Apple Announces First Macs Running On Arm Silicon: Enter the Apple M1
Apple Launches Arm-Based MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13, and Mac Mini
“On a momentous day for the Mac, Apple today introduced a new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini powered by the revolutionary M1, the first in a family of chips designed by Apple specifically for the Mac. By far the most powerful chip Apple has ever made, M1 transforms the Mac experience. With its industry-leading performance per watt, together with macOS Big Sur, M1 delivers up to 3.5x faster CPU, up to 6x faster GPU, up to 15x faster machine learning (ML) capabilities, and battery life up to 2x longer than before. And with M1 and Big Sur, users get access to the biggest collection of apps ever for Mac. With amazing performance and remarkable new features, the new lineup of M1-powered Macs are an incredible value, and all are available to order today.”
This new M1 SoC is built on a 5nm process and offers 8 CPU cores split into 4 performance and 4 efficiency cores, an 8-core GPU, a 16-core neural engine, and a unified memory architecture with 8GB standard / 16GB configurable, all of which add up to CPU performance “up to 3.5x faster” than the previous generation.
As reported by AppleInsider, the four M1 performance cores have a 192KB instruction cache, 128KB data cache, and a large 12MB shared L2 cache, with the efficiency cores offering 128KB/64KB of instruction/data cache and a shared 4MB L2.
On the Intel side the previous-gen MacBook Air’s Ice Lake processor offers 32 KB of instruction cache, 48 KB of data cache, and 512 KB L2 cache per core, for a total of 128 KB / 192 KB / 2 MB (plus 8 MB of L3 cache) for the quad-core i7 processor Apple compared this new M1 to.
The M1’s 8 GPU cores provide a total of 128 Execution Units (EUs), providing “up to 6x faster” graphics performance than the previous generation – which would be quite something considering the Ice Lake CPU’s integrated Gen11 graphics are quite performant.
Can Performance Really Be This Good?
Leading up to Apple’s official release today a Geekbench benchmark result from an unnamed Apple device was leaked, and AppleInsider’s report has been widely circulated in the days since. The headlines have been quite sensational, with “Leaked Apple ARM CPU benchmark beats Intel Core i9 16-inch MacBook Pro” (TechRadar) indicative of either stunning performance or a (perhaps) flawed reliance on a benchmark that favor’s Apple blend of hardware and OS software.
The (unverified) Geekbench result from this mystery “A14X” was compared to a Core i9-powered 16-inch MBP and a current A14 SoC by AppleInsider:
“The single-core benchmark for the “A14X” scored 1634 vs the A12Z at 1118. The A14 scored 1,583 points for single-core tests, which is expected as single-core results shouldn’t change much between the regular and “X” models.
The multi-core benchmark for the “A14X” scored 7220 vs the A12Z at 4657. The A14 scored 4198 for multi-core, which means the “A14X” delivers a marked increase in performance in the sorts of environments that the GeekBench test suite focuses on. The additional RAM and graphics capabilities boost this result much higher than the standard iPhone processor.”
For comparison, a 16-inch MacBook Pro with the Intel Core-i9 processor scores 1096 for single and 6869 for multi-core tests. This means the alleged “A14X” outperforms the existing MacBook Pro lineup by a notable margin.
It is convenient to think that a cross-platform benchmark like the ubiquitous Geekbench is a great way to compare both an Arm-based and x86-based processor’s performance, but there is quite a bit of complexity here. Apple has long enjoyed performance leads with their iPhone and iPad processors in Geekbench, with a particular emphasis on single-threaded performance that dominated the charts against even the fastest Arm SoCs from Qualcomm, Samsung, and Huawei.
Above Geekbench 5 Results via PCWorld
Apple has a major advantage as the producer of both the hardware and operating system software, and the single-threaded performance of their processors seems to be something that is highly optimized for at the OS level. This optimization is great if you’re using an Apple device, but it does complicate the “apples to apples” method of benchmarking hardware performance across platforms, considering Apple’s OS is not available on non-Apple hardware (I’m not going to go down the Hackintosh community rabbit hole here).
Moving forward as comparisons of the new M1-powered Mac systems will invariably be made, it should be noted that without access to the same OS, this is not a scenario that can be easily tested, so we need to wait until either Linux or Windows on Arm is running on this new Apple hardware before comparing synthetic benchmarks across different platforms.
Does Apple Have x86 By The Arm?
While operating system software needs to be identical for a proper hardware comparison, and a highly optimized instance of MacOS on Apple silicon is likely to skew favorably over even Apple’s own machine running MacOS an Intel processor, Apple is offering their own comparisons of an M1 chip vs. a quad-core MacBook Air from the previous generation (in this case an Intel Core i7-1060NG7, a configurable option with the Intel-based Air).
Apple’s reported gains of 2.3x to 3.9x in multi-threaded workloads against the quad-core i7-powered MacBook Air are quite impressive, though we are talking about applications that have presumably been compiled and optimized for MacOS on Arm. But if you’re a Mac user, that’s exactly what you want – developer support for a new architecture that offers great performance, and doesn’t bog down the system with a translation layer like Rosetta from the PPC/Intel transition (Rosetta 2 was also introduced today).
Ultimately this first step in Apple’s journey towards total vertical integration has implications beyond a platform change for a computer business with a small market share. Don’t laugh, but Windows already runs on Arm processors and a transition on the PC side is also possible. Of course application support would be the major hurdle for widespread adoption of Windows on Arm – something Apple’s transition could help to do, if only by popularizing the Arm platform in low-power notebooks.
Love or hate them, Apple is influential in the laptop space, and we could be seeing the first step away from x86 processors across the industry. And this obviously affects Intel more than anyone else. AMD processors are not available in any Apple computer, something that seemed like a miss when the newest Mac Pro was announced, but Intel has obviously been a part of every Macintosh sold since the transition from PowerPC began in 2006.