Apple took its first step in transitioning away from Intel with the release of its M1 chip, an Arm-based processor built for Macs.

The M1 system-on-chip (SoC) is a first for Apple and built using 16 billion 5nm transistors. It comes with an 8-core CPU, an 8-core GPU and a 16-core neural engine. The CPU is split into four performance cores and four efficiency cores, a division similar to the SoCs used for its smartphones. The performance cores would kick in under intense workload like encoding, while the efficiency cores handle light tasks like emails. Power consumption wise, the efficiency cores draw a tenth of the power of the performance cores.

New CPU, new GPU, new neural engine. All image credit: Apple.

Apple touted that its new processor has the highest performance to power ratio of today’s processors. The performance cores are supposedly twice as fast as the latest PC laptop chip and deliver the same performance at a quarter of the power. Furthermore, the company said that the efficiency cores alone deliver comparable performance to the current generation dual-core MacBook Air. Apple also claims that its integrated GPU delivers twice the performance of the latest PC chip while drawing less power.

As always, take these metrics with a dose of skepticism as Apple didn’t specify what systems it was compared to. Most of the applications come from Apple’s productivity suite. Applications that are not yet optimized for Apple’s silicon may not see the same performance benefit.

On battery life, Apple said the M1 chip’s efficiency enables the longest battery life in a Mac ever. Apple’s poster boy is the new MacBook Pro 13. Equipped with the M1 chip, it reached 20 hours of continuous video playback in one of Apple’s demos.

According to Apple, the 15-core neural engine can execute up to 11 trillion operations per second, and the entire chip is built for machine learning. It should accelerate workloads like video analysis and voice recognition.

A unified memory architecture allows all of the SoC’s subsystem to access the same data without needing to copy them.

The M1 also combines I/O, security, and DDR4 system memory into one package for a unified memory architecture. Apple explained that creating a single pool of high-bandwidth, low-latency memory lets all the subsystems on the SoC access the same data without copying them between isolated memory pools, thus improving performance and efficiency. Apple’s Security Enclave, a new media encode and decode engine, and Thunderbolt/USB 4 support is also part of the package.

Apple says the M1 chip provides a three-fold performance leap gen-on-gen.

The M1 chip will work in tandem with Mac OS “Big Sur”. In its demo, Apple said that Safari is up to 1.9 times more responsive, and claimed that Big Sur comes with advanced power management that intelligently allocate tasks between the cores. Most importantly, because the M1 chip is built on the same architecture as the Apple A-series SoCs, Big Sur now supports iOS apps on Macs.

From the left: Apple MacBook Air, MacBook 13, and Mac Mini.

The Apple M1 chip will debut in the new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13, and Mac Mini–three different form factors in both passive and active cooling solutions. The MacBook Air, Pro, and Mac Mini start at CA$1,300, CA$1,700, and CA$900 respectively, all of which are available today and ship next week. Note that the base MacBook Air has one less graphics core than the rest of the products, which all come with an 8-core GPU.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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