On November 10, 2020 Apple announced new small MacBooks and a Mac Mini based on Apple Silicon M1, an Apple designed ARM system on a chip similar to those in iPad and iPhone but tweaked for larger computers. So what’s different and how should it affect your purchase plans?
Anyone spending time on YouTube and various fan sites has noticed the vast amount of click bait on the subject of the new M1 Macs. Most of it is some version of the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt video). We are trying hard not to add to it or to get out over our skis here at Dismal Manor.
Apple has done something great. It will get greater as software shops revise their products to best use the new hardware and Mac OS Big Sur. Present Day Production advises continuing with your current computational environment until your software suppliers have sorted their products for the new OS and hardware. But the M1 Mini and Big Sur are working well enough to purchase and begin exploration and migration planning. What they are finding is that the core product works but individual audio or video plugins may be fussy. Fussy is not good for shop margins or delivery commitments so they are holding short of the runway until their suppliers say they’re good to go on the M1.
Apple released its most popular computers first, the individual laptops and the workhorse Mac Mini. They held off on iMac, the larger MacBooks targeted to knowledge workers, and the custom machines used in the graphic arts and software development in the large.
These machines look familiar on the outside but are completely different inside. The processor architecture is different, the graphics subsystem architecture is different, and the memory is on the processor die. So why upset the world like this? The Cold Fusion video introduces the core ideas underlying the Apple Silicon product line.
- 2020-11-12 Revised to explain that Big Sur runs existing MacOS Intel applications. Added new material about developer software migration as new versions are released.
- 2020-11-19 Added a link to Ars Technica’s review of the new Apple Silicon Mac Mini. It smokes all but the Apple Mac Pro products for about $1200 with added storage.
- Added Cold Fusion and Present Day Production videos to the references and placed M1 Macs in performance relative to the products they replace.
- https://youtu.be/OuF9weSkS68 Cold Fusion’s take on the M1 Macs
- https://youtu.be/rhQzGZ-n6Qo Present Day Production runs DaVinci Resolve on the M1 Mac Mini
- https://youtu.be/TALSO1Hwmso Present Day Production takes a flyer with Presonus Studio One Intel Mac version on the M1 Mini.
- https://youtu.be/KIAUiFoYPtQ Present Day Production takes a flyer with Mac Logic X on the M1 Mini.
- https://atp.fm Accidental Tech Podcast and associated web sites.
Apple envisions a new future
Apple has changed the Macs to look a lot like a iPhone inside. They’ve left out the mobile phone radios for now, added wired Ethernet, and retained WiFi and BlueTooth. They’ve used the same A-Series processor instruction set architecture, graphical architecture, vector architecture, artificial intelligence support, and machine learning support. These allow the cameras and Photos App to work their magic without emulation. And the parts that allow computational audio.
I expect that, as Apple apps evolve, they and 3rd party apps will make increasing use of the AI and ML capabilities. And right now and for several years to come, they are an Apple exclusive. Apple has a price-performance and power-performance advantage for five or so years. Given Intel’s recent struggles, maybe longer.
Apple Silicon Runs Intel Code
Apple has designed an emulation system that allows the M1 processor to run MacOS 13 applications. Basically, a new Rosetta application reads an Intel image translating it to the corresponding M1 image. The translation process is very efficient which allows the translated image to run on M1 hardware with performance similar to that of the original Intel image on typical Intel hardware. In effect, Rosetta compiles the Intel binary to make an equivalent Apple Silicon binary. Experience with Rosetta 2 translation is superior to that remembered for PowerPC to Intel translation.
The new processor is built on Taiwan Semiconductor’s 5 nano-meter process. In fact, it is the first large part built on this process. By using it, the new M1 processor power to performance ratio is 1/4 that of the Intel parts the M1 replaces. This allows the mass market notebooks to be built without a fan. And there is a significant cumulative energy savings as 50,000,000 Macs are swapped out for the new M-Series processors.
The Apple Silicon Macs are the first to use performance and efficiency cores. The new part has 4 of each. The efficiency cores handle most processing, I/O interrupts, etc. The performance cores play games, compile programs, render movies and graphics, mix recordings, etc that are computationally intensive or use the vector instructions for matrix operations, convolutions, or correlations, etc. And mathematical modeling, an application dear to my heart as a simulator modeler.
The new Apple Silicon products have a T-Series trusted computing enclave that handles disk encryption, encrypted communications, stores security-related credentials, etc. The T-Series handles start-up and runs the start-up firmware and hardware console emulator. It handles startup authentication and decrypts the OS image, loads it, and starts it.
Apple M1 can run all of the iPhone and iPadOS applications developed for the A-series mobile processors. The AI and ML subsystems are at parity and the same Metal graphics architecture is present. Only the touch pointing device is missing (in fall 2020) but many iPhone and iPad apps work with a mouse or pencil. Sidecar trickery allows use of an iPad and Pencil as a pointing device and drawing device in MacOS. So Calendar, Mail, Contacts, Reminders, Notes, etc are literally the same on BigSur and iOS 14. Less to wrangle.
AI and ML Resources for Third Parties
The Metal graphics, Apple AI and Apple ML resources are now available in MacOS Big Sur with emulation on Intel Macs and direct execution on Apple Silicon Macs. There is currently nothing comparable available for the Intel world. At best, running MacOS on Intel hardware as a hackintosh would provide emulations of the AI, ML, and Metal environments.
Larger Software Base
Most iPhone and iPad titles will come over easily. Some tweaking may be needed for display size and orientation and pointing device differences. And some data swabbing may be needed. This latter is unlikely migrating from IOS to MacOS but more likely migrating from Intel to Apple Silicon as structured data alignment rules may be different. Most applications move over with a recompile. Some require a day or two to run to earth display and pointing device issues. But preliminary developer experience is good.
