Is the power of Apple silicon holding back the Mac?
Apple's incredible processors may be getting in the way of the innovation that the Mac needs.
By Dan Moren, Contributor, MacworldJAN 23, 2023 3:30 am PST
Bear with me: this is, on the face of it, a weird idea. But is it possible Apple is making its Macs too powerful?
Okay, okay, I know: how could having a computer that’s too powerful be a bad thing? But after this week’s announcement of the new MacBook Pro and Mac mini, I found myself wondering whether the company has painted itself into a corner, vis-a-vis its impressive hardware.
It is, admittedly, a strange state of affairs when you find yourself wondering if Apple has maybe gotten too good at making computers that are so powerful they are overkill for the purposes of most tasks, but you don’t have to look too far to see another example of this same phenomenon.
This is a struggle that Apple’s long contended with on the iPad. Ask any user pushing the envelope of an iPad Pro and the consensus will likely be that the hardware is awesome and incredibly powerful–if only the software could keep up.
To be fair, the problem with the iPad is more about what’s available on the platform. Yes, you can have all the power of an M2 processor, but how do you really put it to use? Most iPad users aren’t doing high-level video editing, coding, or working with giant Photoshop images. (That said, Apple’s advertising would like to remind us that any of us could be doing all those things…if only we’d buy an iPad Pro.)
I’m not suggesting that a lack of powerful software is what’s holding the Mac back: if anything, Apple’s clearly committed to letting users throw as much horsepower at pro-level applications as they possibly can. And it’s doing so by offering a ton of different machines powered by a slew of ever more powerful chips. When Apple announced its first post-M1 processors over the last couple of years, the rollout took on almost comical self-topping proportions as it announced first the M1 Pro and M1 Max, and then in 2022, the M1 Ultra. It felt a bit like one of those old infomercials “But wait! There’s more!”
The truth of the matter is that even the Pro series processors are way overpowered for most common computing tasks. Email, web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets–the M1 and M2 handle all of those with power to spare. And yet Apple keeps pushing out faster and faster chips, appeasing a smaller and smaller niche of the market (albeit one with high margins). Between the M2 Pro and M2 Max MacBooks, the M2 Pro Mac mini, the Mac Studio, and the still-to-be-unveiled Mac Pro, it seems like there are more machines aimed at the market for powerful professional desktops than consumers. and yet, the higher you go, the thinner the air: there are fewer people in the market for machines that powerful.
The long-standing paradigm for the computer industry is that the more you spend, the more power you get. That used to be embodied by a single spec: the clock speed of a processor. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, customers had fixated on clock speed as the only measurement that mattered–an idea Apple even attempted to dispel with its idea of “the megahertz myth“. And, to some degree, it worked: Search Apple’s specs pages or press releases for its new Macs, and you won’t even see mention of the speed of any of its processors.
Instead, it’s been supplanted by an alternate metric: cores, both CPU and GPU. The more money you shell out, the higher your number of parallel processing units. But even with that, we’ve fallen back into the trap of just blithely increasing the number, with a focus on “bigger is better.” And just like with the megahertz myth, the fixation on cores ignores the qualities that are really making the differentiation between models for most users.
Because when all your devices are ridiculously powerful, the distinction comes down to other more tangible features: Screen size. Form factor. Number and type of ports. Heck, port placement. All of those are more readily understood by (and arguably more relevant to) the market than abstract numbers like “20 percent faster.” Sure, to a visual artist pumping out renders that eat up their entire CPU, 20 percent faster might mean saving them a day’s worth of work. But nobody believes that a 20-percent faster CPU will let them answer emails so much more efficiently that they can kick off their weekend on Thursday. That’s simply not the limiting factor.
With the first two generations of its own chips under its belt, Apple has readily proved that it’s capable of making hardware that is second to none. And I’m certainly not advocating that Apple not try to produce the best chips it can. But no jump in the near future is going to be as big as that first one, from Intel to Apple silicon, and as it approaches the end of this transition period, Apple might want to consider other ways to push the Mac forward–new form factors? touchscreens?–rather than just ever faster chips with more plentiful cores. In other words, to throw some of the company’s most famous words back in its face, perhaps it’s time to once again think different.
Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident.