Why Apple’s New M1 MacBook Air Has Just Seven Cores (Rather Than Eight)

M1 MacBook opening Credit: Nanain / Shutterstock
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Last month, Apple introduced the first Macs to feature its new 8-core M1 chip. Among the recruits was a refreshed version of the MacBook Air, starting at just $999. But something was missing from this starting model: a whole core.

Instead of the 8-core chips found in every other model, the low-end model Air only has a 7-core chip; and, given that the M1 chip is an 8-core unit, you might be wondering, “Why?”

What Is Apple’s New M1 Processor?

We’ve known Apple has been working on proprietory Mac chips for a while – then on November 10, 2020, Apple showed us what we’d been waiting for: the M1. Apple’s new chip will be replacing the current Intel silicon, starting now with the new Mac mini, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, and, of course, the new MacBook Air.

The M1 is what’s known as a system on a chip, or SoC. What this means is it’s a single chip that integrates many features that would traditionally be handled by separate chips. SoCs aren’t new, but more often than not, they’re found in mobile devices that might limit what’s available on the chip.

What makes the M1 special is that it appears to integrate almost everything onto one chip, and Apple makes it entirely. It includes the central processing unit (CPU), graphics processing unit (GPU), memory (DRAM), and more (i.e., the cache, neural engine, etcetera). Putting all of these features in one (tiny) chip reduces travel time and reduces latency, resulting in much faster performance and responsiveness.

One of the things that make the M1 so incredible is its small size. Despite how tiny it is, it’s crammed with multiple pieces that are even smaller. For example, the 8-core CPU takes up about a quarter of the chip and is the fastest CPU Apple’s ever built.

The even smaller GPU is also eight cores. And even smaller than that is the 16-core neural engine. Everything is crammed into one chip using a 5-nanometer process. According to Apple, the M1’s 16 billion transistors are the most they’ve ever crammed onto a single chip.

What does this mean in the real world?

All these numbers and stats mean little if you don’t know what to expect in the real world. According to Apple, you can expect top-of-the-line performance, the most advanced security, instant-on wake from sleep, silence (no fan in the MacBook Air), universal apps (the M1 can run iOS/iPadOS apps), advanced battery life (up to 18 hours of video playback on the new MacBook Air), and more. In other words, this small chip packs a wallop.

Wait. If the M1 Chip is 8-core, how is there a 7-core version of the new MacBook Air?

By now, you’re probably wondering why there is a 7-core MacBook Air with an M1 chip if the M1 is specifically an 8-core SoC. That’s a great question with a fairly simple answer.

In manufacturing, companies sometimes practice what’s called “product binning.” Essentially, product binning is when you’re able to re-use a component that may be defective to a certain degree, but one that does not contradict manufacturer claims or sacrifice overall quality.

In other words, companies use it to create another (or lesser) product than the one the component was originally intended for. The name refers to these parts being placed aside in a bin that is then used later for another product line. When this process involves computer chips, we call it “chip binning.”

What is chip binning?

When it comes to chips, we’re specifically looking at cores. Sometimes in chip manufacturing, some cores may fail or not meet expectations. Rather than waste the entire chip, the faulty core is disabled and the chip is underclocked. In the case of the 8-core M1 chip, if one of the cores fail testing, it then becomes a 7-core M1 chip. The chip is essentially added to a bin and then these chips are used to create the less-expensive, 7-core MacBook Air.

It’s not in any way a broken chip But it is now a 7-core device, rather than an 8-core device, so they sell it for a lower price point making it easier to obtain an M1 MacBook Air; albeit one with less performance power.

Should I upgrade to an 8-core model instead?

In a word: probably. It really comes down to your budget and your needs; but, to get the full M1 experience, you’ll want to get the 8-core model. It’s a matter of opinion, but I think if you’re buying an M1 device, you should really experience it the way it’s meant to be experienced.

Again, at the end of the day, it’s up to you. It’s what you need or want, and what you can afford. Maybe 7-cores is all you need. Either way, it’s a major improvement over Apple’s previous MacBook Airs, and the 7-core version starts at just $999. So choose one that works best for you.

What are your thoughts? Do you own a new MacBook Air? Let us know in the comments and on social media what you think about the new M1 devices and what you think about the 7-core MacBook Air. Thanks for reading! Have a happy and healthy holiday season.

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