The biggest Apple news of 2020 was the start of the transition of the Mac to Apple silicon. Alex Gollner writes about how the transition might go over the next two years. Tell us what you think in the comments below!
In June 2020 Apple announced that they would replace the entire range of Intel-based Macs with new computers running on Apple Silicon. Within two years. They said that these new Macs would have more processing power and need much less battery.
We can’t have everything in the first 8 months
Hopeful Mac fans would like to see an Apple silicon version of their favourite Mac as soon as possible. If all Intel Macs are going to be replaced in time to announced by the Apple Worldwide Developer conference this year, Apple would have said that the transition will take a year.
The distinction between an Intel CPU and an Apple system on a chip is that the CPU is a single powerful chip whereas an SoC has a CPU cores, GPU cores, other cores, very fast memory and useful IO controllers (such as Thunderbolt) all in a combined unit.
Given that the most difficult task in this project is to replace the Mac Pro, it is likely it will be the last computer to change from Intel CPUs to an Apple M-series SoC. In Summer 2022 or Winter 2022, which would be within Apple’s two year transition timetable.
In recent years Apple have released new computers in Spring, in Summer at the WWDC and in Autumn after the iPhone launch. Here’s how Apple could transition Macs to M-series SoCs over the next two years: (Click for larger image)
This table also shows which Intel Macs will be available until the M3-based Mac Pro is released in Summer 2022.
It makes sense that the first SoC in the first Apple silicon Macs is known as the M1. The question is whether the M2 name will be reserved for the first Apple silicon versions of iMacs and more powerful MacBook Pros or the next updates of the entry-level Macs we’ve already seen (the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini coming in Autumn this year or Spring next year).
If Apple want to distinguish between multiple M-series SoCs at the same time, they might not use the same naming scheme as the A-series SoCs at the heart of iPhones and iPads. The A-series names have increased by one on average per year. The A9 in the iPhone 6S was superseded by the A10 Fusion in the iPhone 7.
As different devices need different A-series SoCs in the same year, Apple distinguish between them using letter suffixes. The iPad Pro from 2015 used a variant of the A9 called the A9X. The second generation iPad Pro in 2017 was used the A10X Fusion.
The name of the A-series SoC in iPhones and iPads isn’t common currency for consumers. If the name of the M-series SoC is featured heavily in Apple marketing, it will be difficult for customers to understand the distinction between the power of an M1 in a 13-inch MacBook Pro with two Thunderbolt ports and an ‘M1X’ in a 16-inch MacBook Pro with four Thunderbolt ports, or even an ‘M1Z’ in an Apple silicon Mac Pro.
As purchases and releases of Macs don’t match the cadence of iPhones and iPads, Apple could use the number after the M to indicate base price point and features, adding the release year as these SoCs evolve. M1 for entry-level, M2 for mid-range and M3 for high-end Macs.
Apple silicon: Same power at lower prices or more power at the same prices?
After the WWDC 2020 announcement, we didn't know if Apple silicon Macs would have much more processing power at the same prices or they would have the same processing power at much lower prices. The launch of the M1-based Mac Mini, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in November showed that Apple were going for the first option: Much more powerful Macs at established price points.
Given that Apple have decided not to radically change the price points of the first M1 Macs, there is a good chance that the rest of the Apple silicon Mac range will have very similar price points but with much more power and more features.
From tens of different Intel CPUs to one Apple SoC
Another aspect of 2021 Macs is how the economies of scale in silicon production will effect how many different ‘M-series’ systems on a chip will be available. In recent years Apple have had a large range of Intel CPUs to choose from when specifying new Macs. Each model of MacBook Air, MacBook Pro or Mac mini was built around a different Intel part. Intel can provide a large number of CPU options because they make them and other parts for many other PC manufacturers as well as Apple.
To make the M-series Macs benefit from similar economies of scale, Apple are likely to introduce models that are based on a smaller variety of systems on a chip: M1: Macs at lower price points - e.g. MacBook Air M2: Macs at mid-range price points - e.g. 27-inch iMac M3: Macs at high-end price points - e.g. Mac Pro The ‘Late 2020’ MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini are based around the same Apple silicon M1 system on a chip.
M1-based Macs run at the same range of speeds (in response to power and temperature management). They have the same limits on ports, storage and RAM. They have two Thunderbolt ports, a maximum of 2TB of storage and 16GB of RAM. As regards industrial design, the new Macs kept the same look and technology as their Intel equivalents. So what will the next Apple silicon Macs be like?
