It’s Impossible to Overstate What a Big Deal the New Macs Are

A new processor isn’t all hype

Images: Apple

If you’ve been in the market for a laptop at any point in the last few years, you might have noticed that new ones aren’t all that different from what you’re already used to. The speed leaps that used to come with upgrading to a new device just aren’t there anymore.

That just changed with a big announcement from Apple on Tuesday: It’s designed its own processor for Macs called the M1 chip — just like it makes them for the iPhone and iPad — and you can buy laptops with these new processors today. A move like this is unprecedented, and near impossible to pull off, but Apple made it look like a piece of cake.

The M1 processor, which powers the new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13”, and an updated Mac Mini, is the first processor designed in-house at Apple. By designing the chip itself, Apple is able to tout incredible battery life of up to 20 hours, massive performance leaps, and things like on-chip machine learning optimization that competitors will find difficult to match.

The amount of risk and investment that goes into switching to processor architecture should not be understated.

It has other benefits, too: iOS and iPadOS apps will work on the Mac for the first time, allowing users to tap into the millions of apps in the App Store that haven’t made their way to the desktop yet. That will greatly, and immediately, expand the unique software the Mac supports, adding games like Among Us, which wasn’t previously available on Mac.

For the last decade, when you bought a computer it was likely to have a processor from just one of two companies: Intel or AMD. That meant Apple, Microsoft, Huawei, and everyone else building a computer relied on these same two companies to supply the “brains” of their devices.

By switching to processors built in-house, on its own ARM-based architecture, Apple is able to pull away from the pack: It’s no longer tied to a roadmap outside of its own control. Instead, it chooses its own destiny, able to pour its cash into the research and development of improvements, from which it alone will benefit.

The amount of risk and investment that goes into switching to processor architecture should not be understated. Switching from x86-based architecture, like that used by both AMD and Intel and has powered most computers for decades, means that all macOS developers must make changes to their apps to ensure they run properly on these new devices.

x86 and ARM use different instruction sets, which means they speak different languages. Developers must make changes to their code so that ARM processors can interpret that language and run your favorite app. The process of doing this is a lot of work in some cases, and it’s notable that at launch, Google Chrome, Photoshop, and many other popular apps won’t have updated their code yet.

But Apple has confidence in the transition, because it built a special translation layer, Rosetta 2, that allows apps that haven’t been updated for the new processors to run anyway—albeit with a performance hit. That means developers of existing apps should be motivated to update their code to run properly on ARM devices, or users might start looking for alternatives. Expect them to make the shift sooner rather than later.

Microsoft, in contrast, has released ARM-based laptops like the Surface Pro X, but its translation layer is much more rudimentary, and it doesn’t work for every app yet. That makes for a confusing experience, unless you know what’s going on under the hood, and makes it hard to recommend these new devices for most people. I wrote in March that the Surface Pro X should scare Apple, but the truth is that Microsoft should be worried about just how quickly Apple has pulled off its transition to ARM.

It may be a little harder to recommend these first new Macs to web developers, however, as thousands of packages, including popular ones such as node-gyp and Docker, will need to be updated in order to get many existing web projects up and running. Things will break for a while, because these developers deal with a lot of complexity. This is exactly why Apple focused so heavily on its entry-level, everyday-user machines at its event on Tuesday: It is not introducing its M1 chip to its more serious machines, like the 16" MacBook Pro or the iMac. Apple wants the average user, who emails, edits photos, or messes around in Keynote, to jump over first.

All of this is what makes Apple’s unveiling of the M1 processor Tuesday just so impressive: These are often the hardest users to please, because they don’t understand why things aren’t working, nor do they really grasp what the difference in processor means. Apple’s work to make macOS handle this for you means those users don’t need to know or care.

Despite such a monumental architecture shift under the hood, it’s easy to recommend these devices to people like my partner’s parents, who bought a new MacBook Air shortly after the announcement. When recommending the new Air, I didn’t have to explain compromises about apps that won’t work—it was just the obvious choice.

Now that Apple has devices with its own processors in the world, the long transition away from Intel can begin, and we should start seeing the Mac regularly updated again, year after year, with improvements just like the iPhone. And, unlike everyone else in the industry, Apple isn’t dependent on Intel, and can do its own thing.

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