From iPad Pro to iMac, the M1 shows the true meaning of Apple’s scalable processor

Back at WWDC 2020, when Apple announced the transition of the Mac to its own Apple Silicon from Intel’s chipsets, Johny Srouji, Apple’s czar of hardware technologies touted the fact that his team had a proven track record of making industry-defining silicon and all of the technologies were scaling across gadgets of different forms and use cases. Srouji of course was right and wasn’t indulging in hyperbole which at times has been a trademark of a Steve Jobs infused “reality distortion field” that Apple is known to project. But with the M1 chipset, Srouji, is almost defying physics and rejigging what a scaleable architecture means breaking down marketing lines that have defined the PC industry for decades.

In Apple’s parlance, scalable means a technology that isn’t restricted to a form factor, or at least bits that aren’t restricted to its form. Perhaps the most poignant example is when Apple used cores from the A13 Bionic in the Apple Watch Series 5 S5 SIP. It had adopted technology from the phone to the watch. That was some miniaturisation. But there are numerous examples — the A8 which debuted with the iPhone 6 in 2014 was again in play in 2018 when the first HomePod was announced. And then Apple adapted the S5 SIP on the HomePod mini last year.

But such examples are littered all over Apple’s history ever since Steve Jobs came back. Apple never made affordable products. It made the best stuff and the ones that got older became the affordable option. On the scale of Apple Silicon too, when they had something older but powerful enough they used it in products that didn’t need the horsepower of the iPhone or iPad. And in the case of the Apple Watch, they started adapting stuff from the iPhone and tailored it for the Watch.

But the M1 is a different kettle of fish. The M1 which basically is the A14X chipset is so powerful and efficient on the CPU side married with a powerful GPU for video editing and graphic design coupled with accelerators and a prodigious Neural Engine — just scales so brilliantly across anything larger than an iPhone that it redefines the meaning of scalable. It also breaks down walls that segregated product SKUs based on performance because that’s what the semi-conductor companies and OEMs wanted. Apple demolishes that model with the M1.

Think about it — from the iPad Pro to the iMac and everything in between which are the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13-inch, two of Apple’s best selling Macs now are powered by M1. From casual to serious computing, the M1 scales use cases. This was never true of silicon before on the PC before the launch of the M1.

Based on the chipset, the SKU of the PC was decided. If you had tons of horsepower and performance, then you invariably compromised on battery life and form factor. In case, the industrial design was also equitable, the notebook would be prohibitively expensive.

Then there was another breed. Notebooks that lacked power, well, those became, low-cost options where cost-cutting was taken to another level with the display and build quality and even in these cases battery life was not stellar.

Apple bypassed all of this with the M1 with a chipset that provided a dramatic improvement in performance and efficiency, and with onboard graphics chops augmented with accelerators and software optimisation granted by its vertical integration. Apple created a platform for the lowest common denominator which scales well for even the most advanced users and at a price point that now can be deemed not offensive.

If you look at the base model MacBook Air at INR 92,000 it is offering performance and battery life that one only gets from a very expensive INR 1,40,000 notebook. Even in those cases, the Windows notebook is unable to match the battery life and video editing graphics performance. And now, Apple has scaled this down to the iPad Pro and scaled it up to the iMac.

The iPad Pro getting the M1 is not surprising, but its characterisation of the iPad getting so powerful being jarring is stupid. Apple always wanted the iPad to be so powerful. When I interviewed Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella in 2017 and he saw my iPad Pro (2017) and cheekily suggested I get a real computer, Apple was quick to launch an advertisement questioning what’s a computer. Almost a year later, it launched the iPad Pro with the prodigious A12X processor and the full-screen canvas that we even see in the new model. In 2019, it transformed iOS to iPadOS making the iPad more capable with a better file system, desktop-class browsing and even a mouse amongst other things. 2020 marked the addition of the trackpad and keyboard with the addition of the magic keyboard accessory. In all this, it even improved the A12X to A12Z added an extra core.

This brought forth another sneaky tactic that semi-conductor manufacturers like Intel and AMD had been pulling for years. Most of the chips are basically the same. If I had to oversimplify this — a core i7 processor built on a 10nm node is the same as the core i5, but it is just the core i7 is from a better batch. It is from a more efficient yield and hence is more powerful. The difference between the A12X and A12Z is the same. It is the same chip but since the A12X was from a poorer bin; it had one GPU core disabled.

