When Apple released the M1 chip at the end of last year, we were blown away by the speed improvements over its Intel predecessors. A year later Apple did it again with the M1 Pro and M1 Max and rumors suggest that the next generation will be an even bigger leap. Here’s how the Apple silicon transition has gone so far—and where it’s going.
Apple’s current M1 processor is based on the 5nm A14 chip the first arrived in the iPad Air and later the iPhone 12. It has 4 high-performance cores with 192 KB of L1 instruction cache and 128 KB of L1 data cache and shared 12 MB L2 cache and 4 energy-efficient cores with 128 KB of instruction cache, 64 KB of L1 data cache, and shared 4 MB L2 cache. That makes a total of 8 cores split evenly among power and efficiency leading to tremendous speed boosts over the prior models. The system-on-a-chip also has an 8-core GPU in most models (the entry-level MacBook Air and 24-inch iMac have a 7-core GPU) with 128 execution units and up to 24576 concurrent threads.
Memory has also changed. With the M1, the LP-DDR4 memory isn’t just soldered to the motherboard, it’s actually part of the chip itself. That means it’s faster and more efficient than before, but it’s also a bit more limited—you can only get 8GB or 16GB in an M1 Mac and there’s no way to upgrade it after purchase. (That won’t be a surprise for MacBook buyers but the same also applies to desktop models, though we’re no sure about the Mac Pro yet.) And finally, the chip has a 16-core Neural Engine, along with the Secure Enclave and USB4/Thunderbolt support.
We started hearing about the development of an M1X chip earlier this year, but the rumors weren’t quite accurate. Apple is calling its next-gen processors the M1 Pro and M1 Max, and true to their names, they are a massive leap over the M1.
Built using the same 5nm process as the M1, the M1 Pro and M1 Max bring a new 10-core CPU, including eight high-performance cores and two high-efficiency cores, that delivers speeds up to 70 percent faster than the M1. The M1 Pro offers up to 200GB/s of memory bandwidth with support for up to 32GB of unified memory while the M1 Max delivers up to 400GB/s of memory bandwidth with support for up to 64GB of unified memory.
On the graphics side, the M1 Pro has a 14-core or 16-core GPU that is up to 2x faster than M1, while the M1 Max adds a 32-core GPU options for up to 4x faster graphics performance than M1. According to Apple, the new M1 Max MacBook Pro can transcode ProRes video in Compressor up to 10x faster compared with the Intel 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Additionally, the chips also have a 16-core Neural Engine, additional Thunderbolt 4 controllers, and a new display engine that can drive up to four external displays on the M1 Max. You can find them in the MacBook Pro and likely the upcoming 27- or 30-inch iMac.
Apple’s M2 chip will likely arrive in the next MacBook Air, which looks to get a complete redesign with new colors to match the 24-inch iMac. According to Bloomberg, Apple’s next-generation processor “will include the same number of computing cores as the M1 but run faster.” That’s similar to how Apple approaches A-series upgrades, which has had six cores since the A11 processor despite vastly improved performance. As far as the GPU goes, Bloomberg reports that the cores will increase from seven or eight to nine or 10. The M2 will likely be based on TSMC N4P enhanced 5nm process similar to the A15 processor, according to a report by The Information.
We don’t know yet how speeds compare, but based on rumors and Apple’s positioning of its chips thus far, we can expect the M2 processor to actually be a bit slower than the M1 Pro. The same M1 limitations on USB4/Thunderbolt and RAM will likely remain as well since Apple is establishing non-Pro and -Max chips as consumer products for users who aren’t as demanding.
M2 Pro and M2 Max—Late 2022/Early 2023
The next generation of Apple’s high-end laptop processors could have several tiers of performance like the M1 Pro and M1 Max, with as many as 20 computing cores, made up of 16 high-performance and four high-efficiency cores, according to a Bloomberg report. That’s due to a new unique two-die processor the will effectively double the cores in each chips, according to a report in The Information.
Apple is also working on a workstation-caliber desktop chip for the next generation of its Mac Pro tower that could also fall under the M2 Pro and M2 Max name. It’s rumored to have up to 40 cores due to a four-die process or the pairing of chips with 32 performance cores, as well as a 64-core or 128-core GPU. Those specs are comparable to what Intel and AMD offer in their top-of-the-line workstation chips and graphics cards and would challenge the fastest PCs.
We don’t know if Apple will continue to offer PCI slots for graphics and storage or simply add more ports for expansion, but the Mac Pro is definitely the most interesting Mac in the Apple silicon transition. We could get a peek at the machine at WWDC with a launch likely in November or December.
Apple is already working the third-generation of its M-series processor, according to The Information. It will likely be its first desktop processor to use a 3nm process and offer a significant speed boost over the M1. Its code name is Ibiza.
M3 Pro and M3 Mac—2024
We don’t know much about the M3 Pro and M3 Max other than their codenames are Lobos and Palma, and will likely be based on a 3nm process.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.