No Stopping This Apple Cart: New Macs to Extend Chip Dominance

  • Apple’s new Mac will upend the Intel-dominated PC market and open up new opportunities, while the PC will be the next battleground for existing smartphone application processor (AP) vendors.
  • Apple is now a step ahead, as it controls both the operating system and the hardware, as well as the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) environment. Others are unlikely to follow suit.
  • Apple’s service revenue has been steadily growing since 2016 and accounted for 19% of the total revenue in 2020. The new Macs would also help to boost sales.
  • Rather than ARM’s imminent mass adoption in PCs, customized RISC SoCs’ influence on PC architectures will grow.

On November 10, 2020, Apple introduced three new Mac devices — MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini. On April 20, 2021, Apple debuted the new iMac. All these are powered by the Apple M1 SoC. Apple has mastered both its software (OS and APP) and hardware system architectures, thanks to its years of experience designing customized RISC SoCs for its smartphones and tablets. Apple would like to extend this advantage to its future PC chips. As a result, Apple’s first high-performance SoC and architecture for the entry-level Mac has demonstrated its dominance over rival devices in its class.

Unlike Intel’s general-purpose processors which can be used in different models/brands of notebooks, Apple’s first SoC for Macs, the M1, is an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) to be only used in Apple-designed PCs. However, it can satisfy more than 80% of the requirement for entry-level PCs. In addition, Apple’s customized high-performance core (Firestorm) has many advantages over other ARM SoCs and x86 CPUs, such as high-density L1-L3 cache, eight-bit decoder, eight transmit (Dispatch) and 630 ROB.

counterpoint apple m1 ipad pro soc
Source – Apple

Apple has added many dedicated cores which have better computing performance and less power consumption. Developers can enjoy both the benefits as long as they design their apps based on the APIs provided by Apple. The integration of these cores in a single SoC results in significant cost savings and provides additional features. These investments are expensive but provide solid and differentiated functionalities that are difficult for competitors to deal with.

 Apple’s motivation for releasing new Macs

Apple intends to build an updated PC ecosystem based on the popularity of Apple chips in the iPhone and iPad. Furthermore, the new chips have the potential to unify the architecture of the iPhone and Mac, resulting in a unified ecosystem that Apple can completely control. M1 Macs will run iOS (iPhone and iPad) apps, with Apple’s Catalyst project enabling iOS and macOS developers to share code. Some apps are likely to be incompatible with the new framework due to the switch from Intel processors to Apple Silicon. More native iOS apps are expected to move to the macOS over time.

counterpoint apple ios apps
Source – Apple

Advantage of new Macs over Intel CPU-based counterparts

  • Power saving/always on/fast booting speed: The latest M1 Macs’ architecture is similar to the iPhones’. In the MacBook Air, Apple has replaced the fan with a passive cooler. Active cooling (fan) is present in the MacBook Pro and iMac, but it is seldom used, minimizing the amount of energy lost. ‘Always on’ devices will go from standby to active mode in a matter of seconds.
  • Running iOS apps on macOS: Developers can easily port apps from the iOS platform to the Mac using Mac Catalyst. ‘Continuity’ allows iOS and macOS devices to communicate easily and seamlessly for a better user experience.
  • Enhanced AI capability: The iOS 11, launched in 2017, included machine-learning APIs and Core ML. Core ML turns existing server-trained models into Core ML models. A Core ML model that has been optimized will run many times faster.
  • Faster data access speeds in storage: The storage design of the M1 Mac is identical to that of the iPhone. Apple has used the Non-Volatile Memory express (NVMe) communications protocol since the iPhone 6s, which provides considerably faster storage than its rivals. OSX (iOS, macOS) can also aid in data fragmentation reduction and access speed improvements.
counterpoint apple mac apps
Source – Apple

Suitable use cases for M1 Macs

  • Basic usage and office applications: Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote now can all run natively on the M1 Mac to take advantage of performance improvements. M1-based Excel VBA runs three to four times faster than on x86 CPUs, making it faster than on Intel processor-based Macs, according to our measurements.
  • Content creators: Most video/photo editing applications for Mac can support M1 Mac natively, or at the very least via Rosetta2. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom have seen significant efficiency, power, and memory consumption improvements.
  • Programmers: The M1 is designed to work with Xcode to create macOS or iOS apps. For this reason, many third-party libraries must be recompiled. The M1 is the new currency.