More power at current prices
The first new Macs from Apple in Spring 2021 are likely to be at the same price points as their Intel-based equivalents. They will be probably use the same M1 SoC as the first three Macs in the series. The difference will be in the industrial design. Now that the start of the transition has gone so well – that the Mac community believes in the new direction, Apple can safely change more about the Mac: the way they look - which allows for additional features. An industrial design that shows what is now possible when powerful Mac logic boards can have the same heat and space profile as those in a MacBook Air.
The better of the two M1 MacBook Airs is within $50 of the current ‘middle’ 21.5-inch iMac.
I expect one of the next Macs will be an entry-level iMac. It will probably have the same M1 as before - bringing the same features and limitations as the Mac mini: A base configuration of 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD storage, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports and an HDMI 2.0 port.
It won't have the current $1,299 21.5-inch iMac’s discrete GPU with 2GB of RAM or 32GB RAM configuration. These missing features will probably be made up by the power of the M1 - including its 8 GPU cores.
A new possibility for an entry level iMac could be a new 27-inch iMac with the same internals as the M1-based 21.5-inch iMac. Many users would be perfectly well served by a desktop version of a MacBook Air with a 27-inch screen.
The iPad Air was updated in September 2020 to be very close in features and power to the iPad Pro. Many people think that is a sign that Apple's next iPad Pro will be a big update. Its new Apple silicon system on a chip could be the same M1 as in current M1 Macs - although they may give it an ‘A series’ designation to match previous iPads and iPhones. That would allow for much larger RAM and storage options, alongside two Thunderbolt ports. Making iPad Pros the M-series would also help distinguish them from the rest of the iPad range.
Spring 2021: Any processor you like – as long as it is an M1
There is a chance that the way you configure an Apple computer in Spring 2021 will be based around choosing between different computers with the same technology at their core. Your computer will have two Thunderbolt 3 ports, 8-16GB of RAM, 512GB-2TB of SSD storage. Your choice will whether it is a MacBook Air with no fan, a MacBook Pro with better power profile and longer life, a Mac mini, a iMac with a choice of screen sizes or even an iPad Pro with a choice of screen sizes.
Given that choice, it is likely that when the 2021 iMac range is launched, its new industrial design will be influenced by the direction the iPad Pro and iPad Air have taken recently. Smaller bezels. No chin. A variety of colours. Maybe even a larger size option: a 32-inch iMac to match the size of the Pro Display XDR. The new iMacs might also be designed to look as insubstantial as an iPad floating on a 2020 iPad Magic Keyboard.
One surprise in the new M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro was that Apple didn’t update their built-in cameras. The 720p FaceTime HD camera remained. Some say that the HD camera found in most PC laptops and the 2020 27-inch iMac couldn’t fit in the bezels in the new machines.
Last year’s 2020 updates for the iPad Pro and iPad Air included a 1080p selfie camera. A new industrial design will be able to accommodate that in entry-level iMacs.
As well as being able to make big changes, a new industrial design allows for updated technologies. That includes a Face ID sensor to unlock the iMac. Many users would appreciate the option to have an OLED screen too. As used in iPhones since the iPhone X and possibly in 2021 iPad Pros.
An interesting advantage to OLED display technology is that it can support cameras and other sensors behind the screen. This would make iPads and iMacs easier to use in both horizontal and vertical configurations. Users in video conferences would have much better eyelines.
A camera behind the screen would allow for a bezel-less design - perhaps with the addition of a transparent frame for users to adjust screen position - which would be a callback to the seemingly floating display of the iMac G4.
Hopefully the economies of scale will also encourage Apple to release in Spring new external displays based on the two or three sizes of the new entry-level iMac. Many people are looking for second and third displays for their Macs. They might also appreciate a 21.5-inch external display for their iPad Pro.
Next Macs: New price points for M1 computers?
I expect that there’s more to the Mac transition than replacing current Intel Macs. Apple could introduce computers at new price points too. Although there is a single M1 design for the three new computers, Apple has a way to produce the same computer at a lower price point: by ‘part binning.’