Apple Migration Plan
Apple has announced a rolling replacement of Intel product with Apple Silicon product to take about 2 years to complete. They appear to be releasing new products in sales volume order with the high volume products first in 2021 and the niche products like iMac Pro and Mac Pro in 2022.
Software Developer Path
Apple envisions that software developers moving forward with their next releases will compile their products for both Intel and Apple Silicon processor architectures. The MacOS application packaging scheme allows packing of both the Intel and Apple Silicon versions in the package contents MacOS directory. The system launcher will load and start the proper image for the hardware on which the program is being run.
From previous experience porting software from an older hardware architecture (VAX-11) to a newer one (DEC Alpha), most work will be in dealing with data structures, particularly persistent data stored in disk files. Both hardware architectures use little endian bit order (a blessing) but the Apple M1 RISC architecture will have different alignment requirements. Developers will have to examine the new record structure layouts to determine if they differ from the layout of existing disk files. From early reports, those following Apple developer program documentation are well protected from such issues.
Applications coming over from iPhone or iPad may require some adjustment to screen layout aspect and size changes and may require some UI adjustments to compensate for the differences between a mousy interface and a touchy interface. The iOS 14 library changes largely compensate for these issues by replacing things like the date fidget spinners for more traditional calendar widgets.
Future Intel Software Support
When Apple last switched from PowerPC to Intel processors, this happened in 2010 and Apple migrated the product line over, and continued to back port features to PowerPC MacOS for a few years and to continue bug fixes for a few years. After 6 years, Apple discontinued support for the older hardware.
I’m writing this using a Fall 2017 iMac. In Fall 2020 it is beginning year 4 of its 6 year Apple-envisioned service life. I tend to keep them longer but eventually, software compatibility will encourage me forward. I fully expect Apple to sunset this machine in 2023 or 2024.
Do you need a big desk ornament?
Most family members use laptop computers today. Students take laptops to college so they can use them in classes, labs, and about campus. Family members tend to have laptops so they can use them about the house, coffee shop, etc. Working at a fixed-base machine is pretty rare today.
I’ve never been a fan of the keyboard and pointing device compromises imposed by laptops. I like Apple Magic Mouse. I like the full-size Apple keyboard. I don’t like the laptop experience because the small display is not codger friendly and I keep letting my thumbs and palms drift onto the touch pad causing weird things to happen.
I also use the machine for photography, video editing (well for Twitter), and recording. These things happen less well on a laptop. Folks like Jacob Collier prefer a big Mac Pro for Logic X and Final Cut Pro studio use. A portable accompanies them as part of their stage rig to run plugins in various instrument channels.
When I last made a purchase decision, both my Mac Mini and my Apple Studio Display (2002) were at their end of life. In considering alternatives, an iMac proved to be the best value as a Mac Mini and then some and a good display came in a single enclosure reducing desk clutter. So I moved file storage and printing to NAS devices to make cables go away. The NAS picked up music storage and playback allowing the Mac to have the night off.
Do you really need the big processor?
In the early days of personal computing, there was barely enough processor capability to be useful. Thirty-five years on, that is no longer true. A basic processor is more than fast enough for around the house entertainment, writing, and drawing use. Apple claims that the M1 hardware is faster than 98% of the PC inventory currently in the wild. And the products just announced are the Apple Silicon entry level tier having 8 GB main memory and up to 2 TB of non-volatile storage.
Anecdotal evidence from several YouTube content producers suggests that the Apple M1 Mac Mini (slowest of the new products envisioned) is a near peer of the iMac Pro and Mac Pro workstations running audio and video production workloads. The Present Day Production videos and the Cold Fusion video tell the story of the new hardware suggesting that the new products have 2-3 times the performance of the products they replace.
Only demanding games, modeling and simulation, movie compositing and color correction, and complex photo editing require complex large scale computational resources. That is to say, today’s commonplace processors are more capable than the high end processors of five or so years ago. A basic compact computer is more than adequate for home use. An all-in-one computer is more than adequate for home use. An iPad is a superior entertainment device. Non-volatile memory is the critical resource. Communications and interfaces and software support are likely to be driving replacement in the twenties.
Things are different if you are shopping for your day job and it happens to be modeling and simulation, rendering of scientific data sets etc. Then you are likely sharing a large scale cluster with your work mates and using your personal machine to prepare jobs for the cluster and to review run results. Typically, Linux rules in this application space. Interestingly, the top dog supercomputer is a Japanese machine made of ARM64 architecture processors. ARM64 system boards are rare with the exception of the Raspberry Pi at the low end of the performance spectrum.
Can I replace the iMac Today?
Yes, for about $2000 to buy a Mac Mini with 2 TB of SSD storage plus a new 27 inch display similar to the iMac display. Apple is not designing Mac Mini to be user upgraded. Plan to order it from Apple with the memory and storage needed. I checked my iMac system disk and found it 1/2 full. About 1 TB of stuff, mostly photos from Lightroom, Capture 1, and Image Capture. So I would have to buy enough storage to schlep all of that forward. I recommend buying 2 to 3 times the used capacity of your system disk.
Apple software just does not like to have photo and music libraries on an external disk or network disk. So, you’re kind of stuck. Resistance is futile.
Apple Offers Trade-ins
Apple will ease my pain by giving a $1100 trade-in on the iMac. In reality, I’d wait for the new Apple Silicon iMac to be released. Knowing Apple, they will have moved to OLED displays that are brighter at competitive prices as part of an 27 inch iMac. That’s about the right size for desktop use with readers or without. Apple separate displays tend to be nose bleed expensive in pro packing and sizes.