Apple’s New Mac M1 Chip Still Feels Like a Mystery
On a personal level, I’m still quite excited about the Apple Silicon Macs that were just announced, as new processor architectures are fascinating to me. But based on what the company told us on Tuesday, I’m not even sure what I’d be getting.
The problem comes down to the way Apple has chosen to describe things. Back in the Intel days, the company wouldn’t tell you the name of the processor that was being sold, just the line it was in and the clock speed.
Now, with the company’s new M1 chip—a marvel of numerous CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine cores—it doesn’t even tell you the clock speed anymore. The tech specs on the Apple website literally leave that part out, despite the fact that it’s still a metric on which people buy computers.
Part of this is a result of the fact that the ARM architecture on which Apple Silicon is built often uses a variety of core speeds—as Apple describes them, four performance cores and four efficiency cores. Part of this is that direct comparisons to Intel can be tough—and those clock speeds may not tell the full story about what these computers can actually do. (Clock speed is honestly less important these days, in much the same way that you never really think about whether a video game system has a 64-bit architecture anymore.
But so much of this is marketing. You kind of had to guess what you were really being sold by Apple’s slick pre-recorded production this time out. Sure, it told you what these machines were capable of—that they could knock the socks off of even discrete GPUs in comparable laptop computers, that the processors were faster and more efficient than their Intel-based competition. But you had to take Apple’s word for it, and Apple’s word involved vague giant numbers and charts, rather than overly detailed benchmarks. (I’m sure those are coming from other folks.
Still, this much we know: Apple released three systems this week—a MacBook Air, a Mac mini, and a 13-inch MacBook Pro. Price-wise, there were no real surprises, other than the Mac Mini dropping its base price by $100 to $699. But lost in these machines were upgradeability. Reading the spec sheet of the Mac Mini can at times feel like a case of spotting the weasel words—the device it’s replacing had upgradeable RAM, but this one has something called “unified memory architecture,” which Apple says is faster in its press release, but is also a way of saying you can’t upgrade it without replacing the entire machine. (The RAM is fused into the processor, see. “Faster” was also a selling point when Apple started fusing the SSD onto the board, yet PC-based NVMe drives have no problem far outpacing Apple’s own SSD offerings on the speed front while still letting you unscrew them from the board.
Call me a skeptic, but the rest of the industry is able to architect laptop and desktop hardware with upgradeability and repairability in mind, at least from a storage standpoint. Why can’t Apple?
The machines themselves were fine—no real upgrades to the design, minus a fanless chassis on the MacBook Air (which has a low-end model that drops a GPU core—not that you’d know what that means for performance!, and a focus on better battery life. Apple likely wants to get the Apple Silicon part right.
But it would sure be nice if Apple actually told us what we were getting in more measurable ways. Because right now it feels like it’s showing us a black box, with little understanding of how it will matter to the end user until it’s in their hands. We’ll find out eventually—journalists and benchmarkers will be able to stress-test all those big claims soon enough. But laptops are not smartphones—people actually care about the specific hardware inside of them. Apple’s vague discussion points, even on its technical specs page, do nothing but leave users guessing about a move they’re already apprehensive about.
In a way, a comedic bit at the end underlined the way that the lack of technical messaging threatens the company’s standing with its most hardcore users. As a surprise, the company brought out Daily Show alum and author John Hodgman, the PC part of its famous “Get a Mac” ads, which are old enough at this point to feel positively retro. The reason that sketch always worked was because his foil, actor Justin Long, was there as the cool, creative Mac counterpart. (It also helped that Apple was significantly ahead of PCs on the design front at that time.
Long was missing this time—and one has to wonder, given the fact that the PC market has grown so diverse in years since, if it’s because that kind of consumer is no longer Apple’s by default. That might be a problem.