The Mac's long-drawn-out switch from Intel has become more formulaic than fantastic.
By David Price, Editor, MacworldJAN 20, 2023 3:30 am PST
When it was announced at WWDC 2020, Apple’s plan to transition the Mac range from Intel processors to its own ARM-based silicon was a really big deal. By making its own chips, Apple could exert more control and tailor hardware to its machines’ specific requirements, while lowering costs and improving power efficiency.
And it started out strong. The first M1 Macs were nothing short of a revelation, bringing massive speed boosts and battery life gains, albeit with the same designs and similar prices. The 24-inch iMac followed up the initial launch with an impossibly thin design, the MacBook Pro returned the power and expandability that had been lost, and the M2 chip in the redesigned MacBook Air brought even greater power and performance per watt. But after waiting seven months for the M2 Pro and M2 Max chips that landed this week, it’s hard not to feel like the excitement is starting to wane.
It’s hard to stay excited for two and a half years, especially when the start was so strong. There was a noticeable leap forward once the MacBook Air was released from the constraints of Intel’s underpowered Y-series processors, as noted in our review of the late-2020 model that called out its “dramatically better performance and battery life,” and conceded that “the hype is real.” The same was true for the M1 Mac mini and 13-inch MacBook Pro.
But that progress hasn’t been sustained. There’s nothing wrong with this week’s releases, but they’re incremental speed bumps rather than big steps forward. Perhaps the initial M1 speed bump was exaggerated by the eccentric or overcautious choice of Intel chips towards the end of the companies’ relationship, and like Intel and AMD, big gains only come around once in a generation. Benchmarks will likely show decent-enough gains, but this week’s Mac announcements felt as formulaic as they did during the Intel years.
It’s a bit of a giveaway when Apple compares the performance of the M2 Mac mini to the four-year-old Core i7 model rather than the M1 because this year’s gains are much less dramatic. The hoped-for jump to a 3nm manufacturing process hasn’t happened, and as my colleagues discuss in this week’s Macworld podcast, the new MacBook Pro and Mac mini models remain way behind PCs equipped with Nvidia GPUs on gaming performance and features. Apple silicon isn’t a panacea for the Mac’s limitations and was never likely to be.
The weight of those expectations is likely to be accentuated when the Mac Pro arrives sometime this year. The latest rumors suggest that it won’t have the M2 Extreme chip as rumored but rather a slightly faster M2 Ultra with a 24-core CPU and 76-core GPU and slots for storage, graphics, media, and networking cards (but not memory). Apple silicon will allow Apple to upgrade it more frequently, but when you go from a $50,000 machine that absolutely trounces everything in its path to one that’s maybe 20 percent faster than the Mac Studio, it’s hard to get all that excited about it.
And while the new Mac Pro will almost certainly be cheaper that the current model, the move to Apple silicon has clearly, and some might say predictably, not resulted in lower prices across the range. Most notably, the M2 Mac mini brings that line closer to its original budget conception, but most Apple silicon Macs have either kept the same price or gone up. The new MacBook Air starts at $200 more than it once did, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is $100 more than its Intel predecessor, and in territories outside the U.S., prices for most models have gone up rather a lot.
Was it always likely that reduced manufacturing costs would fail to translate into lower prices for consumers? Yes. Should we have realized by now that corporations exist to maximize profit, not to make their customers’ lives better? Yes! But does the lack of meaningful price drops undermine one of the biggest hopes of the Apple silicon transition? Also yes.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the Apple silicon transition is the fragmented and disorganized way Apple has handled it. While the M1 Mac mini arrived in November 2020, its costlier Intel sibling hung around for more than two years. After the 24-inch iMac arrived in March 2021, the 21.5-inch Intel model stayed on shelves until October. The Mac mini, which was in the first wave of M1 releases, didn’t get the M2 until seven months after the M2 MacBook Air arrived. And after a tease last March, we’re still waiting for the Apple silicon Mac Pro. Altogether you’ve got a recipe for confusion and disappointment.
The move from Intel to Apple silicon was supposed to last “about two years,” in the specific words of Tim Cook. We’re coming up on 31 months since that promise—or 26 if you measure the transition starting from the launch of the first M1 Macs. Apple only just removed the long-in-the-tooth Intel Mac mini from its store and the Mac Pro is still saddled with aging Intel chips. It’s not clear why the Pro has been left until last—the wait hardly inspires customers to spend a fortune on such a high-end machine when its components are so obviously outdated—or when its Apple silicon upgrade will finally happen, but the whole process has definitely taken longer than it should.
All this isn’t to say switching from Intel to Apple silicon hasn’t reaped huge dividends. It was obviously a smart decision, but what started as a “huge leap forward for the Mac” has turned into a slow stroll. As Apple continues to sporadically roll out chips and confuse customers with a mixed-up range of options, it’s getting harder to feel the magic.