Apple Unveils New M1-Powered MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini

Apple once again took to the Internet to stream its “One More Thing” event. This event continues Apple’s pandemic-driven approach of short, focused announcements. On center stage this time was the Mac, or specifically, three Macs, all of which replace the longstanding Intel chip with Apple’s new M1 chip. All three Macs can be ordered now and will be available within a week or so.

What Is the M1 and Why Should You Care?

Let’s first discuss Apple’s custom-designed M1 chip, and what it is, and why it’s important.

First, instead of having a separate CPU (main processor), GPU (graphics processor), and RAM (memory, which both the CPU and GPU need), the M1 combines those components onto a single chip. This is what’s called a “System on a Chip” or “SoC.” The M1 also has a Neural Engine that helps with machine-learning tasks, along with a custom storage controller, image signal processor, and Secure Enclave. This Neural Engine is a special 16-core processor.

Within the 8-core CPU, Apple has four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. When you need maximum processing power to edit a video, for instance, macOS dynamically brings the high-performance cores into play. However, if you’re just reading email, macOS switches to the high-efficiency cores to avoid wasting power and draining laptop batteries. Apple has been doing this with the graphic cards in its current Notebooks.

Another way the M1 achieves its performance gains is through “unified memory.” By putting the RAM on the chip and sharing it among the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine, those processors can access it more quickly than when it’s elsewhere on the motherboard. The downside is that the option of adding more memory is, well, not an option. M1 chip comes with only 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM.

Since 2006, Macs have been powered by CPUs from Intel. Why switch away from intel? Switching to its own M1 chip benefits Apple in three ways:

  • Performance: When Apple moved the Mac to Intel chips, it did so for a good reason. IBM’s PowerPC chips couldn’t compete in performance per watt. This is a key measurement of battery-powered laptops and has come home to roost again. Apple has learned a lot with this on the iPhone and iPad, and now they can take what they’ve learned and applied it to the Mac. With the M1, Apple has customized the design in many ways to provide up to three times the performance per watt.
  • Control: Previously, Apple had to work with whatever Intel shipped, forcing Apple to make trade-offs in macOS. Plus, Intel’s roadmap and production schedule often conflicted with Apple’s. Now by designing its own chip, Apple can optimize performance in all sorts of small ways that integrate perfectly with macOS.
  • Profit: Apple won’t say this, but Intel processors have high-profit margins, and Apple would far prefer to keep that money rather than giving it to Intel.

Basically, the M1 will enable Apple to make Macs that are faster and cheaper, and they have better battery life. It will also allow Macs to run all iPhone and iPad apps, since the M1 is similar to the A-series chips that power those devices.

Apple introduced the first three Macs to take advantage of the M1. These are the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. Apart from a few small exceptions, the main thing that has changed about these Macs is the M1 chip. They look the same, feel the same, and work the same, although they do all come with—and require—macOS 11 Big Sur.

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is one of my favorites. It’s a great size, but it has always lacked in performance. Not any more. The new M1-based MacBook Air confidently replaces the previous Intel-based model that Apple released in March 2020. It does so thanks to massive M1-powered performance improvements: up to 3.5x faster processing, up to 5x faster graphics, and up to 9x faster machine-learning workloads. The M1’s integrated storage controller and the latest solid-state storage technology also combine for up to 2x speedier SSD performance. This is impressive. I will be curious to see third-party test results on this.

Another benefit is because the M1 is so much more efficient than Intel chips, the MacBook Air no longer needs a fan to keep its cool. It’s now silent. Apple significantly improved battery life as well, promising up to 15 hours of “wireless web” and up to 18 hours of video playback, up from 11 and 12 hours for the previous model. More relevant is that videoconferencing should last twice as long on a single charge.

There are a few other small improvements:

  • Support for P3 wide color on the 13-inch Retina display
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 ports that support the new USB 4
  • 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 networking, up from 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5
  • Better image quality on the (unchanged) 720p FaceTime HD camera, thanks to the M1’s dedicated image signal processor – the camera itself did not change, but with the M1, the image quality should be better
  • Instant wake from sleep – Apple notebooks have been pretty good with this, but now with the M1, it truly is instant

Note that the MacBook Air lacks the Touch Bar of the MacBook Pro—which may be a pro or a con—but its Magic Keyboard does include traditional F-keys and a Touch ID sensor for login and authentication. In all honesty, something I wish my MacBook Pro had instead of the Touch Bar.

The MacBook Air comes in two configurations: a low-end model whose M1 chip has an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU, plus 8 GB of unified memory and 256 GB of storage for $999. The high-end model switches to an 8-core GPU and 512 GB of storage for $1249—that’s $50 cheaper than the previous high-end model. You can bump the RAM to 16 GB for $200, and the storage levels include 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, and 2 TB.

I personally believe the MacBook Air was a great machine before the M1. Now it is even better.

13-inch MacBook Pro

Things get a little more confusing with the M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro. Previously, there were four configurations, priced at $1299, $1499, $1799, and $1999. Apple replaced the bottom two with M1 configurations but left the top two with Intel chips. Why? Probably because the higher-end Intel models can take up to 32 GB of RAM. They also have four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 4 TB storage option.

Apple does say that it’s up to 2.8x faster overall than what it replaces, has up to 5x faster graphics, and is up to 11x quicker for machine-learning tasks. But they do not say if or by how much the new M1 MacBook Pro is faster than the Intel models. It should outperform the M1 MacBook Air, even though they share the same chip. Why? Because the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a fan that lets the M1 chip run faster and thus hotter than in the MacBook Air. Nonetheless, battery life is excellent, with up to 17 hours of “wireless web” and up to 20 hours of video playback—the longest battery life ever for a Mac.

Apple does say that it’s up to 2.8x faster overall than what it replaces, has up to 5x faster graphics, and is up to 11x quicker for machine-learning tasks. But they do not say if or by how much the new M1 MacBook Pro is faster than the Intel models. It should outperform the M1 MacBook Air, even though they share the same chip. Why? Because the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a fan that lets the M1 chip run faster and thus hotter than in the MacBook Air. Nonetheless, battery life is excellent, with up to 17 hours of “wireless web” and up to 20 hours of video playback—the longest battery life ever for a Mac.

The M1 MacBook Pro shares most of the small improvements in the MacBook Air, including the two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6, better image quality from the 720p FaceTime HD camera, and instant wake. New is a “studio-quality three-mic array” that promises better audio for videoconferencing. It already supported P3 wide color, and the Retina display remains gorgeous.
The M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1299 with an M1 chip that has an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 8 GB of memory, and 256 GB of storage. Going to 16 GB of RAM costs $200, and you can upgrade the storage to 512 GB ($200), 1 TB ($400), or 2 TB ($800).

It can be hard to choose between the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. My take? Pick the MacBook Air for its lower price, fanless design, and F-keys. If you’re willing to pay for more performance and a Touch Bar, go with the MacBook Pro.

Mac mini

The third Mac model to switch to the M1 chip is the Mac mini. This was a pleasant surprise, as the Mac Mini is beloved by many. Like the 13-inch MacBook Pro, not all models make the jump, however. Previously, there were two Mac mini models, one starting at $799 and the other at $1099. The M1 Mac mini replaces the low-end model and drops the price to $699.

As with the other two M1-based Macs, the M1 Mac mini boasts impressive performance improvements. Apple says its CPU performance is 3x faster than the model it replaces, it has up to 6x faster graphics, and machine-learning tasks complete up to 15x faster.

Although Apple made no comparisons with the remaining Intel-based Mac mini, the consensus is the M1 model will be faster. It also has the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6. So why is that Intel Mac mini sticking around?

  • The M1 Mac mini offers only 8 GB or 16 GB ($200) of RAM, whereas the Intel Mac mini is configurable to 32 GB ($600) or 64 GB ($1000) as well.
  • The Intel Mac mini can drive up to three displays, whereas the M1 Mac mini supports only two. On the plus side, the M1 Mac mini can drive Apple’s 6K Pro Display XDR at full resolution, which the Intel Mac mini can’t.
  • The M1 Mac mini has only two Thunderbolt ports, whereas the Intel Mac mini has four.
  • The Intel Mac mini has a $100 option for 10 Gigabit Ethernet, whereas the M1 Mac mini is limited to Gigabit Ethernet.

My feeling is that, at $200 cheaper, a comparable M1 Mac mini is a better deal unless you need any of the hardware options that exist solely on the Intel Mac mini.

macOS Big Sur on November 12th

Finally, Apple said that it would release macOS 11 Big Sur on November 12th. The new Macs require it, but put bluntly; I strongly recommend that you do not upgrade any other production Macs to Big Sur yet. I personally have not updated my production computer yet. Along with a complete user interface overhaul, it has significant under-the-hood changes that could pose compatibility problems for many workflows in the near term. I will be updating my tutorial on it in the coming weeks if you are curious on what it has to offer. If you have any questions, just ask. 🙂

(Featured image by Apple)

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