As CPUs and systems on a chip are hard to make, there is always a proportion of production that aren’t up to standard. Small flaws in the base silicon can make areas of circuitry non-functional at the manufacturing stage. This means that M1s need to be tested before being put into computers. The idea of part binning is that SoCs that fail are put into different bins depending on which areas fail the testing. As the 8 CPU cores and 8 GPU cores take up a lot of space in an M1, the chance that one of these doesn’t work is relatively high. An M1 that has failed a test can then be put into the ‘1 CPU core not working,’ ‘1 GPU core not working’ or ‘2 CPU cores not working’ bin.
The Autumn 2020 M1 MacBook Air uses the standard 8 CPU and 8 GPU core version of the SoC. There is also a configuration that has 8 CPU and 7 GPU cores. It is likely that Apple didn’t create a special version of the M1 for that configuration. They are probably using M1s whose testing showed that a single GPU core doesn’t work.
That configuration uses M1 SoCs from the ‘1 GPU core not working’ bin. There are other bins. The 5 nanometre process used to make M1s is very new. There are likely to be a good number of M1s being binned.
As well M1s being much faster and more energy efficient, they also cost Apple significantly less to produce than paying Intel for CPUs and associated chips. Sumit Gupta (VP of IBM’s AI Strategy) estimates that Apple pays $175 for low-end Intel CPUs and that the standard M1 costs around $50. It is possible that Apple have negotiated a lower price for binned M1s. This could mean that Apple could introduce new computers at lower price points while maintaining margins. Or even computers in markets that are potentially much larger with lower margins.
M1E for education and the home
The standard M1 13-inch MacBook Air with 8 GPU cores and 512GB SSD costs $1,249. To hit the US psychological price point of less than $1,000 means the M1 13-inch MacBook Air with 7 GPU cores and 256GB SSD costs $250 less at $999. Education prices are $100 in each case.
Hundreds of dollars below that $899 education price, Chromebook tablets and laptops prices start at $269. I expect that schools will hope to allocate $300-$350 to buying each tablet plus keyboard or laptop. At this level, computers for education have 4GB of slow RAM and 32GB of slow SSD storage.
If Apple wants to seriously compete in education market, what would a new M1E-based Mac be like?
- 4 CPU cores (including at least two high-performance cores)
- 4 GPU cores
- 4GB of fast RAM
- 64GB of fast SSD storage
- No screen
- No keyboard
- Single USB port for keyboard/mouse
- HDMI port for display
- Separate power port
To clearly separate this computer from the education price of the M1 Mac mini, it would make sense for Apple to market it as being based on an ‘M1E’ system on a chip.
To release this in time for education purchasers and for education software developers, it would make sense for computers like this to be launched in the Spring of 2021. Alongside the M1 21.5- / 27- and 32-inch iMacs with a new industrial design. As well as an M1E-based eMac mini, if Apple really wanted to take on the whole world of education, they could launch another eMac: $600 for a Mac based on the current industrial design of the current low-end 21.5-inch iMac (1920-by-1080 display, 4GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 2 Thunderbolt ports). $700 if you want an Apple keyboard and mouse. Sold as the 21.5-inch eMac. Given the use computers at home for education, the M1E could also be the basis of a new Apple TV more powerful than the current A10X-based Apple TV 4K, an M1E-based Apple TV.
Spring 2021 M1 lineup
- 21.5-inch iMac
- 27-inch iMac, entry-level
- 32-inch iMac, entry-level
- iPad Pro
To add to Autumn 2020’s Mac mini, MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro with two Thunderbolt ports.
Intel versions of the four Thunderbolt port 13-inch MacBook Pro, 16-inch MacBook Pro, high-end 27-inch iMac, iMac Pro and Mac Pro will still be available.
Next Macs: New M-series SoC?
A Spring 2021 event made up of a new entry-level iMac available in two or three sizes, a new iPad Pro and external displays is enough for Apple to show the future directions for the Mac. What would Apple then launch at the Worldwide Developer conference in June?
The question for the next stage of the Apple silicon transition is whether new Macs are based on features afforded by a new SoC or by new Macs and Apple hardware based on the current M1 SoC. Or both.
What would an M2 SoC need to add to make it suitable for the rest of the MacBook Pro and iMac ranges?
