By Jason Snell
April 21, 2021 5:14 PM PT
The Apple silicon transition reaches the iMac (and the iPad Pro)
Though the products themselves will mostly not be appearing until late May, Apple’s latest set of announcements is now in the rear-view mirror. And I’m struck by how much both the iMac and the iPad Pro roll-outs are really part of the larger story of the Mac’s transition to Apple silicon.
The Mac’s transition continues
The new 24-inch M1 iMac is exciting because it’s the first new Mac to debut since Apple unveiled the first Macs running Apple silicon last fall. That said, this feels more like an echo of that event rather than an entirely new chapter in the transition.
Essentially, the M1 iMac, M1 MacBook Air, and M1 Mac mini are the same computer. Sure, there are slight tech-spec variations here and there, but for the most part these four computers will all perform similarly. They’re just shaped differently to fit into different ecological niches.
We might want to get used to this. For all of Apple’s chipmaking prowess, it’s never made more than a couple of variations of its processors over the course of the year. Now that the Mac is in the mix, I suppose there will probably be more complexity than there used to be, but I wouldn’t expect an Intel level of chip variations. Apple varied Mac specs and offered different processor configurations because it could, because Intel offered those parts to Apple and it was a way to differentiate Mac models. I doubt we will see anything like that in this new era.
Which is not to say that there won’t be new chips, and variations on a theme. Obviously there will be a second Apple silicon chip for the Mac—we just haven’t seen it yet. And we haven’t needed to, because Apple has used the M1 to upgrade the four Macs that don’t require ultra high-end performance. It’s easy to get focused on the new iMac and lose sight of the fact that this is the small iMac, replacing the 21.5-inch model and priced starting at $1299.
We don’t know exactly what shape the Apple silicon chip strategy will take. Either Apple will build on the M1 with an upgraded variation that will be used in more powerful Macs, or it’ll just move on to its next-generation chip architecture and use those for new Macs. Either way, it’s clear that the larger iMac and the two high-end MacBook Pro models are on the clock. (As for the Mac Pro, I have no idea—that might be a 2022 kind of problem.)
If you’re tempted by the M1 iMacs, I don’t blame you. The M1 is a great processor, the previous M1 Macs have turned out to be as great as they seemed when they first arrived, and these iMacs bring color back to the line for the first time since the year 2000. Just keep in mind that if you scoffed at the speed of the M1 MacBook Air, these iMacs won’t be any faster—and there is undoubtedly a faster, larger Apple silicon iMac coming around the corner. My money’s on this fall.
iPad Pro: Back from the Mac
It’s pretty rich of Apple to sell the appearance of the M1 chip in the new iPad Pro as the goodness of the Mac rolling back to the iPad. The fact is, the M1 is the goodness of the iPad (it’s essentially the “A14X”, the evolution of the souped-up iPhone chip that Apple used to power the iPad) rolled back into the Mac. The iPad isn’t stealing the M1, it’s stealing it back.
It was obvious that the M1 chip would be the basis of the new iPad Pros. Again, Apple’s not going to be making entirely new chips willy nilly! The real question was how Apple would market it. I figured it would just call it the A14X chip and treat it like iPad releases of old. Instead, Apple decided that all the effort it has made to promote the M1 shouldn’t go to waste when it could be used to show just how powerful the new iPad Pro is.
I get it. It couldn’t be clearer that the iPad Pro is, for all intents and purposes, just as powerful as the new iMacs unveiled on the same day.
The problem is that the move also opens the door to comparing the iPad Pro to those M1 Macs. It makes it easier to ask the question, “If the iPad Pro has an M1, why can’t it do what my Mac does?”
Don’t get me wrong—I love the iPad. I wrote this article on an iPad Pro! I use my iPad all the time. But there’s no denying that the iPad has developed at a slower pace that maybe it should have, and that there are still all sorts of things that can’t be accomplished on the iPad, or can’t be accomplished as easily as they can be on the Mac.
I wrote about this on Macworld this week, and the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. In 2018 Apple released the first USB-C iPad Pro and the reviews were pretty uniform: It was a spectacularly powerful piece of hardware hamstrung by software that couldn’t really take advantage of that power. Apple has made progress in the intervening two iPadOS updates—you can see the contents of USB thumb drives now, and use a trackpad or mouse to navigate the interface.
But it’s been more than five years since Apple introduced the iPad Pro, a product with “pro” right there in the name, and yet Xcode, Logic Pro, and Final Cut Pro still don’t run on the iPad. I’ve written this before, but forgive me: How can Apple expect people to take the iPad seriously as a “pro” device if its own professional-level apps don’t take it seriously? Sure, there are some great pro-level media apps on the iPad, but that’s not the point. The point is that Apple’s hardware group is happy to churn out amazing iPads, but the software side either doesn’t care or has utterly failed to meet the challenge.
This year’s WWDC is just around the corner. It’ll arrive just a few weeks after the new iPad Pro ships. I’m going to hold out hope that maybe iPadOS 15, which should be announced then, will pour in a bunch of new iPad features that will fulfill the promise of the iPad Pro’s hardware. And who knows, maybe Apple will even announce a professional app or two? But if history is any guide, what we’ll get is a few scraps of new iPad features that fail to address some of the platform’s most gaping holes, and we’ll spend the next couple of years lamenting that Apple has made an amazing piece of hardware that nobody can actually take advantage of.
But here we are. Apple chose to call the chip in the new iPad Pro the M1. Maybe that decision is part of a larger roll-out of iPad features that will blow us away. I sure hope so. But after 2018, I’m not counting on it.