As a person who has used Macs since December of 1984, I found the “One more thing” event to be one of the most exciting Mac events since the original Mac introduced itself to the world on January 24, 1984. Let’s look at the announcements made on November 10, 2020, and what they mean to Mac users.
The M1 System on Chip
Apple has been designing its own “Apple Silicon” system on chip (SoC) for iPhone and iPad for more than a decade. The announcement of the M1 SoC takes that one step further. Finally, Macs do not depend on a processor designed by another company.
The first Macs used Motorola’s 680X0 CPUs, then came the PowerPC era (CPUs partially designed by Apple), and then we went into the age of Intel. Now Apple can design Macs running an operating system optimized for its own hardware.
The specs on the M1 are impressive. It uses a 5-nanometer technology to cram 16 billion transistors into one package, with four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. The chip runs extremely fast and cool, creating the most energy-efficient Macs ever.
Image Signal Processor
The two portable Macs announced at the event don’t have impressive FaceTime cameras in terms of resolution. That stays the same at 720p (1280 x 720 pixels). The M1 makes your video calls look better, because it runs the video stream through an on-chip image signal processor (ISP)
That ISP improves image quality by reducing noise, adding greater dynamic range, improving auto white balance, and adding machine learning-enhanced face detection to make users look their best.
Processor power isn’t all that M1 brings to the Mac. The GPU is integrated into the SoC as well, featuring up to eight cores that handle up to 25,000 simultaneous threads. Apple says the GPU throughput is around 2.6 teraflops — that’s 2.6 trillion floating-point operations per second. That gives Apple’s M1 Macs the fastest integrated GPUs on any personal computer.
Unified Memory Architecture
One feature of the new Macs is a Unified Memory Architecture. This means that all of the bits and pieces — CPU cores, GPU cores, Neural Engine — all access the same high-bandwidth, low-latency memory. The diagram below shows how these components are all interconnected.
More apps use machine learning to bring automation to a number of tasks. The M1 SoC includes a 16-core Neural Engine to accelerate video analysis, voice recognition, image processing, and other functions that benefit from machine learning.
Big Sur is Built for M1
There’s one more thing: macOS 11 Big Sur is available this Thursday, November 12. All of the code and all of the standard Mac apps have been optimized for the new SoC. They should run crazy fast on the new platform.
That’s not the only great thing about Big Sur. It has the ability to run apps that were developed for Intel-based Macs under Rosetta 2, and Universal Apps will run both on Intel and Apple Silicon machines.
My biggest reason for ordering one of the new Macs right away? The ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on the Mac. No more is the Mac somewhat limited in the number of available apps; it now has access to the millions of apps written for iPhone and iPad. I’m excited about some of the games that I’ve played for years on iOS and iPadOS that I will now be able to run on a Mac.
What new Mac am I buying? The first one announced…
13-inch MacBook Air with M1
As Meat Loaf exclaimed in his 1977 song, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad“. I’m referring to the fact that my article announcing the Apple event was pretty darned close to the mark since I predicted a 13-inch MacBook Air and a Mac mini would be announced. Let’s take a closer look at the 13-inch MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air has always been considered a non-pro laptop, with specs that can’t hold a candle to the MacBook Pro. However, the M1 kicks the MacBook Air into high gear, with an identical external design and the same keyboard, but with much faster performance.
Up to 3.5X faster CPU, up to 5X faster graphics, faster SSD, and more… All of this happens in a slimline machine with no fan. My favorite selling point? The MacBook Air with M1 is faster than 98% of all of the PC laptops sold in the last year.
Battery life is impressive: up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing and 18 hours of video playback. This should be the perfect laptop for international flights when they resume.
Pricing starts at $999 for an MBA with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. That same model costs $899 for educational buyers. Memory maxes out at 16GB on all of the new Macs, and storage can be stretched to 2TB.
Why is it important? The MacBook Air is a fan favorite for travelers, students, and the home market. Giving it a huge boost in performance over existing models will help Apple maintain growth in Mac sales.
Mac mini with M1
This announcement was not surprising, considering that the Developer Transition Kit was based on a Mac mini. Once again, it’s three times faster than the existing quad-core Mac mini with six times better graphics performance.
Once again slapping Windows PCs in the face, Apple noted that the Mac mini is five times faster than the top-selling PC desktop. Pricing starts at $699 for the Mac mini with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. Using on-chip Unified Memory means that user-installed memory upgrades are probably out of the question. It looks like users can upgrade storage as with previous Mac minis, so keep an eye on the OWC Mac mini storage upgrade page for more news.
Why is it important? The Mac mini is used by those switching from PCs, makes a great media server, is found in render farms, and it’s a favorite of developers. With three times the performance of the previous model at a similar price, the Mac mini is bound to be a favorite purchase.
13-inch MacBook Pro with M1
The Pro market wasn’t left out of the announcements, although the 13-inch MacBook Pro has never had the impressive specs of the larger models. Starting at $1299 for an 8GB memory, 256GB storage configuration ($1199 for the educational market), this is the first Pro Mac using Apple Silicon.
For those who have owned a 13-inch MBP in the past, the specs are much better. Up to 2.8X faster performance, 5X faster GPU performance, and it’s three times faster than the “best-selling Windows laptop in its class”.
Battery life is impressive for this machine as well, with up to 17 hours of wireless web browsing and 20 hours of video playback. Want to watch movies for almost a day on a battery-powered Mac? This is your machine.
Pro users demand excellent audio quality, and Apple delivered by building in an array of three studio-quality microphones. Podcasters might be able to record episodes without the need for an external mic.
Why is it important? The MacBook Pro with M1 shows that Apple is making a commitment to the Pro line and that we should see incredibly powerful Macs powered by M-series SoCs next year. The 500-nit P3 wide color Retina display, excellent microphones, and Touch Bar give this MacBook Pro some “pro” features buyers expect, but most professionals are waiting for a 16-inch MacBook Pro with a second-generation M-series SoC and more memory.
Missing in Action
A few expected product announcements did not happen. The long-rumored AirTags never surfaced, so at least for the foreseeable future Apple fans must rely on third-party location tags. The other product I expected was AirPods Studio, a rumored over-the-ear headphone from the company. Perhaps Apple plans to start selling these products without a formal product announcement. Both are excellent holiday gift ideas, so it’s surprising Apple hasn’t released these two products.
One more thing… I should have a full review of the 13-inch MacBook Air with M1 soon. Despite ordering one the second the Apple Store opened after yesterday’s announcements, the ship date was already November 24 – 27… I think Apple’s going to sell a lot of Macs in the near future.