SILICON REBIRTH : Apple’s new M1 CPU is shifting the paradigm of computing as we know it

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Anyone who follows my technology-centric articles would know right off the bat that I have a tradition of not being amused or hoodwinked by the kind of smoke-and-mirrors gimmicks that Apple typically serves up with its product offerings and that I consider them extremely poor in terms of value for money, given the abundance of craters in their feature lists, their tendency to remove essential and/or useful features, and of course their annoying habit of trying to pass off age-old features as radical new innovations. However, I am anything but unfair when it comes to technology, and therefore it gives me immense pleasure to say that Apple has not just finally come up with a product that is completely worth its price tag but is also almost certainly going to destabilize the global computing industry as we know it.

Yes, I am talking about the new MacBooks and Mac Mini systems unveiled in late 2020, powered by Apple’s new M1 processor – the very first iteration of ‘Apple silicon’ for laptop and desktop systems. Spoiler alert – it is probably the most revolutionary processor to have been released in a very long time.

For starters, instead of going for a traditional x86 architecture, Apple decided to build the M1 processor on a groundbreaking 5nm process using an alternative simplified architecture known as ARM, which is typically reserved for low-power portable devices such as phones and tablets, where power efficiency is a matter of paramount importance. Because of its relatively uncomplicated nature, ARM processors were not considered to be capable of competing alongside their x86 brethren, and for a long time, that was actually true. However, because of heavy development in the mobile computing industry, ARM chipsets had been undergoing some fairly radical developments, and quite recently, some of them had caught up to their regular counterparts.

But then, what had been preventing ARM from snatching away the computer industry from x86 giants like Intel and AMD? The answer is rather strange – alongside the persistent widespread notion that ARM chips are only good for mobile devices, there is also the fact that ARM processors are typically used in devices that have highly limited user interfaces, often restricted to nothing more than a touchscreen, as found on smartphones and tablets. While a touchscreen is a remarkably versatile input interface, for productivity purposes, it cannot hold up to the deft elegance and speed of a keyboard-mouse or keyboard-touchpad combination, or the vast plethora of connectivity and peripheral options that are offered by traditional laptop or desktop computers. As a result of this, the full potential of ARM processor-equipped devices, however powerful, has never been fully explored. While some novelty laptops running ARM-based processors had also been unveiled by numerous companies, sacrificing raw processing power in favor of quick wakeup times and long battery lives, they have firmly remained in a narrow niche that sparked very limited public interest.
However, with the M1, Apple has managed to burst out of the niche. Since the processor has been designed for use in computers instead of smaller devices, it is less restricted in terms of power draw and size, and Apple took full advantage of it by making the chip larger and raising its power limit by several times, all the way up to 10 watts (potentially just under 15 watts), which is still less than those of many conventional x86 laptop CPUs. The M1 features four ‘performance cores’, optimized for performing heavy-duty tasks at high speeds, and four low-power cores designed for lightweight background tasks. This allows the system to manage power in ways that would simply not be possible on x86 CPUs, leading to immense power savings. Alongside the 8 CPU cores, the processor also houses 7 or 8 GPU cores for all graphically intensive workloads, as well as a special 16-core neural network processor, dubbed the Neural Engine, for AI and machine learning purposes. To complete its unified system-on-a-chip nature, the processor comes with 8 or 16 GB of onboard LPDDR4X memory.

So what does all that technobabble translate into in the real world? Well, given that all of these modules exist on the same processor die, they have direct and extremely fast access to each other, which increases its overall efficiency to astounding levels – to the point that the M1 manages to punch many, many times above its weight class. Forget competing with laptop CPUs – in benchmarks and real-world tests alike, the tiny single-chip M1 not only manages to beat the stuffing out of Intel’s highest-order offerings but almost catches up with AMD’s top-tier CPUs, spelling the beginning of the end of the x86 architecture’s dominance. Even in GPU tests, the M1 holds out surprisingly well against any other integrated graphics solution on the market, and it can be safely said that this would only get better with future iterations. The chip also promises excellent security against potential exploits and vulnerabilities because of its proprietary design.

However, the most astounding feature the M1 brings to the table is the battery life improvement. Right off the bat, the M1-based MacBooks offer up to 20 hours of battery life on a single charge (over twice that of similarly specced x86-based MacBooks), and this, along with the device’s instant wake-up capability, is being made possible only by the superbly efficient power management and low power consumption of the ARM-based chipset.

It’s even more flabbergasting when one realizes that these shockingly powerful systems are being offered at reasonable prices – starting at USD 699 for the Mac Mini, USD 999 for the MacBook Air, and USD 1,299 for the MacBook Pro. When Apple not only makes amazing products but also begins to price them affordably, it is a sure sign that hell is indeed freezing over.

The most exciting thing about the M1 is that it is only a taste of things to come. If this is what Apple silicon can do in the form of a simple laptop chip, it is safe to say that its upcoming desktop iterations would prove to be even more groundbreaking, and it is then that every rival chipmaker would understand the urgency of switching to ARM from the aging x86 architecture – because the alternative would be courting obsolescence.

A devout science fiction enthusiast, gamer and metalhead, Abhijit Asad likes machines more than he likes most people, and does not want to be contacted or followed.

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