Then Apple has pulled the same trick on the M1 with the baseline M1 processor on the MacBook Air having a 7-core GPU instead of an 8-core GPU. But in the case of the M1, Apple isn’t resorting to the gaming of nomenclature even when technically the spec has changed. This is has been a staple of the semi-conductor companies for years. Even Qualcomm has been doing it with its Snapdragon + line of processors. They just change the clock speed and improve some things minutely through software controllers and call it a new product, when fundamentally the hardware is unchanged.

But on the iPad Pro, there is no 7-core GPU variant of the M1. That’s how much of a pro product it is for Apple. We see the best of Apple on the iPad Pro, often before even the iPhone. Before the M1 Mac, the iPad Pro was always home to Apple’s most potent silicon. It heralded new technologies like the LiDAR, 120Hz refresh rate and even dictated the design language for Apple’s entire product portfolio. And now, even though it plays catch up to the Mac, it brings MiniLED tech into the mainstream before the iPhone or Mac have even graduated to a 120Hz panel. It also becomes the first 2 TB device based on M1 and gets 5G before the Mac which also has the same chip. For years, its cameras have been closer to the iPhone than the shambolic stuff that Apple used till recently on the Mac. Like previous iPad Pro models, it also has paid special attention to the speakers and microphones. The iPad had better speakers even before the iPhone and Mac and those leanings have flowed into even other products like HomePods and AirPods.

With this new iPad Pro, Apple is clearly looking at video editing and photo editing professionals who need the raw processing power on the go, who need the cameras and also need basic tools for monitoring audio and video, hence the great microphones, speakers and now Mini LED panel. And since data needs to be transferred on the go, 5G connectivity which will make sense for people in the US, but even 4G will do for us folks in India. For people who need more, there will likely be a 16-inch MacBook Pro some time later this year with an even more powerful avatar of the M1 which the grapevine is calling the M1X. The iPad Pro of course is more. It is a tool for designers, graphics artists, mobile gamers and simpleton like myself who just want to write like mad and have great multimedia capabilities. Likely iPadOS will also get a boost this year at WWDC as outlined by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman already. Chances are there will be a version of FCP and Logic, Apple’s iconic video and audio production work stations for the iPad considering it now scales to 16GB RAM.

But for the simpleton like me who traditionally used a Mac of some kind, Apple launched the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini. I can write for hours and sometimes days without needing to charge the MacBook Air. I can even have all my iPad apps work here as well and the iPad can augment the Mac further because of its touchscreen and Apple Pencil. The Mac mini for many will be the go-to machine if they are on a budget and boy you get the same goodness and perhaps the best bang for your buck on a Mac. Imagine you’re a music producer or a video editor but on a budget. You depend on software like Da VINCI resolve, FCP, Logic or even Ableton Live. At Rs 65,000 you’re going to struggle to get a powerful enough assembled PC because the GPU and CPU alone will be worth an arm or leg. The M1 destroys the monopolistic practices of Intel, AMD and Nvidia. And you get an integrated system and you can use your old keyboard/mouse and screen. Apple is not associated with value but when you do the math, this is VALUE.

And the iMac just builds on more of the same with the goodness of M1. It looks fruity just like the original iMac, it is sleeker and bigger in terms of screen size but in a package that fundamentally is the same as all these other products. Apple is of course helped by the anaemic updates it provided the iMac in the last couple of years, but the M1 still is so powerful that very few people will mind it. Considering we are working from home, it perhaps is the ideal computer for the home office. It now gets a much better web camera for all those Zoom calls, really powerful speakers and microphones that even do spatial audio, a trick borrowed from the AirPods and gives you a 4.5k 24″ canvas which likely is better than the TV you have at home by quite the county mile. And while doing all these homely things, it remains powerful for most people who even do video editing and hefty photo editing and graphics design.

This is what a scalable platform or architecture means. It scales across product categories. It also learns from each product category. All of Apple’s products are learning from each other and becoming better and while doing so all are getting tied by the same fabric. Apple Silicon. In the case of the iPad Pro, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13-inch, Mac mini, and iMac, it is the M1.

Words: Sahil Mohan Gupta

Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta