The M1 chip and beyond: Everything you need to know about Apple’s homegrown Mac chips
Macs have undergone a big change since last June. Announced at WWDC 2020, Apple is switching its internal architecture from one that uses Intel CPUs, third-party graphics processors, and other parts, to the company’s own “system on a chip.” The first Apple silicon SoC for Macs is called the M1. That chip was followed up by the M1 Pro, M1 Max, and M1 Ultra.
It’s a big step for Apple and the Mac. But what does it mean for you? In this article, we cover frequently asked questions about Apple’s system on a chip, what it means to the user, how it affects what software you can use, and how fast it really is. We will regularly update this article with news, reviews, testing, and releases, so continue to check back.
“Apple silicon” refers to the chips Apple makes. In the Mac, they replace the Intel processors they have used for the past 14 years, and will eventually also replace the AMD graphics processors in higher-end Macs. Apple silicon first made its appearance in the original iPad.
The M1 is Apple’s first Mac chip. Here are its specifications:
4 performance cores
4 efficiency cores
7- or 8-core graphics processor (GPU)
16-core Neural Engine
8GB or 16GB of RAM
68.25GBps memory bandwidth
In the fall of 2021, Apple released the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which are more powerful chips based on the M1 architecture. Here are the specifications:
8- or 10-core CPU
6 or 8 performance cores
2 efficiency cores
14- or 16-core GPU
16-core Neural Engine
16GB or 32GB of RAM
200GBps memory bandwidth
8 performance cores
2 efficiency cores
24- or 32-core GPU
16-core Neural Engine
32GB or 64GB of RAM
400GBps memory bandwidth
16 performance cores
4 efficiency cores
48- or 64-core GPU
32-core Neural Engine
64GB or 128GB of RAM
800GBps memory bandwidth
Apple calls this a system on a chip (SoC) because it takes several components that are usually separate and puts them all on a single chip. This includes the CPU, graphics processor, USB and Thunderbolt controllers, Secure Enclave, Neural Engine, image signal processor, audio processing hardware, and more. This results in better performance and battery life. Read all about Apple’s claims about the M1’s performance and battery efficiency.
What Macs use which M1 chips?
The M1 is in Apple’s more affordable Macs that are popular with general consumers. These Macs are:
Apple’s recently launched iPad Pro line (11-inch and 12.9-inch) use the M1 chip as well, with the same RAM and a single Thunderbolt port.
The M1 Pro and M1 Max are in Macs targeted at professional users who are very demanding of the processor. These Macs are:
The M1 Ultra is currently Apple’s top-performing SoC. It’s only in one Mac model currently, but it could make its way into the upcoming Mac Pro.
Apple announced a two-year transition, meaning that within two years every Mac will have chips of Apple’s own design. So more Macs with Apple silicon are coming.
Can I get an M1 Mac with more than 16GB of RAM?
Not with these models. The amount of memory in the M1 Macs is a point of contention for some customers, especially those who are used to the practice of having as much RAM as they can in order to do their work. The only way to get more RAM is to buy a Mac with an M1 Pro or M1 Max.
If you want an M1 Mac with more than 16GB of RAM, your choices are the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac Studio, which have faster processors. The lowest-priced 14-inch MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro and 32GB of RAM is $2,399, which is a hefty $900 more than the highest-priced standard configuration of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with an M1 and 16GB of RAM. The Mac Studio starts at $1,999.
Apple’s pricier Macs still use Intel processors: the $1,099 Mac mini and the Mac Pro. The users of these Macs depend on software that’s not yet optimized for Apple silicon, or they want more RAM than 64GB, more powerful GPUs, and other features not found on the M1 Macs.
Apple said it will continue to provide support for its Intel Macs even after its Mac product line has fully switched to Apple silicon. Apple has sold millions of Intel Macs over the years and it knows that many of its customers use their Macs for a long time. Eventually, Apple will stop supporting Intel Macs, but that will not happen for several years.
You can probably expect new versions of macOS, and their accompanying apps, to be made available for Intel-based Macs until at least 2024, and official Apple technical support will extend far beyond that.
But I shouldn’t buy an Intel Mac, right?
In our reviews of the M1-equipped 24-inch iMac, MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and Mac Studio, we saw tremendous performance. They’re definitely quite a lot faster than their Intel counterparts. And with the laptops, the battery life extends hours and hours beyond what was previously found in Intel-based models. If you’re considering a lower-priced Mac, it’s hard to argue against the new M1-based models.
The Intel Macs are still good performers, though. If the Mac you are considering has an Intel processor, you do not need to rule it out. They are good computers.
However, if you are not in a rush at all, you’ll want to wait and see what Apple will offer in its other Macs. Apple’s consumer lineup with the M1 is set. The 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro and M1 Max was the beginning of Apple’s pro lineup rollout, followed by the Mac Studio. We should see a pro-level Mac mini this year. We could also see the Mac Pro, but that probably won’t be revealed until WWDC in the summer. Learn more about Apple’s plans for Apple silicon Macs in 2021 and 2022.
The M1 chip: Apps
Will my software run on an Apple silicon Mac?
