Opinion: Apple’s M1 chip is the best thing to happen in tech since the cusp of smartphones

Look Neil, it’s ARM-strong!

A lot of technological advancements come each year, many garner a favourable response from the audience but very few shift the very foundation of the tech Industry. Apple’s decision to jump on the ARM-based architecture for Macs is probably the most exciting thing I’ve read in all of 2020.

After last night’s unveiling, Tim’s cheeky grin must have lasted for a good 20hours because that’s how long the MacBook Pro 13in is claimed to last on battery. Keep in mind that we haven’t really experienced the laptops first hand and when we do, all of Apple’s claims will be put to test but till that happens I am not one bit sceptical about its future. Here’s why…

 

Throwing out the headphone jack, and now the charger, has really irked the average consumer in ways only Apple can get away with, why is that? Because the company has a totally different customer relation when it comes to selling products. Apple’s products are littered in weird price ranges. Their mobile phones and smartwatches will literally have you searching for the last dime in your bank but their laptops offer price-to-performance like no other laptop in the market. 

This also means Apple has the confidence of marking that high price because of longevity and because ‘iPhones just work’. No, seriously. This phrase has been thrown around since the beginning of the Apple and ARM relationship for iPhones. Apple has an architectural licensing deal with ARM which means they can build the Bionic processors for iPhone from the ground up. Much like Nvidia’s deal and even Samsung’s Exynos. And now the M1 chip for the Macs too. This gives Apple hardware and software control over their products, unlike other brands.

It’s also the reason why you see a lot of RAM plonked into Android phones, reaching a ridiculous number of 12GB at times, is because not all Android phones are made the same. Their hardware and software change drastically between brands. And Android as a software is more… universal. It even works with Intel chips. So optimisation is not really Android’s best virtue. 

Apple, on the other hand, has 1) the licensing with ARM to pick and choose what goes in the chip, 2) has software and hardware control to tweak and optimize the whole package. That’s why you’ll never hear Apple ranting about RAM in their smartphones. They don’t need to.

 

Wait, I was supposed to explain to you how this affects you and the laptops around you, right? Let’s go.

Coming back to computers and laptops. x86 chips require external GPU, RAM and I/O controllers to keep them going. So a PC will have a separate CPU, GPU and RAM connected via the motherboard. An ARM processor is much simple. It’s made to execute simple instructions and therefore can have all of the three on one chip itself. That’s why ARM chips are also referred to as SoC or System-on-Chip.

That simplicity also means it runs on very little Watt of power, making it perfect for smartphones and tablets. If it needs less juice, it’s less likely to heat up and won’t even need a fan to cool it. Almost, all x86 processor need a fan or a cooling unit. That’s why your smartphones don’t have fans in them. And now Apple has booted the fan out of the MacBook Air too.

So you can literally imagine a laptop being used as well as quickly and as efficiently as a smartphone. It will stay relatively cooler, perform faster and the year-on-year performance gains from newer chips will be bigger than Intels on the Macs. You can even expect the MacBook price tag to shoot up after a few years because we all saw that happening with the iPhones too. Once Apple gets confidence and rallies the devs on its side to make software for Macs M1 chips too, the premium price tag will undoubtedly seep in. On the dev side, apps which were being made for iPad and iPhone will be easier to port for MacBooks too. Apple says all iPad and iPhone apps and games will work with the M1 chip Apple Macs. The Intel architecture-based software will run on Apple Silicon Macs using the Rosetta 2 software.

 

But Khumail, this means the laptop will be slow. 

No, my friend. ARM-based processors can be fast and depending on how you tweak them, they’ll also need a fan if the going gets tough. The M1 chip MacBook Pro 13in has a fan for a reason. Apple has put the same M1 chip on both the laptops but its unclear how much power draw and clock speed they’re running on. It will most likely decide their fate in performance and set the two apart. Why else would you opt for the Pro if it had the same processor? Better battery life? That’s debatable if you’re next to a power source all the time. 

Anyway, it’s natural that the bang-for-your-buck MacBook Air is the first to get the shiny new M1 chip and also Apple wants the transition to be as smooth as possible. So jumping to 15in and 16in Pro devices can upset Apple’s cash cows, the actual Pro users.

And if you have any doubts about ARM-based processors underperforming, bear in mind that the faster supercomputer in the world is an ARM-based version. The Fugaku in Japan.

What are the downsides? Well firstly, this transition is going to take time. Depending on the resources and time of the developers, the software upgrades for M1 chips will come in hot or slow. Apple’s still selling the Intel-based Macs for anyone who wants to play it safe. The initial years with the M1 chip isn’t going to blow your socks off because Apple has strategically chosen to stick to entry-level devices for the M1 chip. This means people who opt for the M1 chip are going to be nerdy journalists like me that write thousands of words on a Google Doc. Or Photographers who tinker with colour and contrast from time to time using Lightroom.

Pro users and developers are going to ease into this transition because their use case will require Apple to slam a dedicated GPU, and maybe faster processor too. 

Whatever the future of computing holds, it’s going to change for the better and I couldn’t be happier. 

In this entire piece, I haven’t even mentioned the iPad’s performance compared to entry-level laptops. I have managed to edit a 4K video on the iPad Pro, which costs a lakh, but a similar priced PC will start limping with fan sounds louder than a passing airplane.