What is Apple’s M1 Chip? Apple Silicon 101

Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Anastasios Antoniadis

On the 22nd of June, 2020, Apple announced that it would be moving its Mac lineup to its own ARM-based processors over the next 24 months. On Tuesday, 14th of November, 2020, Apple announced three new Mac computers powered by its own Apple silicon. What is different with the 2020 Mac lineup is that they use Apple’s M1 system-on-chip (SoC) instead of Intel processors.

Tuesday’s announcement marks the end of a 15-year run where Intel processors powered Apple’s laptop and desktop computers. This is a huge development for the semiconductor industry. Apple’s M1 chip’s reveal follows Apple’s latest mobile A14 chip for the new generation of iPhones and iPads. So, what is Apple’s M1 chip that powers the new Macs of 2020? And what does the Apple M1 chip mean for the future of computers?

The M1 announcement logo.
The M1 is here!

Goodbye, x86, Welcome ARM?

While ARM technology has been around for a long time, it has been used for portable and mobile devices. ARM has dominated the smartphone world, both on Android and iOS. The primary reason for that is that ARM provides better power consumption leading to better battery life. Consequently, bringing the ARM technology to the laptop world results in laptops’ significant battery life improvement.

Arm is RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) based, while Intel (x86) is CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing). Arm’s CPU instructions are reasonably atomic, and the correlation between instruction and CPU operations is almost one-to-one.

On the other hand, CISC offers many more instructions, many of which execute multiple operations one after another or in parallel. This leads to better performance but more power consumption due to decoding and executing complex instructions. This is a typical tradeoff between performance and efficiency.

What Apple accomplished is a combination of optimizations which results in a significant technological breakthrough—maintaining ARM’s efficiency while challenging x86’s performance dominance.

Apple can now establish a universal development framework for all its devices using the same instruction set to go further. An obvious question is whether we reach the end of life for the x86 architecture, especially for laptops. But how did Apple reach this point?

Start A4 Low, Aim for the M1 Stars

Back in 2010, Apple launched its first own in-house system-on-chip (SoC), the A4. The A4 powered the first generation of iPads and the iPhone 4. Three years later, Apple adopted the 64-bit ARM architecture back in 2013. Apple was the first to move ARM architecture to 64-bits, claiming that its design was desktop-class architecture. Clearly, the sign of things that were revealed in November 2020.

With the release of Apple’s latest A14 mobile chip, Apple has achieved another robust increase in mobile chips’ performance. This leap allows the A14 chip to compete with desktop CPUs. Or even beat them for that fact.

Apple's latest mobile A14 chip stacks up impressively against the desktop comptetion.
The estimated speed score for A14 outperforms Intel’s latest i7 and i9 processors. On SPEC2006. Source: AnandTech

It seems that this was Apple’s plan for quite a few years now. As shown by the chart below, Apple’s mobile A chips have been closing in on performance at a rapid pace for the past few years. The chart does not include data from 2013 when Apple switched to 64-bit architecture on mobile devices. We can expect that the desktop performance back in 2013 was more than double the mobile devices’ performance, with 4x a viable scenario. Predicting that the gap can close that fast is quite impressive in itself.

 Apple's latest mobile A14 chip made the overtake in performance in 2020. Apple's A chips closed in the gap to Intel very rapidly.
The stage was already set in 2019 when Apple’s Performance cores had caught up to Intel. Apple’s latest mobile A14 chip made the jump.

As it turns out, 2020 is the right time for Apple to jump ship and use Apple silicon. Meanwhile, Intel is falling behind and still stuck at 10nm silicon size, while the M1 features 5nm silicon. The alternative would deliver an inferior product in the new MacBooks of 2020.

So what is Apple’s M1 Chip?

A Single SoC to Rule Them All

The M1 combines the processor, memory, I/O, and security into a single SoC, delivering a new integration level for simplicity, efficiency, and performance. Simultaneously, with the 5nm silicon die, M1 packs the largest number of transistors Apple has put into a single chip. Packing the components even more tightly leads to improvements in latency.