Apple has gone to great lengths to make sure software works on its new processors. If you use Apple apps such as iMovie, Pages, Keynote, and more, they will work on Apple silicon. Most third-party software, from large corporations or from small developers, will work. (The ways your software works on Apple silicon Macs is described in the next section.)
There are a few circumstances where your software may not work. If you are using an app that has not been updated in a long time, it may not work. If you have custom-made software, there could be issues. If you are still using an app that was discontinued, there is a chance it will not run. Most of the initial compatibility problems seem to stem more from apps that were not updated to support macOS Big Sur, which ships on Macs with the M1.
Before buying an Apple silicon Mac, it is a good idea to check with the developers of your favorite apps for compatibility. The status of your software can help you determine whether you can invest now or you should wait. For example, as of this writing, Avid Pro Tools, a popular audio editing suite, is technically compatible with Apple silicon and macOS Big Sur under Rosetta, but the company warns that “third-party plugins and other programs” may be incompatible and Pro Tools HDX and Pro Tools HD Native are not supported.
The website Is Apple silicon ready? maintains a list of software and their levels of compatibility. You can see if an app has a native version, works in Rosetta2, or does not work at all
Can you explain native vs universal?
Software is created with specific hardware in mind. In the past, software was made for Macs with Intel processors, which use the x64 instruction set. Now, software needs to be created for both Intel and Apple silicon (which uses the ARM instruction set) in order for the software to work efficiently and properly for each platform.
There are a few terms bandied about to describe the platform software is created for. Here are those terms and what they mean.
Do iPhone and iPad apps work on Apple silicon Macs?
They can. It is up to a developer whether they want to make their apps available for the Mac. To see if an iPhone/iPad app is available, check the App Store on an Apple silicon Mac. (iPhone/iPad apps do not appear in the App Store for Intel Macs.) If you already paid for an app for your iPhone/iPad, you do not have to buy it again.
Since the Mac doesn’t have a touchscreen, Apple has Touch Alternatives to help you use an app; for example, you use the Mac’s arrow keys to perform a swipe. iPhone apps run at a fixed window size, while some iPad apps are resizable.
What version of macOS do Apple silicon Macs work with?
These new Macs come with macOS Monterey, which is version 12 of the Mac operating system. They do not work with previous versions of macOS.
This could be an issue for users who prefer to use an older version of macOS. For example, some users continue to use macOS Mojave because it is the last version to support 32-bit software. In this situation, you need to upgrade those 32-bit apps to 64-bit versions, or find 64-bit replacements before you can go with an M1 Mac.
Can Apple silicon Macs run Windows?
As of this writing, Boot Camp does not work with Apple silicon Macs, so you can’t boot into Windows. Apple has said that these Macs can do it, but you would have to use Microsoft’s ARM version of Windows. Microsoft’s license currently does not allow for installation on a Mac, so it’s up to Microsoft to decide to do it.
As for the virtualization method, Parallels version 16.5 has support for the M1, but you can use only the ARM version of Windows. UTM is now available in the App Store ($10) and it will allow you to run ARM operating systems on M1 Macs. VMware announced that they are working on compatibility. CodeWeavers’ CrossOver virtualization works, according to the company. CrossOver doesn’t emulate the Windows OS, though. It allows the Mac to run software that was made for Windows. The developers of Wine are working with CodeWeavers to add a Windows compatibility layer to Wine 6.0.1. No announcement has been made about VirtualBox.
How do I transfer my data from an old Intel Mac to a new Apple silicon Mac?
Will my hardware devices and accessories still work with Apple silicon Macs?
The Apple silicon Macs come with Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports. If you have been using a Mac with Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, you can connect to the new Macs the same way and your gear should work. The Thunderbolt/USB connectors are the same shape and have most of the same technical capabilities.
If you are using USB-A to USB-C adapters or a hub, they should still work. Wireless devices on the new Mac can use the same wireless connection you have been using on the old Mac. If you are using high-end production equipment, check with the device manufacturer about compatibility before you invest in a new Mac.
Can I connect external monitors to M1 Macs?
You can, but there are limitations.
M1 Macs: One external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz (There is a workaround for this, which you can read about at Macworld U.K.)
M1 Pro Macs: Up to two external displays with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz at over a billion colors
M1 Max/Ultra Macs: Up to four external displays with up to 6K resolution and one external display with up to 4K resolution at 60Hz at over a billion colors
Can I use my case/cover/bag with Apple silicon laptops?
The M1 MacBook Air uses the design that was introduced in 2018. The M1 13-inch MacBook Pro uses the design that was implemented in 2016. If your gear is made for these laptops, it will work with the new M1 laptops.
The 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro are new designs, so your old case or cover may not fit. Bags are usually more universal and shouldn’t be a problem.
The M1 chip: What’s ahead
Apple has two Macs that still need to be upgraded.
$1,099 Mac mini: Apple could upgrade this Mac with an M1 Max to fill the lineup gap between the low-end Mac mini and the $1,999 Mac Studio.
Mac Pro: This will have some form the of the M1 Ultra. It will be configured in a way to meet the tremendous demands of Mac Pro users.