The Mac is getting a brain transplant.
Apple introduced a new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini on Tuesday that feature an Apple-designed processor called the M1. The two laptops and small desktop computers are the first new Apple PCs in more than a decade that aren’t powered by chips from Intel.
Apple’s breakup with Intel marks a significant shift for Apple and the tech industry, but less of a big deal for consumers in the short run. The new computers hardly look different at all, though they promise improvements in battery life and speed, in certain circumstances.
Apple’s shift to its own processors, first announced in June, opens new possibilities for Apple’s computers, which otherwise haven’t changed much in recent years. Apple’s M1 processors use a custom design based on an architecture from a company called Arm, which Apple also uses for the processors in iPhones.
Controlling both hardware and software, Apple can better optimize for certain applications, power efficiency and potentially even evolve Macs into new forms and sizes. Macs are still a fraction of the PC market, but Apple has seen record sales of them – $9 billion in the quarter that ended in September – during the coronavirus pandemic.
Apple spent the first 24 minutes of its prerecorded video announcement on Tuesday touting the wonky capabilities of its chip designs. There was a lot of technical jargon, some charts without numbers, and videos of power users singing the new processors’ praises.
“Performance of the new M1 chip is nearly impossible to gauge as the company didn’t provide any detailed substantiation around any of the performance claims made,” said industry analyst Patrick Moorhead, of Moor Insights & Strategy. “I think these should be scrutinized extensively.”
For most consumers, the devil will be in the details. Will the apps you use most work well on the new computers? And should you upgrade now or wait?
Here are three important factors that will matter for most consumers.
Faster apps – in some cases
Apple claims the M1 is faster than 98% of chips in PC laptops sold in the last year. It says exporting an iMovie project could be up to three times faster on the new Air compared to the old one.
But that’s for apps — like Safari, iMovie and all of the ones made by Apple – that have been rewritten to run on Apple’s new M1 chip. Existing apps will have to run using a translator built into MacOS Big Sur called Rosetta 2. How do they hold up? Apple didn’t offer any direct, specific speed comparisons using older apps and games. It said performance for these apps is generally similar, and some graphically demanding apps perform better under Rosetta.
If you rely on older apps, don’t buy one of these new Macs expecting a speed boost – at least not yet. Adobe has said it will be porting over its popular Lightroom next month and Photoshop next year. But before buying, we’d like to see how the new Macs perform with Microsoft’s Office Suite and Google’s popular Chrome browser, which has a reputation for being a processor hog.
And one more thing: The new Macs work with the newest, fastest form of wireless Internet, called WiFi 6, but you’ll need to be a on a compatible network to benefit.
Better battery life
This is the biggest news from the new lineup. The MacBook Air battery has made a leap from 11 hours to 15 hours, measured though surfing the Web over Wi-Fi. The 13-inch MacBook Pro went from 10 hours to 17 hours.
While this is clearly good news, there’s one tiny disclaimer. These measures are based on surfing the Web with Apple’s Safari browser, which is one of the apps that’s been updated for the M1 processor. Apple didn’t offer battery test comparisons for any other apps.
The things that didn’t change
On the outside, the new computers look almost identical to the previous generations, down to the dimensions. The Air and the Pro have all the exact same measurements and weight. The Mac Mini is the same size but has lost 0.3 lbs.
Apple also isn’t changing the paltry amount of RAM — 8 GB — that comes in its base-model laptops. You can buy more, but only up to 16 GB, and only if you order it with the computer – you can’t decide to upgrade later. Another longtime feature improvement Apple didn’t address is the number of ports. Both the Air and 13-inch Pro just come with two USB 4 ports – and no return to Apple’s popular old MagSafe chargers.
Also mostly the same: prices. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro keep the same starting prices, $1,000 and $1,300 respectively, while the Mac Mini will cost $100 less than before, starting at $700.
One of the few design differences will be what you hear. The latest MacBook Air won’t have a fan, which Apple says means the computer will be quieter, even when it’s running the most demanding apps. The real test will be if its new fan-free design can keep it from heating up.
The remaining non-changes were expected, but still might disappoint anyone hoping for a flashy reason to upgrade. In our Zoom-times, the cameras on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are still the same 720p resolution, though Apple claimed its new processing power would improve the image quality.
And if you want a touch screen or FaceID on your computer, your only choice remains an iPad Pro.