By Jason Snell
December 4, 2020 4:19 PM PT
Fun with Charts: Imagining the M2 processor
The pace of Apple’s processor development can be measured in all sorts of ways. The chart I built today is using only a single measurement, that of multi-core performance as measured by the speed-testing tool Geekbench. It doesn’t take into account all sorts of other ways that Apple boosts performance in its chips between generations. Since Apple introduced the iPad-focused X variant processor with the A8X in 2014, it has boosted clock speed, subtracted and added processor cores, split its processor cores into separate performance- and efficiency-focused cores, built a multi-core GPU, added a multi-core Neural Engine, and a whole lot more.
However, at least when it comes to raw multi-core CPU performance, the X-series chip generations Apple has released since the A9X arrived with the first iPad Pro in November of 2015 have progressed at a remarkably consistent rate. (For the purposes of this chart, I’m considering the M1 a proxy for an “A14X” processor, since it seems to be an evolution of the X-series chips.)
Apple skipped the A11 and A13 generations when it came to a higher-powered, iPad-class processor, but by taking avantage of a two-years-improved architecture, the growth in performance proceeds apace. If you want to think of it this way, Apple’s X-series chips are gaining about 1200 points in Geekbench multi-core scores every year.
For the sake of this exercise, then, let’s assume that next fall Apple releases an M2 processor that follows this same trend. It would score about 8500, roughly 16 percent faster than the M1 Macs currently being sold.1
Assuming that an M2 processor would be used in low-end Macs like the M1, it would mean that an M2 MacBook or Mac mini would be faster than all but one Intel Core-based Mac, the current high-end i9 5K iMac. Only the Xeon-based Mac Pro and iMac Pro models, with 10 or more cores, would best that score.
There are so many questions yet to be answered, including:
- Is there a variation of the M1 processor waiting in the wings for sometime in 2021, or will all the Macs that ship in the next 10 months be using the same M1 processor in the three current Apple silicon Macs?
Will Apple really release an M2 processor next year, or will the company approach Mac chip design similarly to how it approaches iPhone and iPad design? I could see a scenario where 2021’s Mac release is a chip with more processor cores and capabilities that’s rolled into higher-end laptops and desktops, while the M1 continues motoring along until 2022.
Would that theoretical 2021 chip be an “M1X” or an M2? Does the M-series numbering move in lockstep with Apple’s A-series chips, or do they move on a different cycle?
So many questions, so few answers. But the most boring, conservative M2 update in 2021—one that takes advantage of the A15 chip development cycle to create a new chip for lower-end Macs—would be at least 16 percent faster. Anything else Apple does—boosting the number of CPU cores seems like a real possibility—would just boost the number from there.
I can’t wait to see what 2021 brings for the Mac and for Apple silicon. It’s shaping up to the most interesting year in the Mac in ages.
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.