Today is a day that will long be remembered in the annals of Apple history, not only marking a major shift in architecture for Apple’s Mac computers, but the first time that the tech powerhouse has used its considerable chip engineering talents to produce its own first-party CPU for its actual desktop and laptop computers.
Apple Silicon is nothing new in the grand scheme of things, of course. As Apple’s VP of Hardware Engineering, John Ternus, pointed out during today’s event, the company has been creating its own chips for its iPhones and iPads for more than a decade, not only with great success, but to the point where modern iPhones and iPads already run circles around most modern PCs.
So it was high time the company brought those powerful chip designs to its actual Mac family, and with today’s announcement, the transition has officially begun.
There is no doubt at all in our mind that Apple’s new M1 chip is a massive powerhouse and a revolution in chip engineering, and it’s clearly the way forward for a whole new era of desktop computing that we can only begin to imagine.
However, while Apple is clearly off to a great start, the three new Macs announced today are only a very preliminary taste of what’s to come, and like many first-generation products (because that’s what they are), there may be some good reasons to hesitate on jumping in right away.
In fact, it’s notable that with the exception of the MacBook Air lineup, Apple is continuing to sell the Intel versions of its other M1-equipped Macs. In other words, if you want a MacBook Air, you’ll have to opt for the M1 version, but for the Mac mini and 13-inch MacBook Pro, the same Intel versions that were released earlier this year are still being sold by Apple alongside the new M1 versions — and there’s a good reason for that.
It’s hard to argue with the performance specs that Apple touted today for the M1 Macs. They run faster and cooler and get staggeringly more battery life than their Intel counterparts — up to 10 hours more in the case of the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
They also support instantaneous wake from sleep, and offer performance improvements that are hard to fully imagine right now. Apple claims that even the MacBook Air will now be able to edit ProRes video in Final Cut Pro without a single dropped frame. That’s unfathomable on an Intel-equipped MacBook Air, and barely possible on all but the highest-end MacBook Pro models.
However, this performance comes with more than a few tradeoffs that are worth keeping in mind — tradeoffs that will almost certainly be addressed in future Apple Silicon Macs, whether these feature the M1 chip or one of its successors.
Here are just a few of the things you’re giving up to move to an M1 Mac:
- More Storage: Apple’s Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro can be configured with up to a 4TB SSD. For whatever reason, all of Apple’s M1 Macs cap out at a 2TB SSD. It’s unclear if this is a limitation of the M1’s integrated NVMe SSD controller or if there’s some other reason, but for now if you want more built-in storage, you’re going to need to stick with Intel.
- More RAM: All of Apple’s M1-equipped Macs only support a maximum of 16GB of RAM, and come with only 8GB standard. The Intel MacBook Pro can go to 32GB, while the Intel Mac mini tops out at 64GB. This is almost certainly due to Apple’s choice to go with a Universal Memory Architecture in the M1, which embeds the DRAM right in the SoC for ultrafast performance, and to be fair it’s entirely possible that the M1 architecture may mean that you’ll be able to get by with far less RAM than Intel chips required; certainly Apple’s A-series iPhones and iPads would seem to support that idea, since even the highest-end iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro only pack in 6GB of RAM, but iOS and macOS are still very different animals.
- Fewer USB-C Ports: While the Mac mini and MacBook Air have only ever sported two USB-C ports, the mid-tier and top-tier Intel MacBooks Pro actually include four, which is fairly significant when you consider that one of these is needed for charging. All of Apple’s M1 Macs only include two USB-C ports, although they are USB 4 compatible.
- Limited Display Support: For reasons that are unclear, Apple’s M1 specs only indicate support for a single external display at up 6K resolution. Apple’s Intel Macs can still drive up to two external 4K displays. These are of course in addition to the HDMI port on the Mac mini or the built-in display on the MacBooks.
- Space Grey Mini: Okay, we’ll admit this one is fairly minor, but if you want a Space Grey Mac mini, you’ll still need to buy the Intel version. The M1 Mac mini is only available in silver.
- Windows Support: We’ve known for a while that Apple Silicon Macs won’t support Boot Camp, but of course it bears repeating. If you expect to be able to run Windows on your Mac, you’re best sticking with Intel for now. Windows virtualization solutions might be coming down the pike, but they’re not here yet, and even when apps like Parallels and VMware are updated for the M1, it’s a grey area whether you’ll be able to legitimately run Windows on them, since it’s not commercially licensed for ARM-based architectures.
Of course, giving up all of these things may be worth it for what that M1 chip brings to the table, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not all sunshine and roses right now — there are some very real tradeoffs to taking the plunge.
It’s also obvious that even Apple realizes this, since it’s kept its Intel MacBook Pro and Intel Mac mini models on the market. Only the Intel MacBook Air has disappeared, since that’s the one model that didn’t offer anything that the M1 can’t deliver — it only ever had two USB-C ports in the first place, and maxed out at 16GB RAM and a 2TB SSD anyway.
Lastly, keep in mind that not only is the M1 a first-generation chip — there’s almost certainly going to be an even better M1X or M2 coming sometime next year — but by all reports Apple’s MacBook lineup is in for a major redesign starting in 2021, which will likely see a new 14-inch MacBook Pro and a transition to mini-LED display technology.
Of course, if you need a new MacBook anyway, the M1 models are still very much worth considering, and this is especially true with the MacBook Air, which is undeniably an improvement over its Intel predecessor in almost every way, and of course the new entry-level M1 Mac mini is a fantastic value for what it offers. In the case of the higher-end MacBook Pro and more loaded Mac mini models, however, the decision between M1 and Intel still isn’t quite as easy or clear as we hoped it would be, but the good news is that all of today’s M1 equipped Macs herald great things to come in 2021 when Apple Silicon matures into the next-generation to support even higher-end MacBooks and iMacs.