In my previous post, I questioned whether we could hold Apple to their word about the M1 chip performance. The early Apple M1 hands-on benchmarks show that we can. However, I would like to provide some more background as to why Apple's switch to its in-house chip is so significant. Not just for Apple users themselves but every PC user out there. The first hands-on reviews and benchmarks of the new Apple M1 MacMini, the MacBook Air M1, and the 13″ MacBook Pro M1 will give you an idea why.
M1: Performance x Efficiency x Compatibility?
Most people in the world own at least one smartphone. Those smartphones run on ARM-based CPUs, whether they are iPhones or Android phones. Just a look at Antutu‘s rankings shows that Apple and Qualcomm battle head to head for the performance crown in mobile devices. So as the chips on these phones get more and more powerful, a natural question arises.
Can we bring this architecture to laptops and desktops? Microsoft and Qualcomm tried to answer that question affirmatively with the announcement of the Windows on Arm initiative.
However, the actual challenge when switching CPU architecture is software compatibility limitations, leading to performance shortcomings. Software built for x86 won't run on ARM. So there are two options here:
- Port all existing applications to the new architecture.
- Create an emulator to run all existing applications.
For #1 to happen the architecture needs to be established so that developers will indeed invest the time required for the task at hand. Universal adoption of course takes a long time. Consequently, you are basically left with option #2 initially. In the case of Windows on ARM, the emulator could only emulate 32-bit Windows applications.
And yet even in that case, there was no guarantee that every 32-bit application would work. Add to that the fact that even it did, it would run much slower. Thus, Windows on ARM has not lived up to the challenge so far.
Rosetta 2 – The key to x86 support
In the case of the M1, some developers like Adobe have already announced that they will release native M1 versions of their software in early 2021. The challenge remains the same though. Apps need to keep working until the ARM transition is complete software-wise. And Rosetta 2 is the key to making that transition less painful. Rosetta 2 is Apple's software translation layer which allows x86 applications to run on the new Macs from day one, by compiling them to ARM-based architecture. Rosetta is the key to the early success of the Apple M1 laptops.
Among other Rosetta changes, we transition from an interpreter to what looks like an ahead-of-time compiler of sorts. Apple obviously promises that Rosetta 2 will make the transition seamless, meaning that the conversion from x86 to ARM will not come with significant performance.
M1 hands-on benchmarks
The performance of the early hand-on benchmarks of the M1 gives us an idea about both the performance of native ARM-based and optimized execution and the performance of Rosetta 2 translated applications.
Apple M1 CPU benchmark scores
Let's first see the Cinebench R23 and Geekbench 5 scores of the Apple M1 CPU benchmarks. As we will see, the M1 is very competitive while running at 10W compared to Intel's and AMD's 25W and 45W competition. In fact, the new MacBook Air has better single-core performance than every Intel-powered Mac that exists. Every Intel-powered Mac, not just MacBooks. This looks promising
Firstly, let's have a look a the Cinebench R23 Single-Core Score. Cinebench is a real-world test that evaluates a computer's processor by running CPU-only rendering tasks. Cinebnech gives the M1 a score ranging around 1500.
The M1's score is on par with the 11th Gen Intel i7 early samples. Although it seems that the current Windows laptops cannot maintain that performance in retail versions. As for the multi-core score, the AMD Ryzen 4000 series scores the best and offers incredible performance. The Ryzen 4800H and the Ryzen 4900Hs both offer above 10,000 in the Multi-Core score. The M1 MacBook Air is pretty much outgunned by processors with more cores, as expected.
In GeekBench 5, the Apple M1 is the fastest processor in single-core performance with 1733. Intel 11th Gen has a 1423 score, and the Ryzen 4000 is really struggling to keep up with both Intel 11th Gen and the Apple M1. Note here that AMD is expected to bridge the gap to Intel with the Ryzen 5000 laptops' release. In the Geekbench Multi-Core test, the Apple M1 shines with a score of 7432 and is even better than the 8 Core Ryzen 4800H and the Intel Core i9 9980H.
The above Apple M1 CPU benchmarks show that the new Apple silicon is right up there in performance. It's natural to expect that MacOS will perform well on top of M1 as it gets more and more optimized. The same stands for apps developed by Apple. So in terms of native execution, the M1 looks really strong. What has also come up is the Rosetta 2 version of Geekbench 5.
Rosetta 2 GeekBench 5 Performance
The M1 scores 1,313 for the Single-Core and 5,888 for the Multi-Core Rosetta 2 Geekbench 5. While the performance loss is significant, it still holds its own against Ryzen 4000 CPUs and Intel 11th Gen CPUs. That's an indication that the transition will not be harrowing, especially as Rosetta 2 gets better. That being said, this needs to be measure in actual applications, as each application will behave differently.
Meanwhile, Anandtech compared the performance of native M1 vs. Rosetta 2 execution for several benchmarks. Expectedly enough, on average, it seems that the performance loss is around 30%. That's pretty similar to the Geekbench 5 benchmark. That's not to say that there are no cases where performance is cut down to half.
Overall, the Apple M1 CPU benchmarks indicate that Apple delivered a potent chip. Obviously not the most powerful in the world as they claimed initially. But possibly the most powerful low-power chip in the world.
