Early in the testing phase of Apple’s M1 chipset, a milestone new product for the company, the processor was installed in a batch of Mac computers and given to staffers working on applications that demanded heavy processing power. It was a pivotal moment: the first time Apple had made its own chip for any of its computers, shifting away from years of using a one-size-fits-all option from Intel.
After multiple teams tested the devices for a few hours while working on tasks, they reported lightning-fast performance but nearly all flagged an apparent problem. The MacBook Pro’s battery indicator, featured on the upper right hand corner of the computers, was broken. It had barely moved despite running power-hungry programs, the company told CNN Business.
The gag, of course, is that the battery indicator was working just fine. The M1 chip was so efficient, according to Apple, that it showed no real strain — one of several major selling points for products that now carry the chip. (Apple promises 20 hours of battery life for its 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro — what it says is the longest battery in any Mac to date).
Apple also claims the M1 offers the world’s fastest CPU core and fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer, with 3.5 times faster performance, up to 6 times faster graphics processing and 15 times faster machine learning compared to previous-generation Macs.
On Friday, the company launched its first iMac desktop and iPad Pro line with M1 (the M1 MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini shipped late last year). Early reviews applauded the latest models for unmatched performance speeds, long-lasting batteries and better graphics, all due in part to the processor.
For the iMac specifically, the design is also a technical feat: Because the M1 is so efficient, Apple was able to tuck two compact fans into the computer screen rather than an elaborate, bigger cooling system. The components were ultimately squeezed inside a smaller logic board so the entire computer measures just 11.5 millimeters deep.
Some PC makers may now be weighing the pros and cons of trying to keep up with the M1. Most rivals, including Samsung, rely on third-party processors from companies such as Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm — options that are manufactured to fit many different computer models. Apple’s tailor-made M1 promises performance far better than competitors. (Intel recently ran performance tests of its Gen Core i7 processor that beat the M1 in certain areas, including Chrome browsing and Microsoft Office 365 tasks. One tech publication, however, called the range “cherry picked” to favor Intel’s chips.)
“The main reason it’ll take other PC vendors a while to catch up to Apple is because most of them don’t control the whole stack of hardware and software,” said Jitesh Ubrani, a research manager at market research firm IDC. “This tight integration between the two is Apple’s main advantage.”
A milestone product years in the making
Apple is in a rare situation. Its design architects know which products are coming down the pipeline and which features, thermal cooling systems and other components its chips will need to support. It’s also not building and selling chips to different companies for countless products, so it doesn’t have the design considerations or trade-offs of building something more generic.
CEO Tim Cook alluded to this at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June last year. “When we make changes, it’s for one simple but powerful reason: so we can make much better products,” he said. “When we look ahead, we envision some amazing new products that transitioning to our custom silicon will enable us to bring to life.”
Beyond performance, for example, the chip could help enable the development of better cameras, providing more support for image signal processors.
The effort to move to its own silicon — a term referencing the core semiconductor components used in computing devices — has been years in the making. Apple has been acquiring small semiconductor design teams and hiring semiconductor architecture designers for well over a decade.
Apple’s rivals may be more constrained. There are rumors Samsung is working on a Windows notebook with Exynos, an ARM-based chip manufactured by Samsung. But unlike Apple, Ubrani argues that Samsung “wouldn’t have the chops” to make chips comparable to the M1 without input from Microsoft.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is in a particularly tough spot as it has to ensure Windows remains compatible with multiple chip manufacturers and gives users support for legacy apps, he said.
Why some companies may not try to chase Apple
With business already booming, not every PC maker is looking to invest in chasing M1.
“The majority of PC vendors are actually in a pretty good position right now, with demand remaining strong as we’ve moved into 2021,” said Ishan Dutt, an analyst for market research firm Canalys. The market for PCs, excluding tablets, is expected to grow around 13% this year on top of a stellar 2020, according to Canalys.
Samsung, for example, has seen its PC business do well in recent quarters due to demand stemming from the pandemic, especially for its Chromebook line. “There isn’t much of a pressing need to do a dramatic overhaul of its portfolio without evidence that it would substantially improve their position in the market,” he said.
Dutt argued Samsung may also not try to touch the M1 because laptops and desktops are a smaller product category for the company, and the costs and potential risks of revamping its lineup are high compared to the upside. “Apple was keen to wean themselves off reliance on Intel in order to reduce some of the friction it was facing and exert greater control over the end-to-end design of its devices,” he said.
Samsung wouldn’t be alone in shying away from the investment. According to Ben Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, “Most companies will not make their own silicon as it is extremely expensive.”
But the cost clearly isn’t stopping Apple. The company previously said in a press release that M1 is the start of a new family of chips designed specifically for the Mac.” Future iterations will serve as an insurance policy for future Apple innovation.