When Apple released the M1 chip at the end of 2020, 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. Then in March 2022, Apple revealed the M1 Ultra, filling out the M1 chip lineup and dramatically altering our expectations for Apple’s roadmap. At WWDC in June 2022, Apple introduced the next generation of Apple silicon with the M2. So now what? Here’s how the Apple silicon transition started and has gone so far—and where it’s going.
M1: December 2020
Apple’s M1 processor is based on the 5nm A14 chip that first arrived in the iPad Air (4th generation) and iPhone 12. It has four high-performance cores with 192 KB of L1 instruction cache and 128 KB of L1 data cache and shared 12 MB L2 cache and four 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 eight cores split evenly among power and efficiency leading to tremendous speed boosts over the prior models. The system-on-a-chip also has an eight-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 not 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 option 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 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro.
The M1 Ultra came as a surprise during Apple’s “Peek Performance” event in March. Apple did a good job keeping this processor under wraps—the rumors that popped up about the Mac Studio a couple of days before the event simply described the Ultra as a variant of the M1 Max.
Turns out that calling the M1 Ultra a variant is misleading—it’s actually two Max chips that work together as one. Apple created an extremely fast interconnect called UltraFusion that offers 2.5TBps of bandwidth between the two dies, which allows the Ultra to be recognized as a single SoC by macOS.
Since the Ultra is two Maxes, you can double the specs of a single Max and you get the lowdown on the Ultra. It has 20 CPU cores, with 16 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores, and a 48-core or 64-core GPU. The M1 Ultra is available with 64 or 128GB of unified memory, with a memory bandwidth of 800GBps. And it has a 32-core Neural Engine.
The Ultra also has all the media engines found in the Max, but again, it has twice as many: two video decode engines, four video encode engines, and four ProRes encode and decode engines. Simply put, this is an ideal processor for video editing.
Apple took the wraps off the M2 at WWDC in June 2022. The first Macs to feature the new chip are the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. The M2 will eventually replace the M1 as the baseline for the M-series, but Apple will still offer Macs with the M1 for months and maybe years to come.
The M2 is a 5nm chip with a base configuration that has the same number of cores as the M1: eight CPU cores (four performance, four efficiency), and an eight-core or 10-core GPU. That’s the same as the M1, but Apple has made improvements to boost its performance–the performance cores’ L2 cache increased from 12GB to 16GB, and the clock speeds are higher. Apple said the M2 offers an 18 percent overall CPU boost over the M1, and a 35 percent boost with GPU performance.
The M2 also has a higher maximum RAM configuration than the M1–24GB with 8GB and 16GB options. The M2’s memory bandwidth is now 100Gbps, an increase over the M1’s 68.25GBps. The 16-core Neural Engine is also faster than the M1’s. The M2 also has an improved media engine that supports H.264 and HEVC encoding and decoding up to 8K resolution and includes the ProRes video acceleration support.
The M2 will probably make its way into the Mac mini later this year. It could also find its way into the 24-inch iMac, but since that model started shipping in May 2021, it may not be updated until 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. Based on what we know of the M2, the M2 Pro and Max could have 12 CPU cores, up to 38 or 40 GPU cores, and higher RAM limits. Based on the current cadence, we expect these to launch in 2023, possibly at WWDC or the fall Mac event, but some reports suggest they could launch later in 2022.
M2 Extreme: Mid 2023
When John Ternnus announced the M1 Ultra processor at the “Peek Performance” event, he declared it to be the last chip in the M1 family. Later in the presentation, he teased the final Mac to transition to Apple silicon, the Mac Pro. Assuming both of those things are true, Apple is working on a workstation-caliber desktop chip for the next generation of its Mac Pro tower that’s something different than a mere upgrade to the M1 Ultra. The Mac pro chip has been 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 numbers look a lot like two M1 Ultra chips. So it’s possible that Apple does something similar to what it did with the M1 Max by fusing two M1 Ultra chips into a mega chip that brings those very rumored specs: 40 CPU cores (32 performance, eight efficiency), 128 GPU cores, 64 Neural Engine cores, and up to 356GB of RAM. Gurman teased the existence of that very chip that could launch next year, tentatively called the M2 Extreme.
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 in November or December.
M3: Late 2023
Apple is already working on the third generation of its M-series processor, according to the latest rumors. It will likely be its first Mac processor to use a 3nm process and offer a significant speed boost over the M2 due to a new architecture, possibly with more GPU and CPU cores, higher RAM limits, and extra Thunderbolt ports. Its code name is Ibiza.
M3 Pro and M3 Max: Late 2024-early 2025
We don’t know much about the M3 Pro and M3 Max other than their codenames are reportedly Lobos and Palma, and the chip will be based on the M3 processor. Based on the M1 timeline, this chip probably might not arrive until 2025