With the Apple M1 CPU benchmarks out of the way, let's see how the M1 chip handles graphics with its 8-core integrated GPU. There is quite a lack of GPU benchmarks for MacOS, and things are even worse as far as benchmarks that run on Apple Silicon. But this is what I have found so far, coming from Anandtech.
What reviewers suggest to be the case is that the M1 in the Mac Mini is the king in terms of integrated graphics performance. Although, of course, it cannot keep with the high-end dedicated graphics cards in laptops. This also seems to be the case for AnandTech's “Rise of the Tomb Raider” benchmark. I will refrain from showing any other GPU benchmarks until there is a more accurate evaluation of the GPU aspect of the M1.
The first YouTube and tech website hands-on reviews have emerged for the Apple M1 MacBooks, and quite honestly, they are very praising so far. TechCrunch suggests that the battery life will blow users away, despite the M1 laptops being powerful. Let's some Apple M1 compilation benchmarks in terms of compilation and battery life for the WebKit.
The battery life benchmarks for the M1 speak for themselves. As it turns out, they also translate to real-world efficiency. MKBHD reported that he plugged the M1 MacBook Pro only once during his first week of use in his review.
I think the initial skepticism towards Apple's claims about the M1 is being replaced by excitement. We are witnessing a significant shift in technology that definitely marks a new era.
Time to recalibrate our expectations from modern laptops!
Linus recommends both of these laptops but reports a significantly higher battery life for the 13″ MacBook Pro than the MacBook Air. In fact, the 13″ MacBook Pro reached more than 20 hours of battery life in a test playing 100 hours of YouTube videos at max playback settings. This is groundbreaking, and the competition isn't even close. In fact, LTT had to throw a gaming laptop in there to give the Apple M1 a run for its money.
My thoughts on the M1
I decided to spend my time writing two articles about the M1 because I think it significantly shakes the silicon industry. Intel and Qualcomm have settled for incremental improvements. AMD has caught and even surpassed Intel in terms of performance. With the M1 Apple delivers a new technology with ARM architecture and uniform memory on laptops and soon desktops. This may be a first step towards dishing discrete memory altogether. SoCs are probably the future at least in portable devices and laptops and as they get more and more powerful they are set to satisfy the needs of most professionals.
There is another important dimension to all this, though. Apple makes its own software, now running on its own hardware. This has allowed iPhones and iPads to compete with Android smartphones with far fewer resources. We can expect something similar for the laptop and desktop world. Performance and efficiency will reach a new level. As things stand, Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm face a significant challenge.
At the same time, Microsoft and Google face a significant challenge. Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm need to improve design terms in terms of hardware performance and efficiency. Remember that so far, we have only seen the 10W version of the M1. This is not a race of higher clocks and more cores anymore. A different level of advancements is required. On the software side, both Android and Windows will need to do better.
However, remember that this first generation of 2020 Apple M1 MacBooks is just transitional hardware. Things are going to get better. Probably much, much better. Enter the Apple M1X (or maybe M2, although probably the former). 2021 16″ MacBook Pro is about to crush every other laptop and many desktop setups out there.
The Challenge for Android
As an Android user for the past 7 years, I dare say that Android needs to improve now. But the fragmentation of the Android smartphone industry does not make that easy. After all, what Android smartphone manufacturers market is their own incarnations of the Android user experience running on different variations of hardware. How can you deliver vertical optimizations on the software side when each manufacturer modifies the OS in a different way? An OS that targets far too many SoCs from different manufacturers, different cameras, etc. Time will tell, but I don't think the way forward is that clear for Google and Android. Similar things can be said about Windows 10. And yet both manufacturers make their own devices so we will see whether there is a shift in direction there.
One thing is almost certain, though. As consumers, we are going to benefit from this development. Probably for the long-term.
Would I Buy an M1 Mac?
In short, no. I don't care at all about battery life as my laptop serves as a desktop. If it's not plugged in, it probably means that I'm not working anyway. The current state of things does not warranty a conversion to Mac for me as I will have to get much more used to a new operating system. But I'm really looking forward to the release of the high-end MacBook Pro models and the iMac. That would be a clearer indication of what's coming. But I think a Ryzen 4000, let alone a Ryzen 5000 laptop, will be just fine for me as a professional.
Should You Buy an M1 Mac?
It depends. I expect that everyday users will not be impacted that much by Rosetta 2 regarding performance and efficiency. So if you are one of them and a Mac user, then you can probably go for one of the M1 released thus far. For professionals and content creators, I would suggest waiting for things to stabilize. Let the everyday users be the beta testers until MacOS, Rosetta 2, and the apps have matured more. If you are a professional who uses Mac, the release of the high-end laptops and iMac will probably be the milestone you should start considering a new Mac. Personally, I will eventually consider moving to Mac, especially since my next phone will, in most likelihood, be an iPhone.
Wanna know more about the Apple M1?
Although I have already covered the Apple M1 chipset, you can read more in this article from Nermin Hajdarbegovic. It goes deeper than my current coverage of the Apple M1's design and technical capabilities.