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balancing software engineering & infosec

Thoughts on Apples M1 chip

posted on Wednesday 11th of November 2020 in , ,

Yesterday was the day. Apple announced their first generation of systems using their “own silicon”, aka an ARM based SOC. I am excited to see how those systems will do once people can throw real world benchmarks at them. I am a bit sceptical if they will hold up well. Apple advertises “best in class”, which is not that competitive for the Mac Mini and only slightly competitive for the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro on the other hand will be interesting.

A major talking point was efficiency, which is the actually interesting part. 20 hours battery life while playing videos is no joke and a good indicator that the notebook will likely last more than one or two work days for office work. And I expect the M1 chips to be a really good fit for exactly this scenario. Their (most likely) smaller version already does a really good job at this workload – in an iPad Pro.

I have seen a ton of complains that Apple does not ship 32GB memory configurations. I do not know if this is simply Apple not thinking that the target audience of those system will need 32GB memory or if there are memory bandwidth / channel limitations in the M1. But except a small, orange bubble in a corner of the Internet, not many people need 32GB memory on a day to day basis and if they do, they do not necessarily want a notebook. Are there legitimate use cases for more than 8GB or 16GB memory? Obviously. A lot. But more than enough people buying a MacBook Air or a Mac Mini will likely never get close to the memory limit. Some office work, browsing the web and occasionally looking at photos really does not need the same amount of memory as running another operating system, interpreting a text file which is edited in a browser running in a native window wrapper. But I also agree with anyone arguing that a product with “Pro” in its name should provide 32GB as an option.

I expect the M1 to be replaced by a new chip somewhen next year, likely with a bit more performance and some other neat features. Judging from how fast the first iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad were replaced by the second generation (which most people should have bought), I would give the current M1 system roughly 12 months. This does not mean they will be useless after that, but that you can get a way better system if you do not want to be an early adopter. There will also most likely be fewer bugs and better app compatibility. The fact that they still ship a 720p cam would also suggest that it is time for a (even more) major overhaul.

For heavy workloads I would still buy an Intel based Mac without second thought. They will be supported for more years to come, certainly enough to make it worth the investment and I do not see many companies shipping professional software stopping to support them. You might miss out on a few iOS or iPad OS apps which the M1 can run but your Intel based system cannot, but this will most likely also be a slow transition.

With the M1 being out there chances for my dream device are a lot better than before: An iPad running iPad OS and when connected to an external screen loading Big Sur or its successor. I am not saying this will happen and I am not sure if that would fit in Apples plans, but a Surface is a sexy device and if Microsoft ever gets their software right a tempting option.