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So far, Apple’s new M1 chip has proven itself to be an absolute powerhouse, soundly demolishing the competition — and that’s only the start, since we know that Apple has something even more powerful waiting in the wings.
It’s hard to imagine what could be coming next, but considering that the M1 chip is found only in Apple’s entry-level systems — the MacBook Air, “lower-end” MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and now the awesome new colourful 24-inch iMac — we’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
After all, the M1 MacBook Air already outperforms every Intel Mac ever made, including the highest-end 16-inch MacBook Pro, and it can arguably hold its own against Apple’s $6,000 Mac Pro, but we also know that Apple has some entirely new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBooks in the works, and these are almost certainly going to get an even better “M1” chip.
Now, according to Nikkei Asia, Apple’s next-generation chip has gone into production, and it’s likely going to be dubbed the “M2.”
To be fair, the name is tentative at this point, and some have suggested Apple might go with something like “M1X” to follow in the footsteps of the traditional iPhone/iPad chip designations. However, the M1 chip is already more than on par with any AX series chip Apple has ever made — to the point where Apple has bet the future of its iPad Pro lineup on it as well.
So “M2” does sound like a reasonable next step, but the real question is, what does Apple do for an encore?
After all, when it comes to performance, the M1 already leaves every Intel chip ever made in the dust, so we may be reaching the point of diminishing returns, especially right on the heels of the M1’s legendary debut last fall.
That said, there’s room for expansion in areas that go beyond pure performance specs, especially when you consider that the M1 is a full system-on-a-chip (SoC), not just a CPU. Inside that M1 is also GPUs, RAM, storage controllers, Thunderbolt and PCI Express controllers, image signal processors, audio processing, security features, and much more.
For instance, at this point, it seems pretty clear that the M1 maxes out at 16GB of RAM and 2TB SSDs. There is no M1 Mac configuration available right now that exceeds these numbers, so if you want a MacBook Pro with 32GB or more of RAM, or a 4TB or 8TB SSD, you’re still stuck with Intel. It’s a pretty safe bet that the M2 is going to push this into those higher RAM and SSD capacities, and perhaps beyond.
To be fair, the M1 architecture does mean that you can do a lot more with a lot less RAM, but for truly high-end applications, such as professional 8K video rendering, 3D animation, and complex machine learning, it’s crucial to have more RAM that’s actually free for use at all times.
The M1 also clearly only supports two Thunderbolt ports. While the latest iMac does include four ports around back, only two of those are Thunderbolt/USB 4 — the other two are merely USB 3 ports, with a USB-C connector.
Along the same lines, it’s apparent that the M1 can only drive two displays, and not even both in maximum resolution. Although it can handle external display resolutions of up to 6K, including Apple’s Pro Display XDR, serious users often need more than one display.
On the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and new 24-inch iMac, that’s the internal display plus one external display. The Mac mini, which doesn’t have a built-in display, allows for two external displays instead, but only one of those can be driven at 6K resolution from the Thunderbolt port — the other is limited to 4K via HDMI 2.0.
Even in terms of raw power, there are areas where the M1 chip doesn’t entirely dominate its Intel counterparts, and that’s especially apparent on those machines with discrete AMD GPUs.
While it’s unlikely that Apple will return to separate GPUs on all but its very highest-end systems like the Mac Pro, the M2 will undoubtedly add more powerful GPU cores, or possibly even more of them, along with more Thunderbolt lanes to drive at least two external displays.
It stands to reason that we’re going to see this M2 chip make its appearance in Apple’s next-generation MacBook Pro models, which are expected to arrive later this year. It also seems like a prime candidate for a 27-inch iMac, which could even be rebranded as the new iMac Pro, to differentiate it from the 24-inch version that Apple just released.
As for Apple’s ultra-powerful Mac Pro? An update to that may still be a little ways off, as we anticipate an even more powerful custom-designed SoC that will blow the doors off any other computer ever made. Apple’s rumoured to be designing an M1 successor with up to 32 high-performance CPU cores, although it’s unlikely we’ll see that arrive before 2022.