Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #1010

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
Issue #1010
November 11, 2020

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SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT APPLE SILICON

Branding is obviously quite important to Apple, and that branding needs to be simple, except when it’s not. So quite often one word will do, perhaps with a modifier to reflect the model number, but Apple can also add unneeded complexities. So I have an aging iMac; the full model designation is listed as “iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2014),” and that’s about as awkward as you can get.

Now the same naming scheme applies to all Macs. If Apple followed the auto industry, I’d have a 2014 27-inch Apple iMac, and maybe that’s not so much better. The iPhone, at the very least, can be more simply described, such as my wife’s iPhone 6s, but when it comes to the latest and greatest variation of a theme, it’s the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Sigh.

So when the first batch of Macs with Apple Silicon debuted during Apple’s media presentation on Tuesday, November 10, I wondered just how the chips would be branded. The scuttlebutt had it that they were derived from the A14, and thus might be labeled A14X, using the same design scheme as the iPad, which often gets an enhanced version of an iPhone CPU.

Instead Apple chose simple; thus the chip is labeled the M1, but otherwise appears to be that 8-core chip that might have otherwise carried the A14X label. Well, maybe. Until the new hardware is actually tested and benchmarked, that won’t be certain. Remember, too, that the M1 chip will be used in an environment that is not as constrained in terms of power efficiency and cooling. So if it can react spread its wings, the promised performance improvements of several times might be easily realized.

Now you can read the promises at Apple’s site, but it’s understandable that claims of being several times faster than the Intel models these new Macs replace would be greeted with skepticism. Maybe those performance claims would be met under limited circumstances. Maybe a few new M1-compatible apps will realize substantial boosts when performing certain functions. Maybe. But it won’t be long until product testers post their reviews with the fear they no doubt have already received from Apple, and you’ll read about those tests in a few days after this article is being posted.

As you might expect, Apple populates its claims a few somewhat vague conditions. These two sentences are used in the footnotes for most of them: “Performance measured using select industry-standard benchmarks. Comparison made against latest-generation high-performance notebooks commercially available at the time of testing.”

The obvious question is WHICH “industry-standard benchmarks,” and which “latest-generation high-performance notebooks commercially available”?

It sounds much like the claims you used to hear for such products as laundry detergent that allegedly clean better than the “leading brand,” whatever that is.

Well, I suppose it’s better than labeling the gear against which the new Macs were tested as “Brand X.”

Now ahead of getting the actual numbers, I suggest you check out a recent article from a prominent hardware-oriented tech site, AnandTech, where the A14 was compared with high-performance CPUs from AMD and Intel, and acquitted itself admirably in several industry-standard benchmark tests.

Aha, maybe that’s what Apple means by “industry-standard.”

Now the why’s and wherefores of the various numbers isn’t so important as where the A14, operating under extremely constrained resources, lies, basically exceeding Intel in most respects and falling just behind a new CPU from AMD, the Ryzen 9 5950X.

Sure, it’s not the M1, but if it is truly based on the same design, scaled up for a laptop computer, it may indeed be true that the performance will be something close to Apple’s claims within its terms and conditions. I’d certainly hope that product tests will not just stick with Geekbench 5, assuming it’s been ported to the new chip, but run real-world application tests that puts the new hardware against its competition using the same applications you and I are apt to use, assuming they’ve been ported to Apple Silicon.

And there’s where the first benchmarks will fall short. Other than Apple’s own apps, such as Final Cut Pro X, most will still be available strictly in Intel versions. That means you mostly be seeing the performance potential of Rosetta 2 emulation.

Update: A set of unofficial benchmarks cited in an AppleInsider article, indicates that the new gear runs faster than the speediest Intel-based 16-inch MacBook Pro, and many iMacs. Not several times faster, but nonetheless encouraging.

Those are the positives. The negatives come from some members of the tech media that are skeptical that Apple Silicon can meet or exceed the performance of Intel CPU, clearly not understanding why the switch is being made.

But that should be obvious if you just cheek the Geekbench 5 results with Apple’s iPhone silicon over the past few years, and how well it has increased, and compare it with the small amount of improvement of Intel processors. That, itself, ought to explain why Apple is spending billions of dollars to make this move. It’s not just about control.

Another possible source of criticism is that the new Macs — a MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and a Mac mini — are essentially the same as their predecessors except for the new parts. Why didn’t Apple deliver all-new designs to better exploit the potential of its new chips?

Of course, the answers are there already, and it’s the way Apple handled its previous processor transitions.

So the first Power Macs and the first group of Intel-based Macs looked the same as their predecessors. In these two cases, the message was clear. A Mac is a Mac, the macOS is the macOS, and the choices Apple made for processors and other components shouldn’t matter to most people.

Sure, it did matter until more apps became compatible with the new processors, but most software still ran anyway at acceptable speeds within the limits of emulation.

At the same time, you will still be able to buy Intel-based equivalents of the new products, and it’s quite likely some Intel-based speed bumps will appear over the coming year. Over time, a new generation of Mac designs will better reflect the advantages of the new silicon.

I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that there will be glitches in the new products, though more software than hardware, since Apple is already quite skilled at building gear with its own silicon. The M1-savvy version of Big Sur will probably go through a few updates to settle down. The same is true for the first group of native or Universal apps, but I expect them to appear quickly. Microsoft has reportedly released a beta version of Office for Apple Silicon, and that’s a pretty big achievement. They usually take their sweet time to keep up with major hardware and OS changes from Apple.

My existing Macs are old, from six to ten years, and I do want to consider buying new hardware over the next year or so. I’m certain they will be powered by Apple Silicon. I may be old, but I don’t fear the future. I have little doubt that Apple has made the right move, and the Mac will be better than ever before long.

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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