In late 2020, Apple released the first Macs with its own M1 processors inside, ditching the Intel CPUs that long powered its machine. And with that, Apple Silicon was off to the races in the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac Mini.
After our testing, it is clear that Silicon and M1 have pushed the Mac further. Most importantly, there isn’t a hesitation to opt for a Mac with the newer chip inside. Concerns around app compatibility are addressed, and the advantages of Silicon are evident from the first boot. Surprisingly, it also brought more value to the base $999 MacBook Air. A device that wasn’t always known for being the fastest can now handle 4K and 8K video exports while simultaneously keeping several applications open. Similarly, the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac Mini with a fan give you a larger playing field for more intense tasks to work on.
And now that we, along with many others, have spent some time with Apple’s consumer Silicon offerings, we’re ready to tackle what the change means for you.
What is Apple Silicon?
Apple Silicon is an in-house chip akin to what is powering the iPhone and iPad family of devices. In other words, it’s a processor. Let’s be clear, though: Apple Silicon in the Mac isn’t the same as its other chips. There’s a common architecture across all Apple devices, but these are custom systems on chips that can scale and efficiently power the Mac.
The first Silicon processor is the M1 and it comes in two forms:
- 8-Core CPU, 7-Core GPU and a 16-Core Neural Engine
- 8-Core CPU, 8-Core GPU and a 16-Core Neural Engine
And the physical size of the processor (and the needed components) are a lot smaller. Apple is packing more into a smaller space than standard Intel processors occupied. Since these are designed and made in-house by Apple, they can also work concurrently with the macOS team. This enables new features (like an instant wake from sleep) and significant improvements across processing time.
Currently, the M1 chip is available in the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac Mini and new iMac. Apple has said the switch to Silicon is a multiyear processor and it’s still selling Intel-powered Macs. Those aren’t being forgotten or tossed to the side anytime soon.
Will Intel apps run on Apple Silicon?
The short answer is yes — Apple has an emulator built into all Silicon Macs that essentially translates the Intel code into Silicon code to make the application run. This emulator is called Rosetta 2, and you won’t ever see it running. It’s all done in the background and isn’t user-facing. When opening the standard version of Photoshop or Microsoft Outlook, you might notice that it takes a few seconds longer to open. That’s the only impact, though, and we’re cool with it, considering it enables any of your previous Intel applications to run. The Mac gets smarter over time, and after a few launches, that extended loading time will be gone.
The longer answer is that developers are rereleasing or updating applications to run natively on Apple Silicon. Microsoft has a beta of its productivity suite out, and Adobe is doing the same for Creative Cloud. Within the Mac App Store, you’ll find a lot of apps that already have Silicon versions. Popular photo editing software Pixelmator has done this, and it leads to faster renders when working. And as expected, all of Apple’s applications are fully running on Silicon. And for video editors who use Final Cut Pro, it leads to wildly quick exports.
Not everyone has updated as of yet, so we’re still in the period of waiting. Luckily, Rosetta 2 will let you run those Intel apps.
Yes, now is a terrific time to get a Mac. Make it a Silicon one
Simply put, the introduction of the M1 chip in the Mac lineup has supercharged it. Laptops like the fanless MacBook Air can handle tasks previously impossible, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro can power through a 14-hour day filled with intense workflows as if it’s just streaming Netflix. M1 has set a new standard as a powerhouse, and that’s why the MacBook Air tops the list as the best Mac laptop.
With a starting price of just $999, the MacBook Air didn’t get a redesign, but the experience using it feels fully refreshed. Not only does it turn on instantly, but applications open in a jiffy, and there’s no loud-ass fan blowing as soon as you open Google Chrome with a dozen tabs. The base model features the 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU M1, which isn’t much to sweat over. We were able to export a complete 4K project in just 11.6 seconds on the MacBook Air. Note: The 13-inch MacBook Pro gives you a bit more runway for intense tasks at $1,299. It adds a fan into the mix with the 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU.
And that fan is the core difference between the MacBook Air and the rest of the Silicon Mac family. The 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac Mini and new iMac all feature the cooling system, which occasionally kicks in.
The M1 chip on its own is a more efficient and cooler processor than previous components. It doesn’t run as hot, but the addition of the fan and a cooling system lets it kick into an even higher gear when necessary.
You can see our full breakdown of the current M1 Mac lineup here.
What’s happening to Intel-powered Mac laptops and desktops?
Macs using Intel chips aren’t going away just yet. Apple still sells the 21.5-inch iMac, 27-inch iMac, Mac Pro, 13-inch Macbook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro with Intel chips running inside. Apple has said it will be a multiyear transition to all Silicon Macs, and we’re still in the middle of that.
The newest edition will be the all-new iMac, up for preorder now and launching on May 21. It’s the first Mac built entirely around the M1 chip. That means a much thinner design with fun colors, a larger display and less noise with a smaller thermal architecture. We expect it will clock in with the same zippy speeds that M1 has set on the other Macs we’ve tested as well.
If you’re looking to get a Mac now, make it a Silicon-powered (aka M1) one. The speed improvements have been impressive, and it’s a more efficient device as a whole. It will likely be supported longer in the future, and there isn’t a downside here. These Macs with M1 inside support the same applications and provide the same experience — it’s just faster and lasts longer on laptops.