptops to ever achieve this. It also includes the 16 core Apple Neural Engine, which gives the new silicon some decent machine learning capabilities.
As for graphics, M1 MacBooks will feature 7-8 core (depending on the system), 2.6 teraflop GPUs with 128 execution units. Apple also claims can that it execute up to 25,000 threads per second. So while it may not be quite suitable for things like AutoCAD or some more hardcore gaming, it should be more than up to the task for basic 3D-rending and streaming 4k videos.
What Does This Mean for The Future?
Now the switch to a new architecture is big news in and of itself, but what implications does this have for the rest of the computer industry? So far, the M1 has been performing very well. If it proves to be a capable CPU for laptops in the long run, we could end up seeing more and more manufacturers switch over to ARM. Intel losing Apple was likely a pretty big blow to them, however if other manufacturers begin to switch over as well, then Intel and their x86 architecture could be standing on shaky ground in the long run.
If PCs were to switch over to ARM, this would likely be done to simplify software development (especially when developing phone software using a desktop) and to reduce costs. Additionally, since ARM chips are already designed for mobile, they could be great for laptops if the M1 proves them to be viable. Chromebooks would most likely be pretty easy to switch over to ARM, since almost everything on a Chromebook is done through the web. But even Microsoft has made ARM versions of Windows 10, and these versions even include limited x86 emulation.
This probably won’t be the end of x86 entirely, however it could potentially lead to a greatly reduced x86 marketshare. Though, this will be a gradual change (if it does happen at all) and x86 will likely continue to dominate the PC market for years to come. Backwards compatibility is still extremely important to many people, so as long as there is a need for that, x86 will probably not go away anytime soon (at least not until ARM is capable of accurate and reliable x86 emulation). In the end, we’re just going to have to wait and see what happens. Though, either way, the release of the M1 chip seems to be painting a pretty bright future for both Apple and ARM.