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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Enter the M1 – Notes on Tuesday’s big event

Tim Cook can sit anywhere he wants.

Picking up where Dan left off and before I clock out for the night, here are some other quick thoughts about the day’s events.

A first step. Apple said it themselves in their video event Tuesday: The M1 is a “first step” into a “family of chips” that will power future Mac models. This really is the performance floor of the Apple silicon on Mac story. To start the transition Apple has chosen low-end models that can squeak by with a maximum of 16 GB of RAM, only two Thunderbolt ports, no support for discrete graphics or external GPUs, and any number of other features that are lacking from the M1.

The future is promised to nobody, but it seems premature to assume that just because the M1 doesn’t support your favorite higher-end Mac feature, it’s been canned. Presumably this transition story ends with an Apple silicon-based Mac Pro, so Apple is going to be ramping up. These are the baby steps.

Look for the Intel Macs. If you are about to get angry about Apple releasing a substandard, low-powered Apple silicon model of your favorite Mac, slow your roll and see if Apple’s still selling an Intel version. For instance, the new Mac mini has some limitations that the old high-end Intel Mac mini models didn’t, but that Intel Mac mini is still available. I think that’s a sign that Apple knows there’s a use case that the M1-based Macs just can’t support.

Memory isn’t what it used to be. That’s not the lament of someone who just turned 50—it’s the cold, hard fact about how Apple has built its processors. The days of separate banks of memory for RAM and video are over, at least for now. There’s a single pool of memory that the M1 allots for all uses, including its integrated graphics system. While in the olden days computer memory was something that was often swappable and upgradeable, these M1 Macs suggest we’ve entered iPhone/iPad territory—you can choose how much memory your device has, but once you’ve chosen, that’s it. Right now it’s 8GB or 16GB, so choose wisely.

Two the core. It’s going to be fascinating to use a Mac with two separate banks of processor cores. Of course, the iPhone and iPad have been doing this for a few years, but now it’s coming to the Mac. The system controller will intelligently guide tasks to the performance and efficiency cores, and users will be none the wiser. But the computer nerd side of me is almost giddy about the change, which is about as big a deal as when the Mac first supported multiprocessing and, later, multi-core processors.

Apple’s claims are strong. When Apple announced the Mac was moving to Apple-designed processors, it was obvious that the company knew the results would impress. Still, the speed and battery-life boosts Apple is claiming are extremely impressive. While Apple doesn’t cook the books, it does carefully pick the test results that put its best foot forward.

I’m excited about getting my hands on M1-based systems and getting a better sense of how they work, but if it’s anything close to what Apple is claiming, this is the kind of performance leap from one generation to the next that happens rarely, if ever. (And you know Intel has to be wincing at Apple’s slide illustrating the slow pace of Mac speed improvements over the past few years.)

Instant wake from sleep. Most memeable moment in the event: Craig Federighi’s loving look into the screen of a just-awoken MacBook. But if the claim that the Mac now wakes up instantly, like an iPad, sounds familiar, that’s because Apple has claimed this before. Steve Jobs famously complained to Mac engineers that the Mac took forever to wake up, and at various times Apple has tried to eliminate the awkward few moments where your Mac is awake, but hasn’t quite rubbed the sleep out of its eyes. Maybe this time it’ll be for real.

Fans = speed. The M1 in all of these computers is the same M1, other than the fact that low-end MacBook Air models will only have seven GPU cores rather than eight. There are no other hardware differences, and so far as I can tell, no speed differences—at least innately.

But there’s one huge speed difference that will manifest itself during extended workloads. When a chip gets too hot, it will slow itself down to keep cool. On the MacBook Air, there’s no fan to speed the cooling process—which makes for a very pleasant, silent experience, but also means that if the MacBook Air’s M1 processor is cranking away at full speed for long enough, it’ll need to slow down to cool itself.

Compare that to the MacBook Pro and Mac mini, both of which have cooling fans. They’ll be able to execute faster on those extended workloads, because they’ll crank up their fans and keep their chips from throttling down.

This isn’t unique to Apple silicon, of course. Even the most recent MacBook Air model suffered from performance issues when compared to the most recent 13-inch MacBook Pro model, because it wasn’t able to cool itself effectively. But we should see that effect pretty clearly with the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro.

iOS on Mac. Mentioned in passing once again was the fact that iOS apps will run on these Macs. How is that going to work? It seems like work made to make apps functional in the iPad’s cursor mode will apply to how well the apps work on Mac, but the proof is in the pudding. How foreign will iOS apps feel on Mac? They will have a menu bar, a window, support for keyboard shortcuts, and cursor support—but that’s a checklist that won’t preclude them from feeling weird.

The second-level question: What iOS apps will work best on the Mac? Will media-player apps end up feeling natural and productivity apps weird, or vice versa? Will there be performance differences between native Mac apps and iOS apps? We just don’t know. And Apple hasn’t given us much of a look yet.

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