A Short History of the M1 Chip

Oct 19, 2021

Apple just announced a new line of MacBook Pro notebooks – and the computing power is unreal.  The Apple M1 Max chip has 57 billion transistors. For reference – the Apple II shipped with a Motorola-built CPU that had 4,528 transistors in 1977.

Apple has always designed its own processors for iPhone, iPod, Watch, and other devices except for the Macintosh line. Motorola produced the first generation of Mac CPUs before Apple switched to PowerPC in 1991. PowerPC was an alliance between Apple, IBM, and Motorola and was a RISC architecture. In 2005, Apple switched to Intel-based chips. It was until 2020 when Apple started to move Macs to Apple Silicon with the introduction of Apple M1.

Why did Apple start making its own chips for Macs?

When Apple was designing the iPhone they approached Intel to design a chip that would work for mobile devices. The CEO of Intel didn't think that the market was big enough – here's what he had to say a few years after he passed on the opportunity,

At the end of the day, there was a chip that they were interested in that they wanted to pay a certain price for and not a nickel more and that price was below our forecasted cost. I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t one of these things you can make up on volume. And in hindsight, the forecasted cost was wrong and the volume was 100x what anyone thought.

Over the years, Intel's innovation has significantly slowed. Through some strategic missteps, the company found itself well behind competitors like AMD and TSMC. Meanwhile, Apple had been perfecting its low-energy ARM chips in iPhone, iPad, and Watch – chips that they were forced to produce because Intel wouldn't. If you remember from the post on RISC, these types of chips are usually less performant but are extremely efficient.

Macs and PCs have historically used multiple chips for the things like the CPU, GPU, and I/O. Contrast these with mobile devices like iPhones and iPods that fully integrate the entire system on a single chip (SoC). Macs continued to use Intel chips.

Apple M1 finally changed that, with an SoC architecture that was faster than the fastest consumer-grade chips. It's so fast that it can even run programs that were made specifically for Intel's processors (x86) faster than an Intel chip! Not only that, but being ARM-based, it is significantly more energy-efficient than Intel chips. If you squint, these computers look more like an iPhone than a PC.

Here's the M1 (2020) compared to the M1 Pro and M1 Max that were just announced yesterday.

The new chips show the scalability and power of the chip architecture. Unified memory means that graphics processing can take advantage of up to 32GB of memory – combine that with the new 16-core Neural Engine and you get insane performance for machine learning applications and video content.

A finally, here's a graph showing CPU performance vs. power:

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