By Jason Snell
October 30, 2023 5:30 PM PT
A magic number: New MacBook Pros and iMacs usher in the M3 era
For the first time in the Apple silicon era, Apple isn’t using its lowest-end chip to usher in a new generation of processors. On Monday, Apple announced not just the M3 chip but its beefier siblings, the M3 Pro and M3 Max. The M3 chip powers a revised iMac, and all three models—yes, that’s right—power updates to the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Meet the M3 generation
While it’s exciting that there are new Macs (available to order today and shipping next week), the new M3 chip generation has ramifications that go beyond those who are in the market for a new MacBook Pro or iMac today. That’s because these are the chips that will presumably be arriving in updates to every Mac model over the next year. If we’ve learned anything in the Apple silicon era, it’s that Apple designs a few chips and then rolls them out to more or less every model in the line-up. And an M3 in an iMac more or less performs identically to an M3 in, say, a MacBook Air.
Apple is claiming some speed increases across the board with these new chips, which use a three-nanometer process for the first time. While I was able to get a sneak peek at the first wave of Macs using these new chips, there was no way to independently judge performance. In many contexts, Apple is using the M1 processor as a baseline to compare speeds, which somewhat obscures the generation-to-generation improvements. My back-of-the-envelope calculations of Apple’s claims suggest a 10 to 15 percent overall boost from M2 to M3, but that’s just a guess. The proof will come in the testing, not the press releases.
Apple says the M3 is a huge leap forward in its graphics architecture, with speed gains that go far beyond just making a GPU core execute a little bit faster. These additional graphics gains come in a few ways. First, mesh shading and ray tracing are now both hardware accelerated, allowing them to run dramatically faster than they would just in software. (If you’ve heard this before, it’s because Apple made the same claims about the A17 Pro chip in the iPhone 15 Pro, which is based on a similar architecture.)
There’s also a big new feature Apple is calling Dynamic Caching. Put very simply, Apple’s chip engineers were extremely motivated to eke out even more performance from their graphics subsystem—and found that the way memory was traditionally allocated was inefficient. Memory is usually allocated to different threads at compile time, meaning that some threads allocate a larger amount of memory in order to handle peak need, while other threads might choose a smaller amount of memory but risk a bottleneck.
The M3’s graphics system dynamically allocates the memory per thread in a way that’s completely transparent to software developers. Apps don’t need to be rewritten to take advantage of the new system, which Apple says makes some huge gains by wringing a lot of memory efficiency out of the system. Memory that was previously reserved for a specific thread can be given to a different thread instead. A thread that’s in a bottleneck can be given more space. It’s all to the goal of increasing overall throughput.
If you look at the three levels of chips, you’ll see some small changes to their specs here and there. The M3 processor’s core specs are unchanged: like the M2, it’s got an eight-core CPU with four performance and four efficiency cores, has a maximum of 10 GPU cores, and maxes out at 24GB of RAM. (And I’m sad to report that it still only supports two displays, so any M3-derived systems with a built-in monitor—like the iMac and laptops—will only support a single external monitor.)
The M3 Pro sees some curious architectural changes. It’s still a 12-core CPU, but the core balance has shifted. The M2 Pro had a maximum of eight performance cores and four efficiency cores, but the M3 Pro has six of each. It also maxes out at 18 GPUs, down one from the 19 offered in the M2 Pro. Maximum RAM goes up to 36GB from the 32GB in the M2 Pro. Apple’s efficiency cores are pretty beefy in their own right, but offering fewer performance cores is an interesting trade-off. I’m looking forward to seeing how CPU performance compares.
On the M3 Max, the brakes are off. The chip’s got a 16-core CPU with 12 performance cores and four efficiency cores, up from eight and four on the last generation’s top-of-the-line M2 Max chip. GPU core count is up to 40 from 38. The RAM ceiling has been lifted from 96GB to 128GB.
Keeping in mind that many (if not most?) users don’t buy models with maxed-out core counts and RAM, many of these differences might be academic. But I do wonder if Apple is subtly shifting the positioning of the Pro and the Max chip to make them more clearly differentiated. More on this later.
New MacBook Pros… so soon?
If it seems like Apple just introduced new MacBook Pros, it’s because it did, back in January. With the announcement of new models on Tuesday, it’s the rare moment when Apple has revised the same model twice within a calendar year. (And it makes it feel even more like those M2 MacBook Pro models were late to the party.)
Still, here we are with some cutting-edge Mac laptops that take advantage of Apple’s latest chip advances. Apple has done essentially nothing to change the exterior of the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, which still look identical to the design introduced in 2021. But there are still interesting differences that go beyond just adding in new chips.
With these updates, Apple has finally simplified the MacBook Pro line. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, which was presumably updated for both the M1 and M2 generations so that there was a sub-$2000 laptop in the MacBook Pro line, has been discontinued. It is an ex-laptop.
In its place is a new base-model 14-inch MacBook Pro that uses the M3 (not Pro, not Max) processor. At $1599, it’s $300 more expensive than the old 13-inch model, but it’s a real 14-inch MacBook Pro, meaning that it’s got the spectacularly good Liquid Retina XDR display (now showing SDR content 20% more brightly!), MagSafe charging, and the usual complement of USB-C ports. (Apple says it’s 40 percent faster than the old 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro.) Users who want more performance and functionality will want to spend more for higher-end models, but this seems like a pretty good trade-off to create a base model that feels like it was designed in the 2020s.
The $1599 M3 MacBook Pro comes in two color options, Silver and Space Gray. But the rest of the line-up—the models with M3 Pro and M3 Max processors—come in Silver and Space Black, a new color that features a new anodization seal process designed to reduce the visibility of fingerprints. I got my greasy monkey paws on a Space Black laptop and can report that Apple’s as good as its word in the sense that it seems generally more resistant to fingerprints and other smudges.
