First things first: Why the M1 starts at Apple’s low end

Apple’s high-end laptops are undoubtedly next on the to-do list.

apple m1 processor chip
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The era of Macs running Apple silicon has begun. Or at least, it will begin next week with the arrival of the new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini models running on Apple’s M1 chip.

It’s important to remember that Apple didn’t reveal its entire strategy during its event on Tuesday. This is just the first step in a two-year transition for the entire Mac product line. And it started where you might expect: at the low end of the company’s product line.

More options, later

The M1 chip is, as the name implies, the first in what will be a series of Apple-designed Mac processors. In fact, I’d wager that 2021 will bring us at least one (and perhaps more) variations on the M1 processor that was announced. But you have to start somewhere, and just as the iPhone 12 and iPad Air run on the same A14 processor, the three Macs that will arrive next week all run on what is essentially the same M1 chip.

That has some interesting ramifications for the future of how we shop for Macs. The number of spec options hasn’t shrunk to iPhone levels, but it’s close. Not only can you not opt to spend a little more for a faster processor—Apple isn’t even disclosing the clock speed of the M1! It’s just not something Apple thinks is worth differentiating, as is the case with its A-series chips.

Obviously, in the long run Apple will want to sell Macs with a variety of power levels. That’s why we’ll almost certainly see M1 variants next year that offer more processor cores, GPU cores, Thunderbolt channels, and memory options, and maybe even support for discrete GPUs.

But this round of products is more specifically constrained: 8GB or 16GB of RAM, two Thunderbolt ports, four high-performance processor cores, four high-efficiency processor cores, and a seven- or eight-core GPU. That’s it. That’s the M1. Take it, or wait for 2021.

MacBook Air

Apple took a slightly different approach with each of the three products it introduced on Tuesday.

The MacBook Air is the easiest. This is Apple’s most popular Mac, but it’s also the low-end laptop—of course it’s going to benefit from transitioning to the M1 processor. While users can’t order a higher-end processor configuration (as they could with the previous model), the truth is that the MacBook Air was always constrained by its thermal characteristics. Even a high-speed Intel chip like the i7 option in prior models would eventually need to throttle itself in order to keep cool.

macbook air m1 nov2020 Apple

The new MacBook Air does not have an internal fan, so it is more likely to throttle its performance to stay cool.

That’s still true now. While the MacBook Air uses the same M1 chip as the MacBook Pro, it no longer has an active cooling system of any kind—the fan’s been removed—so if it works too hard for too long, it’ll throttle itself back in order to keep operating. But on a thin, light laptop, this seems like the right trade-off—and allows the MacBook Pro to differentiate itself despite using the same processor.

It’s also funny that the $999 MacBook Air model features an M1 chip with only a seven-core GPU, rather than the eight-core GPU available in every other model. If you spec up a low-end MacBook Air, you’ll find that there’s only a $50 difference to add that GPU core, but as someone who has used the seven-GPU-core 2018 iPad Pro and the eight-GPU-core 2020 iPad Pro, let me tell you—it’s a really subtle difference. It makes sense for Apple to use the M1 chips that couldn’t make it with all eight GPU cores engaged as a way to cut down the price of its low-priced laptop a little bit more.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2 Thunderbolt ports)

You might think the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is disappointment, if you think it’s replacing the entire Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro line. But for the last few years, Apple has confusingly offered two entirely separate 13-inch MacBook Pro models. This new M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro is replacing the low-end of those two models, the one with two Thunderbolt ports.

macbook pro m1 nov2020 Apple

The M1 13-inch MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports. The four-port model still uses an Intel processor.

This is a case where Apple is probably showing its hand when it comes to 2021’s MacBook Pros. There’s almost certainly a new chip coming that will enable four Thunderbolt ports and more RAM that will allow Apple to build a replacement for the higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, as well as the 16-inch model. But this isn’t the time—and so Apple slides this new model in at the low end.

Except… is it a low-end model? We won’t know until these Macs get out in the world and we can lab test them, but it sure seems like the new low-end MacBook Pro will be about as fast as the high-end 16-inch Intel MacBook Pro. And with better battery life.

That’s an awkward position for Apple to be in, but such is the way of processor transitions. If Apple could flip a switch and transform every Mac model in a moment, it would—but not even Apple has that kind of power. These things take time.

Mac mini

This isn’t the first time that the Mac mini has gotten an upgrade that manages to be both a step forward and a regression in features. In this case, the new Mac mini will undoubtedly be faster than the Intel model it’s replacing—but it’s limited to 16GB of RAM, compared to the old model, which could be configured up to 64GB. The Mac mini is a step forward for many, but will frustrate those people who tend to push the Mac mini to its limits.

Intel Macs are the to-do list

Before you storm the battlements, remember that Apple hasn’t stopped selling the high-end, Intel-based configurations of the Mac mini and MacBook Pro. Apple knows very well that many of its customers still want Intel-based systems, and it’s not going to close them out until it’s got a suitable replacement.

Fans of the Mac mini may be especially encouraged by the existence of that Intel mini, because it says to me that Apple is well aware that it is going to need to offer a more powerful Apple silicon-based Mac mini at some point. And if you’re dying for a 13-inch MacBook Pro but are sad that the new model only has two Thunderbolt ports, it sure feels like Apple’s making you a promise to provide a replacement for the four-port model in 2021.

(It makes me wonder if the rumors we’ve heard about a 14-inch MacBook Pro might be referring to that machine, which would be perfect, since it would also eliminate the weird duplication of two separate 13-inch MacBook Pro models.)

We’ve probably seen the last new Intel Mac, but the presence of Intel Macs on Apple’s price lists provides a handy to-do list for where the Apple silicon transition will go next. The M1 hits the lowest-end devices in the Mac. In 2021 I’d expect the the rest of the MacBook Pros and the iMac to get a boost. Your patience will be rewarded.

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