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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Fun With Charts, Apple Silicon edition

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

I’ve been thinking about this chart since it appeared in Apple’s WWDC keynote last month.

On one level, it’s a meaningless bit of marketing fluff. There are no labels. The vast breadth of notebooks and desktop PCs is represented by two perfect rounded rectangles. “Macs with Apple Silicon” are represented by a fuzzy gradient of squares. What does it mean?

It’s a question that won’t be answered until after the Betas of Summer have gone. It’ll be a while before we get a clear picture of what the first Macs of this new era will look like. We don’t have a lot to go on… but there is this chart.

So here’s what it implies:

Macs with Apple Silicon will largely be faster than existing notebooks. This isn’t too far-fetched, given Apple’s claims about the superior performance of the 2018 iPad Pro when it was announced. If the iPad Pro is faster than most PC laptops, wouldn’t it stand to reason that even the slowest of the new generation of Macs would be as fast or faster than the competition?

Let’s not forget how Apple’s pride factors in to this transition. If Apple releases a Mac that’s not any faster than the Intel-based competition, that reflects poorly on the prowess of Apple’s processor design. I firmly believe that Apple would never initiate a processor transition like this unless it was confident that its chips would end up looking like world-beaters.

Some Macs with Apple Silicon will offer lower power consumption than existing notebooks, at the same or greater performance. What Apple chooses to do with that power efficiency is an open question, however. It could use it to shave some size and weight off its batteries while maintaining the same quoted battery life totals as current models. It could use it to boost its battery-life claims to new heights. Or it could spend that energy savings on additional performance, so that the next-generation Macs are that much faster than the competition.

It seems unlikely that Apple will go all in on any of these strategies. Instead, I’d expect it to strike a balance. Ultimately, it will want to make lighter and thinner laptops that offer more power and longer battery life than the previous generation.

Macs with Apple Silicon can offer Desktop-beating performance with dramatically lower power consumption. What does a desktop computer (or a high-end laptop) running an Apple-designed ARM processor look like? The iPad can be at least a rough analog for a laptop, but no iPad or iPhone has ever been asked to match up with a high-performance PC before. “No problem,” Apple’s vague chart proclaims. “Our gradient extends above Desktops, while remaining far to the left on power consumption.”

We’ll see what Apple’s got up its sleeve when it comes to more high-end applications. But I will remind you that the A12X and A12Z processors that power the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pro, respectively, are eight-core processors with seven- and eight-core graphics processors. Do you know what Mac models currently offer eight-core processors? The highest-end configuration of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, the iMac Pro, and the Mac Pro.

Now, you can’t gauge performance by counting cores any more than you can gauge image quality by counting megapixels. The A12 processors use two different kinds of cores, four geared toward energy savings and four geared toward performance, and the system can use those cores as needed given its current needs. But I do think it’s interesting that Apple has been gradually ramping up its core count on its processors, as it spins off more duties into integrated coprocessors like the Neural Engine (used for machine-learning tasks).

It wouldn’t be surprising, then, for Apple to announce a new Mac processor that’s got a large number of processor cores, some of which would be able to sip power to extend MacBook Pro battery life, and some of which would crank up as fast as possible in moments of true power-user need.

At least, that’s how I read Apple’s chart. We’ll all see how reality matches up later this year.

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