Benefits of new Macs

Apple moved to new Mx SoCs for a variety of reasons. Cost was one of them but not the most significant. Moving to a system architecture takes time, but there are several benefits in terms of hidden costs:

  • Increase in the quantity and consistency of Mac Apps: Apple would make it possible for iOS and macOS to share tools and architecture, allowing iOS developers to work on macOS as well. The aim is to make applications run smoothly on both platforms. The new framework will also pass the iPhone and iPad user experience.
  • Reduction in the number of chips outsourced: Apple’s use of in-house SoCs has allowed the company to build an ecosystem that is not dependent on chip partners such as Intel and AMD. It also means Apple will be able to better handle software-hardware vulnerabilities.
  • Increase in service revenue: Apple’s service revenue has grown rapidly over the past five years, with a five-year CAGR of 21.8%. Apple’s continuous introduction of new hardware helps increase the stickiness of its products, which in turn raises service revenue. Apple’s censorship also helps maintain the platform’s security, and will encourage more developers to sell their apps in Apple’s marketplace.

Future Apple Silicon and Macs

We believe the M1 is seen by Apple as the Apple Silicon for entry-level Macs. We expect Apple to launch an Apple Silicon upgrade for the MacBook Pro in Q4 2021 to differentiate it from the MacBook Air and the next Apple Silicon in 2021 for the iMac Pro. The new Apple Silicon is likely to use TSMC’s 4nm process for cost reduction and efficiency improvement. The primary goal of the Apple Silicon for MacBook Air and MacBook Pro would be to have a balance between performance and power consumption. The highly integrated PCB and the laptop-grade SoC, which is smaller than Intel’s CPU, can reserve more space for battery packs. However, Apple Silicon for desktop would need high-performance CPU cores, plus the improved NPUs and GPUs. Conversely, in situations where battery life and chip size are not major concerns (like in a desktop Mac), the chip’s performance can be maximized.

A detailed report, ‘Apple M1 Macs Review’, is available on our website for paying subscribers.

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One in Five iPads Sold in 2022 to Have Apple’s M-series SoC

At its Spring Loaded event in April 2021, Apple made a bunch of announcements on new iMacs, Apple TV, iPad Pros, AirTags, and more. Apple also introduced the new purple color variant for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. But among all the announcements, the iPad Pro with M1 chip took the center stage. The Apple Silicon chip not only makes it the most powerful and expensive iPad to date but also the one with top-notch specs.

Apple Silicon: M1 Chipset to Rule Them All

Before we deep-dive, it is important to understand the positioning of Apple Silicon. By using the M1 chipset in the iPad Pro, Apple is showcasing the ARM-based SoC’s scalability across different form factors – be it laptops, personal computers or tablets. This means it can power a portfolio of offerings even across different price points, right from a $699 Mac mini, a $799 iPad Pro and a $999 MacBook Air to a $1,299 iMac.

Unlike Intel’s tiered chipset strategy (from i3, i5, i7 to vPro) across different generations, the M1 is designed to target different types of applications and user segments from consumer to enterprise. Apple is driving scale with a single SKU of M1 SoC with consistent experience and performance across devices. This simplified positioning and messaging is the key differentiator for Apple.

counterpoint apple m1 ipad pro soc
Source – Apple

But it is not just about the power and efficiency of M1, the chipset unlocks a lot of potential in terms of bringing smartphone-like capabilities to devices, from Augmented Reality (AR) to 5G. The immediate competitors are the Microsoft Surface series of laptops, mostly powered by Intel or AMD series, and an odd model like the Pro X, powered by Arm-based customized Qualcomm silicon (Microsoft SQ1/2). Recently, Samsung also debuted a new Galaxy Book line-up, all powered by Intel chipsets. It is the only series that is closer to converging the smartphone and PC connected experiences.

The M1 chipset is based on the same fundamental ARM architecture as the A-series chips that we have been seeing on iPhones and previous iPads. This makes it seamless for the apps developed for A-series devices to become compatible with the M-series devices, expanding the opportunities for developers beyond iPhones and iPads.

Top-notch Specs Bring Fluidity and Future-proofing

Apple has been setting gold standards when it comes to memory and storage to complement its powerful SoCs, making it an ultimate device for rich content creation and consumption. Drawing parallels from iPhones, according to our Component Price Tracker, the average NAND flash storage capacity in smartphones has been rising. Talking particularly about Apple, the average NAND density was 141GB in Q4 2020. The increase in demand for storage capacity can be attributed to higher resolution cameras capable of capturing high-quality photos and videos, storing audio, video and other types of content, and more. The maxed-out version of M1 iPad Pro also has 2TB of onboard storage which allows content creators to store those large video files without worrying about storage space, thus making it future-proof.

Now, having 16GB of DRAM can be termed as bragging rights for the iPad Pro M1, but it also means that it is nearly as powerful as the laptops. Having more RAM will not only speed up tasks like video post-processing and loading large files in apps like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Procreate, but also make the tablet future-proof for the next few years. This makes the entire experience fluid for the users.

