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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

A few more notes about Apple’s ‘peek’ performance

Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it?

Here are my quick-hit reactions to Apple’s March 8 event, at which the company updated the iPhone SE and iPad Air, rolled out a brand-new Mac and external display, and made a few other assorted announcements.

The home button’s last hurrah

The new iPhone SE continues to be a modern take on the iPhone 8. One of these days, this design will fade into oblivion like the original iPhone SE design (based on the iPhone 5). But Tuesday was not that day.

With an A15 processor inside, I’d imagine this SE will be on sale for a couple of years at the very least. But I’m going to call it now: The next time the iPhone SE gets updated, it will be to a different design, and it will not have a home button. (The home button—and the enormous bezel around the screen that it requires—already feel old.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if the next iPhone SE, in 2024 or 2025, resembles the current iPhone minis. We’ll see. Failing that, at the very least, I’d expect Apple to repurpose the “sleep/wake button as Touch ID sensor” concept from the iPad Air into a future low-cost iPhone.

The iPad Air and the joy of re-using hardware

Tuesday’s iPad Air update was anything but surprising. Other than the iPad Air getting an M1 processor instead of an A15, it feels like it’s marching in lockstep with the iPad mini. The iPad Air got 5G cellular and support for Center Stage, which the iPad mini already had.

I’m more struck by the fact that the iPad Air’s specs show just how efficient Apple can be about standardizing hardware and re-using it across multiple devices. Its 12-megapixel wide-angle camera (with Center Stage software) is now available on every single iPad as well as the new Apple Studio Display. Its M1 processor is in every iPad Pro plus the iPad Air, the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the 24-inch iMac, and the Mac mini.

I’m not saying Apple is like Taco Bell, making many different meals out of the same ingredients. But… maybe a little? Anyway, I’m hungry. Did someone mention tacos?

The mystery of the iMac

As Dan pointed out earlier, Apple chose Tuesday to remove the 27-inch iMac from sale. It’s a curious decision since the Mac Studio doesn’t really serve as a one-to-one replacement—especially when you add in the cost of an external monitor.

There’s a lot going on here. For more than a decade, Apple has pushed up the price of the Mac Pro, driving a lot of what we used to call “power users” to instead buy specced-up versions of consumer Macs like the iMac and Mac mini. The Mac Studio could be seen as an attempt to let the iMac and Mac mini go back to what they were before, with the Mac Studio shouldering the load as the provider of computing power to people who want it.

But… the big iMac wasn’t just about power. It was also about that big, gorgeous screen. (The new Studio Display uses the same panel as the 5K iMac and iMac Pro, for what it’s worth.) I have a hard time believing that Apple thinks that the single 24-inch iMac design is all that’s required.

So, a prediction: I think we’ll see a larger iMac next year. But I don’t think it will be capable of being specced up into the equivalent of a Mac Studio. More likely, it’ll be a larger version of the 24-inch iMac running an M2 chip. And it will please a lot of people who want a bit more than the 24-inch iMac, but don’t need to spend $2000 on a Mac Studio and then find a display to use with it.

A display with Apple silicon

The Apple Studio Display comes with its very own A13 Bionic processor. Seems a little extra, doesn’t it? But here’s why: That A13 is doing the work of Center Stage, scanning the wide-angle camera image for faces and scaling and moving the view so that people are always in frame. It’s also processing the audio being sent to it, creating spatial audio effects for the Studio Display’s speakers.

While it’s true that an Apple silicon-based Mac could probably do all that work itself, it’s important to remember that the Studio Display is also compatible with Intel Macs, including models from all the way back in 2016. The onboard A13 ensures the work is done in the display before the result is sent back to a Mac.

(For the record, the Studio Display also works with the iPad—or at least, recent iPad Pro models and the new iPad Air. Unfortunately, it will still work in iPadOS’s unsatisfying mirroring mode, because that’s all the iPad is capable of right now.)

The end of the M1 era

You heard Apple’s John Ternus right: The M1 Ultra is the final chip of the M1 era. No other M1 chips are waiting in the wings—this is it. And what a finale! The M1 Ultra is two M1 Max chips, the ones that wowed all of us when the 2021 MacBook Pros were released, stuck together through an ultra-high-speed interconnect.

There’s a good reason the M1 Ultra wasn’t named something like the M1 Max Duo: it’s not two chips, it’s two complete systems-on-a-chip combined into a single package. From the perspective of the system, and of the chips themselves, they aren’t two individual chips but a combined entity. Developers won’t need to modify their apps to properly take advantage of the M1 Ultra. Everything works together, from shared memory banks to processor core assignments.

Apple didn’t even need to build new scheduling intelligence into macOS to make sure that the right cores on the right chips were being used to be more efficient. The M1 Max chip itself is intelligent about saving energy by shutting off unused elements, so there doesn’t need to be a micromanager at a high level trying to spread the load.

Given that Apple’s Jon mentioned that there was a new Mac Pro on the way, but that it was a topic for “another day,” I think we’re going to have to assume that the Mac Pro will be getting a chip based on the M2 processor, not the M1. (Some reports suggest Apple is at work on a 40-core monster, essentially tying two M1 Ultras together for use in that forthcoming Mac Pro.)

Since this is the end of the era, I’d expect Apple to turn the page soon and introduce the first wave of M2-based Macs. The M2 will probably be a somewhat modest improvement—you can’t make a big leap in performance and energy efficiency like the M1 every time out. Then again, the A15 processor was more of an improvement over the A14 than most of us had expected, so I’d expect the M2 to be more than a minor update.

See you next time, M2.

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