- Ports: Four Thunderbolt 3 ports - ideally each with a separate Thunderbolt controller. That would mean four Thunderbolt controllers, each with a bandwidth of 40 Gbits per second. Current four-Thunderbolt-port MacBook Pros, iMacs and iMac Pros still only have two Thunderbolt controllers. This restricts how many high-resolution displays can be connected at once. For example you cannot connect two 5K displays to the same Thunderbolt Bus on the iMac Pro. The current M1 Mac mini additionally has two USB-A ports and a Gigabit Ethernet port. Intel iMac users are accustomed to having four USB-A ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port and an SDXC card slot. Intel Mac Minis and iMacs can also be configured to have a 10GB Ethernet port.
- RAM: Larger options. M1-based Macs are limited to 16GB. Intel 16-inch MacBook Pros can be configured with 64GB of RAM, 27-inch iMacs with 128GB, iMac Pros with 256GB.
- Storage: Larger options. M1-based Macs are limited to 2TB. Intel 16-inch MacBook Pros and 27-inch iMacs can be configured with an 8TB SSD, iMac Pros with 4TB.
- Graphics: M1-based Macs don’t support discrete GPUs. The remaining Intel MacBook Pros and all iMacs have a variety of GPUs with up to 16GB of RAM.
How many current Macs could be built around the M2?
The features of the next M-series SoC would depend on whether it is designed to be the centre of all MacBook Pros and iMacs, or solely the mid-range models. It would also determine whether the separate iMac Pro model makes sense in the new Apple silicon world.
What features would the M2 need?
For mid-range MacBook Pros and iMacs only: Still two Thunderbolt controllers but allowing for four Thunderbolt ports, up to 64GB RAM, up to 4TB storage. The biggest change would be an increase in GPU cores - rising from 8 GPU cores to 10 - to account for the lack of the ability to accommodate a discrete GPU.
For all MacBook Pros and iMacs - including the iMac Pro: Four Thunderbolt controllers, up to 256GB RAM, up to 8TB storage. The ability to accommodate one or more internal discrete GPUs.
When the M2 be introduced? Given that Apple said that the Mac transition to Apple silicon would take two years, there is a chance that a fully-updated M2 Mac range would be completed at the Apple Worldwide Developer conference in Summer of 2022. This is because that Apple cracking the problem of working with discrete GPUs is needed for them to make an M3 SoC for an Apple silicon Mac Pro.
If the plans for the M2 are less ambitious, mid-range iMacs and MacBook Pros could be launched at the WWDC in June this year. Then the M2-22 would be launched 12 months later at WWDC 22 with the ability to use more RAM and work with discrete GPUs.
Summer 2021: New industrial design MacBook Pros and mid-range iMacs
At the moment Apple sells three kinds of 13-inch MacBook Pro. The M1 two Thunderbolt port version, a Intel two Thunderbolt port version and an Intel four port Thunderbolt version. Although they look very similar, they are very different computers.
The M2 SoC is an opportunity to make a clear distinction between the entry-level smaller MacBook Pro (two Thunderbolt ports) and the mid-range smaller MacBook Pro (four Thunderbolt ports). For years there have been rumours that Apple will introduce a new size for the MacBook Pro: 14 inches. This would replace the four Thunderbolt port 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Just as many Macs can be built around the M1, a large range of Macs could be based around a 4.0GHz / 8 CPU / 10 GPU / 64GB RAM / 4TB storage / 4 Thunderbolt M2 SoC. In this case as well as new MacBook Pros, Summer could see more powerful iMacs and a Mac mini.
So at WWDC 2021, the M2 Mac lineup would add:
- 14-inch MacBook Pro
- 16-inch MacBook Pro, mid-range
- 21.5-inch iMac, high-end
- 27-inch iMac, mid-range
- 32-inch iMac, mid-range
Autumn 2021: Refresh and expansion of the low end
Once the first M1 Macs have been available for a year, it would be reasonable to refresh them for 2021. Given that Apple model refreshes are about offering improved parts that don’t cost Apple any more money, it is likely that this will be a relatively small refresh. Aimed not at current M1 Mac users but for those who still work on an Intel MacBook Air or low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro.
If ‘M1’ designates the price point and not the generation of the SoC, then the late 2021 SoC would be named something like ‘M1-21’ - the only changes being an increase in clock speed from 3.2GHz to 4.0GHz and an increase in the ceilings of RAM (16GB to 32GB) and SSD (from 2TB to 4TB).
