Apple has always sold its computers like luxury cars, highlighting sex appeal while promising they can get the job done too. Now, with new innards it custom-built itself, Apple is hoping to kick that appeal into overdrive.
This week Apple began preorders for its new $999 MacBook Air and $1,199 MacBook Pro laptops, as well as its revamped $699 Mac Mini no-frills desktop. The company says the new machines can run laps around their previous iterations, hitting benchmarks that, according to Apple, make them among the fastest personal computers in the world. Plus, the company says, they’re able to do that while offering better battery life and, in the case of the MacBook Air, without a sometimes noisy fan too.
All those changes, Apple says, come from the company’s new M1 silicon chip that it built specifically to act as the brains of its computers. The move is a seismic shift for the company, which for the past 14 years has relied on processors made by chip giant Intel. Intel supplies a vast majority of the central processing units, as they’re known, used by PCs. But, soon, it won’t be supplying them to Apple anymore.
Apple has spent more than a decade on research and development, and at least $1 billion buying more than half a dozen companies, to create its own rival processor based on the well-regarded A-series chips that’ve been powering its iPhones and iPads for a decade. Now morphed into the M1 for its computers, the chip, Apple says, doesn’t just compete with processors made by Intel, it trounces them.
“Every Mac with M1 will be transformed into an entirely different class of product,” Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies, Johny Srouji, said when discussing the chip at the company’s online unveiling event Tuesday. “With its unique combination of remarkable performance, powerful features and incredible efficiency, M1 is by far the best chip we’ve ever created.”
Apple’s move to remake its computers follows its long-established trend of taking increasing control over both its devices and the components that power them. Apple has already created custom chips for security, such as with its Face ID and Touch ID unlocking features. It’s created custom image processing chips too, for making photos taken by its phones look that much better.
Apple also makes the iOS and iPadOS software powering its devices, allowing it to finely tune the hardware and software for those gadgets, like the iPhone 12, which CNET reviewer Patrick Holland said got some of our highest ratings ever. “5G support, a new striking design, improved cameras and four different models all add up to make the iPhone 12 an absolute unit,” he wrote.
For many people, it was a forgone conclusion that if Apple could take over the chips inside its Mac computers as well, it could deliver a similarly crowd-pleasing experience.
“The touted improvements strike at the heart of PC buyer concerns: performance and battery life,” said Ross Rubin, an analyst at Reticle Research.
Apple’s efforts to custom-build nearly every part of its devices have helped it become one of the largest phone makers in the world. Its App Store, similarly, has become a central hub of tech industry innovation, despite Apple’s tight control over the behavior and content of apps offered there. Additionally, iPhone and iPad owners can download only sanctioned apps from Apple’s App Store, another form of control that other companies don’t wield, like Google and its competing Google Play store for devices powered by its Android software.
Despite Apple’s tight grip, the App Store has flourished. Apple says it counts more than a billion iPhones being used today, and many of those customers have proved more willing to pay for software than people who own other devices are.
As a result, the App Store has helped spawn companies like the social networking sensation TikTok, the ride-hailing giant Uber, and the photo sharing service Instagram, which was bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion. Apple said its research found that the App Store helped facilitate over half a trillion dollars in commerce last year.
Still, not everyone is convinced Apple’s approach will work every time.
Anything you can do…
Apple says its move away from Intel chips will take about two years, and that it’ll continue supporting Mac computers powered by the chips for an even longer time. What’s unclear is how much the tech industry will follow Apple’s lead. The company’s computers nabbed only 7.4% market share in 2019, according to analyst firm IDC.
But there’s enough reason to believe that Apple’s moves may start a trend.
When Apple made major changes to its computers by adding webcams to the MacBook Pro in 2006, developing a superthin chassis for the MacBook Air in 2008 and pushing out supersharp “retina” screens in its MacBook Pro in 2015, other computer makers followed. Today’s PC laptops have largely ditched the bulky plastic from a decade ago, developing into similarly thin, metal-clad designs. Sometimes, they’re even known for so closely borrowing Apple’s ideas that on first glance, you might mistake them for Apple products.
With the new Mac computers, Apple’s break with the industry isn’t just about new materials or adding peripherals, like better speakers or a new type of fingerprint sensor, that other manufacturers can buy and add to their products. By redesigning the guts of the machines, Apple is creating custom parts few companies have the resources to make.
“This stuff is really hard,” said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, and a former executive at chipmaker AMD. He said major PC makers like Dell and HP will need to focus more on the way their software works, and take a closer look at what types of hardware they put into their computers. “Everyone’s going to have to take silicon more seriously.”
To be sure, some companies have dipped their toes into using mobile chips to power computers.
Most notably, in 2012 Microsoft tried selling the Surface RT, a tablet-laptop hybrid powered by mobile chips made by Nvidia. But the device couldn’t run many standard apps, something CNET’s reviewers said made it “limited and confusing.” The drawbacks hurt its appeal so much that Microsoft had to report an embarrassing $900 million loss a year later.
In 2019, Microsoft kickstarted a new effort, this time with its Surface Pro X, then for $999, powered by a chip it designed along with Qualcomm. Reviewers say its design and capability is much better this time around, though the gadget is still frustratingly unable to run popular apps like Adobe Photoshop.
“It’s certainly closer to being the right product at the right time,” CNET Editor Dan Ackerman wrote in his review of the device in October.
Apple is avoiding those issues by partnering with developers like Microsoft and Adobe, and smaller ones too, to help them rework their apps to take advantage of the new chips.
It also built a feature for its new Mac computers called Rosetta, which makes popular apps, including those made by Adobe, run on the devices. Apple hasn’t listed all the apps that it’s tested, but it’s suggested that most popular apps will work.
All that may help Apple stay ahead of other computer makers as it makes the switch.
“Advancements of this magnitude only come from making bold changes,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said when announcing the new devices Tuesday. “This is exactly why we are transitioning the Mac to Apple silicon.”