Apple Unveils Its First In-House Chip for MacsNovember 11, 2020 by Jake Hertz
After departing from Intel processors earlier this year, Apple made headlines this week with its first-ever proprietary SoC for the Mac.
Apple is arguably one of the most successful hardware companies of the century, yet not all of its electronics are designed in-house. While devices like the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch are powered by Apple’s own SoC silicon architectures, the Macintosh has historically utilized Intel-based processors.
This all changed back in June when Apple shook up the semiconductor industry, announcing that they planned to design their own chips for Macintosh computers. Now, that plan has come to fruition with the official release of Apple’s first SoC for Mac: M1.
Apple says the M1 processor is the first computer chip using a 5nm process. Image used courtesy of Apple
Why Go In-House?
The decision to switch from Intel-based processors to in-house Arm-based processors marked what was one of the biggest changes in the history of Apple computers. There is a lot of speculation about why Apple decided to make the switch, but a few concrete reasons stand out.
First, for a company as large and successful as Apple, controlling as many aspects of hardware production as possible ensures a higher level of quality assurance. Making everything in-house will likely be more economical on a large scale, give Apple more autonomy over devices, and prevent potential hardware security threats like trojans.
Apple's CPU performance vs. power benchmarks for the chip. Image used courtesy of Apple
Beyond this, having one uniform processor architecture across all Apple devices will greatly improve cross-platform performance. Creating uniformity amongst operating systems with a cohesive processing architecture, future Macs will be able to run iPad and iPhone apps directly on the desktop, further creating uniformity in the Apple ecosystem.
Finally, one could argue that Apple simply thinks it can do it better than anyone else. As we’ll see shortly, Apple’s newest processor is working at the 5nm. This starkly contrasts the abilities of Intel, which is still struggling to get to the 7nm node.
How Advanced is M1?
Apple’s new chip, the M1, features a number of specs that may interest the average design engineer.
Historically, Apple has used multiple chips for CPU, security, GPU, and more. The M1 changes this multi-chip necessity, integrating everything into one SoC, which is said to yeild huge benefits in terms of performance and power consumption. Most notably, the M1 integrates a CPU, GPU, and Apple’s neural engine, all on the same piece of silicon.
M1’s CPU is an eight-core device, consisting of four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. Apple says the high-performance cores are the "world’s fastest CPU cores in low-power silicon." The four high-efficiency cores, on the other hand, deliver similar performance to current generation dual-core MacBook Airs at significantly lower power.
According to Apple, all eight cores work together to provide the world’s best CPU performance per watt.
Apple’s M1 is said to increase CPU performance by 3.5 times. Image used courtesy of Apple
The GPU includes up to eight cores capable of executing close to 25,000 threads simultaneously. Apple explains the GPU’s 2.6 teraflops of throughput make M1 have the world’s fastest integrated graphics in a personal computer.
Finally, the M1 introduces Apple’s neural engine to the Mac. A processing unit consisting of a 16-core architecture and capable of 11 trillion operations per second, the neural engine in M1 is said to enable up to 15 times faster machine-learning performance.
"The Best Chip We've Ever Created"
By integrating all of these impressive features onto one piece of silicon, Apple is aiming to provide high CPU, GPU, and ML performance while enabling battery life up to two times longer than previous-generation Macs.
Speaking of Apple’s first in-house chip, Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior VP of hardware technologies says, “With its unique combination of remarkable performance, powerful features, and incredible efficiency, M1 is by far the best chip we’ve ever created.”