M1 also features a unified memory architecture or UMA. M1’s UMA unifies its high‑bandwidth, low‑latency memory into a single pool within a custom package. As a result, all of the SoC technologies can access the same data without copying it between multiple memory pools. Apple claims that this dramatically improves performance and power efficiency. Let’s first see the Apple M1 specs:

SeriesApple Apple M-Series
Clock Rate2064 – 3200 MHz
Level 1 Cache2 MB
Level 2 Cache16 MB
Number of Cores / Threads8 / 8
Transistor Count16000 Million
Manufacturing Technology5 nm
FeaturesARMv8 Instruction Set
GPUApple M1 8-Core GPU
64 Bit64 Bit support
Performance vs. Power Consumption for M1 vs. the latest laptop chip

2x faster CPU performance

The M1 packs an 8-core CPU, and Apple claims it’s the highest-performance CPU it has ever built. Apple also claims that M1 delivers significantly higher performance at every power level than the latest PC laptop chip. At just 10 watts (the thermal envelope of a MacBook Air), M1 delivers up to 2x the PC chip’s CPU performance. Simultaneously, M1 can match the PC chip’s peak performance while using just 25% of the power. Initially, Apple claimed that the M1 is the fastest CPU on the planet, not true. But what the apple M1 really is, is the fastest low-power CPU in the world. Good for them. They also corrected themselves soon enough.

Performance per watt chart. The M1 achieves 3x performance per watt, according to Apple.

3x higher performance per watt

When we look back at the single‑threaded performance of low‑power silicon in the Mac, gains in performance per watt have been minimal from one chip to the next. But when we look at M1, we see a massive 3x improvement in performance per watt.

According to Apple, the M1 delivers 2x faster graphics compared to the latest PC laptop chip.

2x faster graphics performance

At every power level, the M1’s 8-core GPU delivers significantly higher graphics performance than the latest PC laptop chip — for up to 2x the graphics speed. And M1 can match the PC chip’s peak performance while using just a third of the power. The performance seems to be close to that of a mid-range GTX 1050, but it still could crown M1 the king of integrated graphics.

Bringing the ecosystem even closer

The shift towards Apple’s homemade silicon will allow for the opportunity to more tightly couple macOS, iOS, and iPadOS. What this essentially means is that the iPhone technology is more likely to make it to the Mac world from now on. Starting with instant wake-up and moving on to taking advantage of iPhone’s AR breakthroughs.

Can We Take Apple for Their Word?

As it turns out, it’s quite possible that we can, based on AnandTech’s benchmarks. Not only that, but as of 2 days ago, MacBook Air M1 benchmarks have started leaking, and if what they show is confirmed, the new MacBook Air dominates the Windows competition. If these benchmarks are confirmed, the M1 will set the Macs a world apart compared to existing laptops.

Geekbench 5 alleged scores where Apple's M1 chip thrives.
Geekbench 5 alleged scores. Apple’s M1 chip thrives.

What the Future Holds

Apple’s latest mobile A14 chip asserted its dominance in the smartphone world. With the M1 being the laptop variant of Apple’s 5nm ARM chipset, it remains to be seen what version of M1 will the MacBook Pros carry. And of course, even more interestingly, we expect to see a desktop variant for the Mac. Based on what we’ve seen so far, there will be impressive potential for what Apple can deliver on desktop computers. One thing is for certain, though. With the release of Apple’s M1 chip, both Intel and AMD will be on tenterhooks along with their x86 CPUs. And that’s fantastic news for the consumers. Let’s all hope that NVidia is next. 

Are you inspired? If yes, have a look at our post about the Apple M1 hands-on benchmarks. Meanwhile, Apple is preparing the Apple M1X for 2021 and the 16″ MacBook Pro and iMacs 2021.

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