Commenting on this specs strategy, Counterpoint Research Associate Siddharth Bhatla said, “The 16GB RAM in iPad is a big jump from its 6GB predecessor, signaling a major overhaul, either in the iPad apps or the iPadOS altogether. The larger RAM paves the way for bringing full pro-grade desktop apps into the iPad ecosystem and facilitate in a better way the multi-tasking needed in typical professional use cases. Video-editing apps like Final Cut Pro need large swathes of RAM for editing videos. As the videography is transitioning to 8K HDR, processing high bit-rate files will be a whole lot smoother with ample RAM. Beefy 3D simulation tools like ANSYS currently depend on the cloud to render frames, but a powerful processor like the M1 creates room for moderate simulation rendering on iPad.”

counterpoint apple m1 ipad pro thunderbolt
Source – Apple

Bhatla added, “The iPad has traditionally been a media consumption device, whereas the iPad Pro is positioned towards the content creators and users looking for a highly portable but powerful device on the go. With this massive RAM upgrade, Apple has given wings to the app developer community for bringing the best out of iPads. With the upgrade to the 40Gbps Thunderbolt port, the new iPad Pro has to power to drive a 6K XDR display and support massive data-transfer rates, both of which can be a boon to the content creators. Apple Pencil on iPads further unlocks multiple use-cases which are not ideally convenient on most PC form-factors.”

M1 iPad Pro with 5G Connectivity Unlocks Many Possibilities

The iPad Pro M1 is the company’s first iPad with 5G connectivity. With blazing-fast 5G speeds at your fingertips, you can stream high-quality videos, and quickly upload or download files on the go. The low-latency network also means you can play your favorite and immersive mobile games on the go. Even the AR applications benefit from the high-speed connectivity.

counterpoint apple m1 ipad pro ar
Source – Apple

The LiDAR sensor on the iPad Pro M1 also unlocks immersive AR capabilities by creating a depth map of any space around you. The powerful ISP (Image Signal Processor) on the M1 chipset can focus on images more accurately, even in low-light conditions.

Can M1 iPad Pro be your Laptop Replacement?

The iPad Pro, with its premium price tag, is aimed purely at professionals. But whether or not it is a laptop replacement is a tricky question to answer. The “workflow” will play a crucial role here, besides the budget. Take, for instance, a graphics designer, an interior designer, or a professional photographer. These are the type of people who use apps like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create designs or edit photos. The M1 iPad Pro with Apple Pencil could prove to be a perfect tool to quickly draw rough sketches of designs they are thinking about. Procreate, a popular illustration app, is getting support for the M1 iPad Pro in its next update, which will enable painting 3D models, and will be up to four times faster. On a regular laptop without touchscreen or stylus support, it will not be easy to draw this quickly.

counterpoint apple m1 ipad pro pencil
Source – Apple

Next, think of an on-the-go content creator, someone who is using an iPhone to shoot 4K videos on travel or food, or for regular vlogs. Transferring videos to the iPad Pro using AirDrop is quick and easy. And with apps like Adobe Rush, iMovie and Luma Fusion, editing pro-grade videos on the go is easy. But one of the pain points of all apps is the time taken for rendering videos and exporting them.

In my MacBook Air M1 first impressions, I did a small test. I shot an 8K video, imported that on iMovie, edited it and then exported it in 4K 60fps. The rendering just took under a minute, whereas the same on my Windows 10 laptop, running Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM, took about seven minutes. So, if the M1 iPad Pro can deliver the same performance, it could mean less wait time for content creators to get the final video rendered.

counterpoint apple m1 ipad pro content creation
Source – Apple

The third category of users will be executives who generally keep traveling to client offices to give presentations about their products and services. Such users could also include CEOs who attend meetings and have to travel a lot. In this case, carrying a portable tablet seems more apt than a bulky laptop. And having 5G cellular connectivity means they don’t need to rely on the Wi-Fi network at the hotel or public places to access emails or continue working on cloud documents.

Pricing will play a crucial role here. For example, the Wi-Fi-only base iPad Pro model with 128GB storage and an 11-inch screen is priced at $799 and goes up to $2,099 for the 2TB storage model with 5G connectivity. The 12.9-inch model, on the other hand, starts at $1,099 for 128GB storage and Wi-Fi-only connectivity. The top model with 2TB storage and 5G connectivity will be available for $2,399.

The one important thing to note here is that the MacBook Pro M1 laptop with 2TB storage costs $100 less at $2,299, compared to the top iPad Pro model with M1. Add $129 for Apple Pencil and $299 for the Magic Keyboard, the total cost for the iPad Pro with M1 and accessories goes to $2,827.

But for someone with no budget restrictions, having workflow flexibility and heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, the M1 iPad Pro may just be an apt choice given the compactness, touchscreen, efficient battery life, Apple Pencil support and 5G connectivity. So, Apple is now offering a wide range of powerful computing options with differentiated capabilities for the users looking for a tablet form-factor instead.