But I don’t want to exaggerate this feature: you can still see fingerprints. They just aren’t as prominent. This is a progressive improvement over something like the Midnight M2 MacBook Air, but it’s not a cure-all.
Similarly, I need to warn you not to get too excited about Apple finally making a black MacBook Pro. Space Black is not actually as black as space. It’s a dark gray. Yes, it’s appreciably darker than the Space Gray on the current MacBook Pros (and the new base model), but it’s still a shimmery metallic gray. Fans of Darth Vader stand down.
Of course, you can spec up the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros (which start at the same base prices as the last generation) as high as you want to go, including up to the ultimate configuration of the M3 Max chip. (You’ll just pay for the privilege.) Overall, Apple says that the M3 Max is twice as fast as the M2 Max, which is a pretty impressive claim.
These new laptops are available to order now, with the M3 and M3 Pro models shipping next week and the M3 Max models shipping later in November.
It’s the iMac, but… with M3
It’s been more than two years since the 24-inch M1 iMac arrived. It skipped the entire M2 generation, but it’s been revised here at the outset of the M3.
As far as I can tell, the new M3 iMac is essentially the same computer as the M1 model, which was a completely new design that’s got plenty of life left in it. Everything else, from color options to the base price, seems the same. The base model still has an 8-core CPU, with pricier models getting the 10-core model. It’s very familiar.
Of course, the really big change is the M3 processor itself, which should make this iMac about twice as fast as the previous model… and much, much faster than the last generation of Intel-based iMacs. (I get the impression that the iMac might be a computer that is replaced on very long cycles, meaning there are still plenty of Intel iMacs still in service. This new model makes a compelling case to replace them.)
For the record, Apple says the M3 iMac is capable of editing 12 simultaneous 4K video streams. That’s a lot. The M1 model only claimed four. The M1 feels like a long time ago now.
If you were hoping that Apple might use this update to the iMac to continue its slow eradication of the Lightning port from its accessory line, I have bad news. Despite it seeming like the perfect time for Apple to fix the charging port on the Magic Mouse and the arrow keys on the Magic Keyboard and add a Touch ID surface to the Magic Trackpad, none of those things happened. They all still charge via Lightning. Same as it ever was.
The M3 iMac also doesn’t come in an optional M3 Pro configuration, which I admit surprises me a little bit, given that the Mac mini supports it. Best I can figure, Apple thinks that the Mac mini is used in applications that require a little more processor power, but that iMacs aren’t—and that the Studio Display and a Mac mini can fill the needs of those who want something like a larger, faster iMac. (Apple has the right to change its mind and introduce an iMac Pro at any point, of course. It just hasn’t done so recently.)
The third generation
I get the sense from this announcement that now that the Apple silicon era is in full swing, the company is beginning to tweak things here and there to better fit its overall product strategy.
As the M series chips get even more powerful, it feels like Apple is more comfortable in bragging about the remarkable power of the base model chip. The M3 seems to be shaping up to be powerful enough to fulfill the needs of iMac users and low-end MacBook Pro users, and presumably at a relatively low price. It’s the chip for the masses.
The high-end M3 Max chip also seems to have a pretty clear remit: keep going faster. The M3 Max lives up to its name by offering more cores, more RAM, and more performance… at a high cost. It’s the chip for the most demanding pros—high-end 3D work, medical imaging, that sort of thing—who need everything they can get from their computer and are willing to pay to get it.
Then there’s the M3 Pro, which has rejiggered its CPU core configuration, reduced its max GPU cores, and slightly increased maximum RAM. Call it a hunch, but it feels like Apple’s recognizing that the M3 Pro is going to be the chip of choice for most pros—and is refining the mixture in order to combine power and (relative) affordability. It will keep getting faster, of course, but maybe the Pro chips will improve a little more incrementally going forward while the Max chips will be further out on the cutting edge.
I don’t know. We’ve only seen three iterations of the Apple silicon approach, and it’s possible that Apple will revert its approach next time or try something even wilder. But from some of the subtle changes this time, I feel like the M3 Pro chip is the most interesting one. When the new MacBook Pros ship next week, we’ll start to get a sense of what pro customers think.
The removal of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and its replacement with a low-end 14-inch MacBook Pro model is a fantastic move. I realize that it raises the base price to get in the MacBook Pro line, but let’s be honest: that old 13-inch model wasn’t really a MacBook Pro; it was a MacBook Air with a better name and worse design. The new model has the display and ports that make it a true MacBook Pro, and potential buyers who can’t justify the price are probably better off buying a MacBook Air, which remains a remarkably great value.
The iMac didn’t really need a redesign, so it didn’t get one, but it’s a relief to see that Apple’s all-in-one—the best-selling all-in-one in the world, apparently!—is more powerful than ever. I sure wish those accessories had been updated to support USB-C, though.
Overall, this was a pretty good day for the Mac. Apple has launched the next generation of Apple silicon chips, and it’s done the whole family (barring the Ultra, which in the past has just been two Max chips attached to one another) at once. If you’re thinking of buying a new MacBook Air or Mac mini next year, look to the M3 iMac to get an idea about how it will perform. If you’re hoping for a Mac Studio, the profile of the M3 Max MacBook Pro will be pretty close to what you’ll get.
That’s the great thing about Apple silicon: The chips really tell their own story. Earlier, I almost referred to the MacBook Pro as “The M3 Pro with MacBook Pro,” not the other way around. A silly but telling typo: In a way, these first models are also vessels to carry the message about Apple’s latest chip designs. If you’re in the market for a new iMac or MacBook Pro, this is a big announcement. But it’s really just as big for everyone else who is wondering what the Mac line-up will look like over the next year.
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