Not for the first time, Apple has completely changed the fundamental technology that their computers use. It happened when the company shifted from Motorola CPUs to IBM PowerPC in 1995. Then again when they made the shift to Intel in 2006. Now we have three new Macs using Apple’s ARM-based M1 chip.
This is an iPad-derived CPU that’s being compared to the likes of the Intel Core i7. Does the idea of an Apple M1 vs the Intel Core i7 even make sense? If you’re in the market for a new performance-focused Mac, read on and we’ll break it all down for you.
What’s So Special About M1?
The M1 chip is referred to as “Apple silicon”. In other words, it’s a custom microprocessor that Apple has designed in-house. It uses the ARM instruction set, which is what the vast majority of mobile phones and tablets use. That’s as opposed to the Intel x86 instruction set, which is what most desktop and laptop computers in the world use.
Apple’s ARM chips are special for a number of reasons. First, they’re larger and more complex compared to most mobile ARM CPUs. They also tightly integrate the entire system, including the CPU, cache, RAM and GPU.
These chips are also designed to run Apple’s iOS and ARM-based macOS software as efficiently as possible. This ground-up, in-house design promises incredible performance. At least under ideal circumstances. So the question is: How fast is the Apple M1 compared to common professional high-performance chips? CPUs like the Intel Core i7?
Yes, the M1 Is Beating the Intel i7 (and i9!)
The M1 MacBook Air, Macbook Pro and Mac Mini are only available for pre-order at the time of writing. However, some members of the media have units in their possession. There have also been more than a few leaked benchmarks pitting the M1 against chips like the Core i7-1165G7.
Benchmarks include Cinebench R23 and Geekbench. These are programs that can test performance across different CPU architectures and instructions sets. Since the different versions of this benchmark presents the CPU with exactly the same workload, they represent the real ability of the CPU to do work.
According to an article by Techradar, leaked results show the M1 in a MacBook Pro 13 scoring 1498 points for the single-core test in Cinebench R23. The Core i7-1165G7 scored 1382 points in comparison. The M1 is also slightly ahead in the multi-core test.
Even more impressive, Apple Insider reports that the M1 is outperforming the Core i9 in the recent MacBook Pro 16. At least when it comes to Geekbench scores. However, keep in mind that a Macbook Pro 16 costs thousands of dollars!
The bottom line is that anyone concerned about raw performance when it comes to these new Macs don’t have anything to worry about. They are a clear step above (or at least equal to) anything Apple has ever released.
The M1 Is About More Than Performance
Performance is only a part of the equation when it comes to the M1. Apple computers such as the Macbooks have been struggling with high power consumption and hot CPU temperatures for years now. Intel has failed to deliver cooler, more power efficient chips. This leads to performance throttling.
The M1 addresses both of these issues. ARM processors are designed to do more work with less power. Which translates to longer battery life and less heat. The M1 is so good at this that Apple has not put any fans on the M1 Macbook Air at all. Which means it’s name is now just a little ironic.
With much longer battery life, the mobile usability of these new Macbooks is increased by a large margin. That means you make no sacrifices in raw performance and get longer battery life. Seems like a pretty good deal, right?
It’s also worth noting that the M1 Macbook Air, despite having the same chip as the Pro, won’t perform to the same level. That’s thanks to the passive cooling solution Apple is using. This restricts how hard the M1 can push itself. So don’t expect the M1 in the Air to be as fast as an air-cooled i7 processor running a sustained load!
M1 vs Intel i7: It’s Complicated
Here is where the good news becomes a little less rosey. The M1 is a fast and power efficient chip. However, Apple has to run computer code designed for Intel chips through a complex translation system called Rosetta 2.
While this allows M1 Macs to run any software designed for Intel Macs, it comes with a performance penalty. For some programs the reduced performance doesn’t make a difference in any practical sense. For others, it might be a problem. The issue is that there’s no way to know how well or poorly x86 software will perform on an ARM Mac until someone tests it.
Software Support Matters
That brings us to software support for M1 Apple computers. Apple itself provides native, full-performance versions of all its own software for the M1. As you can imagine, creative and productivity applications that current Mac users rely on are also being ported to work natively on the M1. How quickly your mission-critical macOS apps will be translated to M1-compatible code depends on each developer.
It also depends on the complexity of the program in question. Some companies have a head start. For example, Adobe has already ported the core code for PhotoShop to ARM for iOS.
Speaking of which, iOS apps will run natively on M1-equipped Macs. Giving you access to the iPad and iPhone software libraries. That’s another bonus to consider when weighing an M1 Mac as a total package.
In the end, a computer that runs the software you need poorly isn’t very useful. No matter how good it looks on paper.
Should You Buy an M1 Computer?
The big question is whether you should jump in and order an M1 Mac to replace your current unit. In the case of the Mac Mini, we would say the answer is generally “no” right now. The M1 Mac Mini can’t be upgraded, has a slower network connection than the old model and is less attractive as an overall package.
With the M1 Macbooks, things get more interesting. Both the M1 Macbook Air and M1 Macbook Pro 13 laptops are physically almost identical to the Intel-based models. They will run all of the same software as the Intel models, as well as iOS apps and (obviously) M1-native applications. Their battery life has improved massively and their performance with native code is significantly higher then the same Intel-version apps running on Intel Macbook models.
They do take a variable performance hit when running through Rosetta 2, but in many cases this makes them no slower than the Intel Macbooks running those same apps natively.
Overall, it seems that most users would appreciate the quality of life and performance improvements of the M1 Macbooks. However, there are certain situations in which you should think twice:
- Specific applications you need run poorly via Rosetta.
- You wish to use Boot Camp to run Windows on your Mac.
Other than that, it’s a fairly safe move as far as we can tell. Apple Silicon is clearly the future of Mac. The only other caveat is that these first-generation M1 Macs are likely to be replaced with better implementations of the technology soon. So if you aren’t due for an upgrade, your current Macs will be just fine in the meantime.