Demand for M-series iPads to Soar

Apple introduced the iPad Pro in 2015, featuring the powerful Ax-series chipsets. But over the years, Apple has been looking to bridge the gap between iPads and MacBooks. Introducing Universal Apps that run across Apple devices – iPhone, iPad and Mac – was the first step. The M1 chipset-based iPad Pro is the second step towards bridging the gap.

The M1 iPad Pro is launching around mid-May in key markets such as the US. In other markets, it may take a little longer. The demand for M1-based iPads will be very high but with Apple’s warning about chip shortages in H2 2021, we estimate the share of M-series-based iPads to remain at close to one in ten iPads shipped this year. For the second half this year and the next, we estimate that almost one in five iPads shipped will sport an M-series SoC.

Also Read: Strategic Reviews and Insights on Latest Smartphones and Laptops

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First Impressions: MacBook Air M1 is a Breeze!

At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June 2020, Apple announced its plans of switching from Intel chipsets to Apple Silicon in two years, and that the move will be a gradual one. Later, in November 2020, Apple formally announced refreshed models of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and the Mac mini powered by the Apple M1 chip. I had a chance to try out the MacBook Air M1, and here are my first impressions.

Familiar Design to Feel at Home

The MacBook Air M1 and the MacBook Air with Retina display, which was introduced in early 2020, look the same. The weight and dimensions are identical, so is the port placement. It is impossible to tell the difference between the two without looking at the hardware. Both have minimal ports, including two multipurpose USB Type-C (Thunderbolt) ports on the left, and a 3.5mm audio jack on the right.

counterpoint macbook air m1 first impressions ports

There is no doubt that the MacBook Air design looks rich and premium, thanks to the aluminum body. The gold color variant looks impressive, though I feel it should have been called ‘rose gold’. With the limited usage of around six hours, typing on the scissors-switch keyboard felt better than my Early 2015 MacBook Air. One important thing to note here is the fan-less design which should result in some power efficiency.

counterpoint macbook air m1 first impressions keyboard

First Impressions After Using Apple MacBook Air M1

Power and efficiency have been two important things people have been talking about after using the new M1-powered MacBooks, and I was eager to test some of the claims. Right after booting the MacBook Air, the battery was around 45%. I first updated the apps and OS after which the battery dropped to around 33%. I loaded a few 8K videos, which I had shot from the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. The read/write speed was fantastic. Transferring nine short videos totaling 3GB took under a minute.

There were no issues in 8K video (24fps) playback, a point where my Intel 10th gen Core i7 laptop with 16GB of RAM struggles. I opened these videos in iMovie to crop and add transitions and music before saving them in 4K format. Well, iMovie did not support saving in 8K, so had to go with 4K. The encoding and rendering took just 38 seconds for a file size that was 4.5GB.

It took me about two hours to do this video editing, along with some internet surfing, video-streaming, and more. During this time, the battery drained from 33% to 26% despite undertaking these heavy tasks. Also, the MacBook Air became barely warm after these activities. And mind you, this is a fan-less laptop.

Why Migrate from x86 to ARM Architecture?

There are several reasons why Apple decided to go with the new ARM architecture for its Homebrew CPUs while ditching x86:

  • Apple gets greater control over the product refresh cycle as it does not have to wait for Intel to release new-gen chipsets.
  • Tighter hardware and software integration for ultra-smooth performance.
  • Will help developers create apps that are scalable to run across iOS, iPad OS and macOS using the same APIs and programming tools.
  • Apple Silicon chips will be a big differentiator compared to the competition.

Talking about Apple’s move from Intel to its own M1 chip, Research Director Brady Wang said, “The slow improvement in PC hardware, which is dominated by Intel, is among the key factors affecting macOS’ progress. Depending on the applications’ environment, power consumption, thermal efficiency and footprint are essential considerations in designing SoCs. Thanks to the advantages of the advanced process in TSMC in terms of power consumption and transistor density, the M1 performs better on Mac devices than on previous Intel-based MacBooks. It is worth mentioning that the M1 embeds DRAM next to the SoC to form a unified memory architecture (UMA) to speed up data access through high-speed interconnections. This can reduce memory modules’ footprint, leaving room for batteries or other peripheral circuits.”

Concluding Thoughts: Apple Silicon Aiming to Redefine PC Experience

With limited usage, the MacBook Air M1 has surely impressed me. But there are many things I could not test. The biggest concern here is how x86 apps perform when Rosetta 2 translates these to work on ARM. But I think this will not be a major concern by the time Apple makes a complete switch, as developers have enough time to make universal apps that will run even faster on Apple Silicon.

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