Apple Takes Mac Silicon to the Max

October 19, 2021 / Ben Bajarin

“The transition to Apple silicon is all about bringing its incredible performance, custom technology, and relentless focus on power efficiency to the Mac.” These were the succinct words spoken by Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Technologies. Srouji kicked off the segment of Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max announcements and provided the foundational framework for thinking about Apple’s approach to silicon. If you notice, Srouji was making a blanket statement about Apple’s vision and ambition in designing their own silicon. He stated three foundations: Performance, customization, and efficiency.

These three buckets represent the goal and mission of the Apple silicon team with all the chips they design. And that does not just apply to Macs but to iPhone iPad, and more. Understanding these three buckets that are the bedrock of Apple’s silicon ambition helps us to understand why design decisions are being made around Apple’s architecture both now and in the future.

As I watched the event, a few things stood out to me about Apple silicon. The first was increased clarity on how Apple will move their M chips forward. Baring another process for the Mac Pro, it seems Apple’s chip lineup will be M, M Pro, and M Max. My hunch is next chips Apple develops for Mac will be M2, M2 Pro, and M2 Max, and so on. These current chips are made on TSMCs 5nm process technology, and it will be interesting to see if Apple develops the next series of M chips on the upcoming TSMC 3nm process slated for production end of next year.

My biggest takeaway was about how robust Apple’s architecture is with its silicon. Apple does not go into deep technical details on their architecture as companies like Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and Qualcomm do, so we are forced to piece together different observations and glean insights whenever Apple lets little technological details drop. Johny Srouji did that during Monday’s keynote when he specified that he and his team scaled up the M1 architecture to create the M1 Pro and M1 Max. This means we now understand that Apple’s architecture is scalable. This means it is more dynamic and flexible than other architectures.

Digging into benchmarks and details of the M1, it appears that Apple’s architecture can fluidly manage the frequency of the clock speeds and dynamically throttle up or down based on the task. And now we have details that reveal their architecture is also flexible in its ability to scale up in size, allowing Apple to pack more CPU, GPU, and accelerators onto its SoC. And remarkably, this architecture can scale in both those areas (frequency and size) and not sacrifice power efficiency. Apple proved this by showing the size difference of M1 Pro and M1 Max over the M1.

Generally, when a silicon company makes a chip larger to pack more cores onto the SoC and get more performance, it comes with the tradeoff of power draw and efficiency. For example, if you look at some of the most advanced workstation processors on the market sporting 10-16 cores, they are similar in size to Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max. However, Apple’s charts revealed that peak CPU performance for these chips is ~30w, and peak GPU performance is ~60w. Apple’s custom architecture, remarkably, allows them to create massive cores and still have industry-leading performance per watt.

Some may be tempted to say that Apple’s industry-leading performance per watt is because they are on the TSMC 5nm process while their competition is still on 7nm and 10-14 nm process technology. There is some truth to that claim, but the architecture is the secret sauce that allows for frequency scaling and size scaling while not incurring much efficiency penalty. So while the process these chips are made on is relevant, the architecture deserves more of the credit.

In terms of the products themselves, Apple’s new Macbook Pro’s are high-end pro machines. These are not mass-market devices, but it is important to remember how much creative pros, influencers, artists, etc., influence the mass market. This is why when the collective pundit commentary years ago was that Apple was abandoning the pro segment of the market, many competitors saw an opportunity to jump in and steal these customers. Everyone knows how important pros and their influence are to the broader consumer PC market and it is why shrugging off Apple’s pro lineup is not wise.

Ultimately, the big takeaway for me was how Apple has set the stage with the M series processors and built a foundation that will guide all Macs in the future. I firmly believe Apple wants to increase their share of notebook and desktop sales and grow the already significant share of premium computer sales they have today. And just looking at their strategy with clear eyes informs us their plan to accomplish that is “incredible performance, custom technologies, and relentless focus on power efficiency.”

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