Apple could also take this opportunity to launch lower-end configurations of previous Macs. As each M1-21 will probably cost Apple $30, they could release more enclosures for it . Perhaps even new industrial designs for the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- Mac mini, low-end
- MacBook Air, new industrial design
- 13-inch MacBook Pro, new industrial design
- 16-inch MacBook Pro, entry-level
- 21.5-inch iMac, entry-level
- 27-inch iMac, entry-level
- 32-inch iMac, entry-level
Spring 2022: Education and home update
In the Spring of next year, Apple could take the opportunity to complete a full range of education Macs. Following on from entry-level versions of larger screen iMacs, eMac versions of more powerful Macs could be offered based around an M1E-22 SoC (The same as the 2021 edition apart from a clock-speed increase from 3.2GHz to 4.0GHz):
- eMac mini
- eMacBook Air
- 21.5-inch eMac
- 27-inch eMac
- eMac Pro
- Apple TV
I’ve included an ‘eMac Pro’ model here. This would be an educational version of an Apple silicon-based Mac Pro - even though a high-end M-series Mac Pro wouldn’t have been released by then. This would make sense if Apple research shows that education has enough uses for a very expandable but not hugely powerful Mac. In this case a Mac Pro that could use PCI cards but wouldn’t support discrete GPUs.
Summer 2022: The final piece - discrete GPUs
The element that defines high-end Macs today is the ability to make use of one or more discrete GPUs. In iMacs and MacBook Pros, these GPUs are soldered onto the logic board. In the Mac Pro, GPUs are found in PCIe cards or in MPX Modules.
Once Apple launch Apple silicon Macs that can use discrete GPUs, the transition away from Intel will be complete.
Over the next 18 months more and more developers will ahem moved their application code to move over to the Metal graphics drawing and scheduling system built into macOS and iOS. Until discrete GPUs can be used, Apple hope that the performance of Metal sharing the graphics work amongst GPU cores on the M1 and M2 SoCs will supersede the performance of the discrete GPUs available in Intel MacBook Pro and iMac ranges.
The M3 might also allow for fast memory away from the system on a chip. That would mean maximum RAM capacities of the Mac Pro and high-end 27-inch iMac could be much higher than other Apple silicon Macs.
The final Mac to move to Apple silicon will therefore be the Mac Pro. It’s M3 SoC should have a higher clock speed – 5.0GhZ – and more cores: 16 CPU cores (12 high performance cores, 4 energy-efficient cores) and 10 GPU cores.
- 256GB SoC RAM
- 2TB max RAM
- 12 Thunderbolt ports
- 5 Thunderbolt controllers
Each Mac would have space for different amounts of RAM and SSD.
- Mac Pro (2TB max RAM, 24TB max SSD)
- 32-inch iMac, high-end (512GB max RAM, 24TB max SSD)
- Mac mini, high-end (256GB max RAM, 12TB max SSD)
The M2-22 SoC could keep the same clock speed but add the ability to work with discrete GPUs and increased RAM. That would make it the basis of all other Macs apart from entry-level models:
- Mac mini, high-end / mid-range
- 14-inch MacBook Pro, high-end / mid-range
- 16-inch MacBook Pro, high-end / mid-range
- 21.5-inch iMac, high-end / mid-range
- 27-inch iMac, high-end / mid-range
- 32-inch iMac, high-end / mid-range
Post Apple silicon transition
Once all Macs are based on Apple silicon, Apple can move from revolution to evolution: with each M-series SoC gaining abilities:
- M1-22: 5.0GHz, 10 CPU cores, 10 GPU cores
- M1E-23: 5.0GHz, 8 or 16GB RAM
- M2-23: 5.4GHz, 10 CPU cores, 12 GPU cores
As Apple are likely to using a small variety of M-series SoCs at any one time, in a larger range of enclosures (13-inch, 14-inch, 16-inch, mini, iMac and Mac Pro), eventually Macs might also be available in additional enclosures:
- 11-inch MacBook Air/Pro
- 18-inch MacBook Pro
- 16-inch iMac
- 40-inch iMac
- Mac Pro mini - a smaller version of the Mac Pro
- Mac nano - the smallest ‘hockey puck’ Mac that can contain an M-series SoC, for those who think a Mac mini is much too big
- Mac Pi - a tiny circuit board-only Mac version of the Raspberry Pi computer that is used in education and embedded systems
Only the beginning
As you can see, the Apple silicon transition is likely to be much more than simply replacing last Intel Macs with M-series Macs. There are also new possibilities in education, the home, in iPad Pros and much more.
Let us know what you think will come once the final Mac moves to Apple silicon. Comment below!