Apple’s “One More Thing” event showcased the first computers running its custom silicon, ushering in a new era of devices with peak performance and efficiency.
Apple is no stranger to the kind of shake-up that is brought upon developers, users, the computing industry, et al., when a change in crucial hardware partners is made. A decision like this is not made lightly as the disruption–while ultimately necessary for the greater benefit of current and future product lines–has been known to upend all stakeholders for years to come during the transitionary period.
Not unlike the change that occurred back in 2005 during the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), where the late Steve Jobs took the stage to announce that Apple was going to migrate from IBM’s PowerPC microprocessors to x86-based processors provided by Intel. During that WWDC, the year-long timeline established a roadmap to guide developers on transitioning their code to x86-compatible hardware, leveraging Apple’s Rosetta app to handle real-time translation of code for existing apps, until native versions of applications shipped.
Third-party developers weren’t the only ones affected, as Apple needed to rewrite Mac OS X at the time as Intel-only, removing any traces of PowerPC support. This did not materialize until several years later, in 2009, with the release of OS X v10.6 (Snow Leopard). In the time between Apple’s initial announcement and the release of Intel-only OS and subsequent apps, users were affected with performance degradation when using Rosetta’s emulation technology to translate code from one architecture to the other, not to mention the time frame for developers to build and distribute apps that run on native code.
Now, fast forward to 2020. Here we stand again on the precipice of yet another historic change for Apple–once again, adopting new hardware technology, but this time by way of first-party, ARM-based silicon-on-a-chip (SoC). Developed by Apple, this SoC design is poised to delivered unprecedented access to system resources due to deep integrations with the rest of Apple’s systems and has the promise of ushering in a new age of computing brighter than anything we’ve known before, complete with the return of the Apple startup chime. Here is a recap from Apple’s Nov. 10, 2020 “One More Thing” event.
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macOS v11.0 (Big Sur)
macOS Big Sur heralds several firsts for Apple, from an operating system point of view. It’s the first in a new line of OSs from Apple to transition from the venerable OS X (v10.x) line–rewritten to host a number of new, modern changes to macOS. Version 11.x of macOS also has the distinction of being the first to support ARM-based processors, which means that it will natively support new hardware running Apple’s custom silicon from day one.
With native support for Apple’s custom-designed SoC, Big Sur is the first release of macOS to natively support iOS and iPadOS applications without modifications by the developer, something that Apple has been slowly transitioning toward through several iterations of macOS and iOS, respectively. This includes apps designed leveraging the Universal Apps platform, which provides apps that support both Intel and Apple Silicon, giving users the ability to utilize both types, right from the App Store available Nov. 12.
The inclusion of Rosetta 2 does mark the first time it is included in a modern macOS release. Rosetta 2 hearkens back to the initial Rosetta release in OS X v10.4 (Tiger), which allowed applications written for PowerPC architecture to run on Intel-based hardware, with Rosetta providing the translation and emulation duties in converting from one code base to another.
Rosetta 2 is effectively a stopgap measure in place by Apple to aid users by continuing to run existing apps, while developers get additional time to transition their apps for native compatibility with the new hardware.
M1 chip (Apple Silicon)
The first of the Apple Silicon, or SoC, developed for use with next-generation Apple hardware was announced during the “One More Thing” event. The first iteration of Apple Silicon is focused on low-power chips or systems that are optimized to balance performance and power efficiency, such as mobile devices.
By customizing Apple Silicon, engineers were able to design an SoC that integrates all the chipsets that normally work together, but stand-alone on the logic board into one sleek, high-performing package. Utilizing the 5nm process, Apple was able to pack over 16 billion transistors into the SoC, allowing all the chipsets to reside on the same die and able to use ultra high-speed lanes to communicate with one another.
The M1 chip includes an 8-core CPU, which is split into a 4×2 design. The first row of four CPUs function as a 4-core set of high-performance CPUs, used to tackle tasks that require faster performance at the cost of battery life. The second row of four CPUs function as a 4-core set of high-efficiency CPUs, and these are used to tackle tasks that benefit from power efficiency as the system balances high-priority tasks from low-priority ones effortlessly, often utilizing only 25% of power per watt compared to the leading laptop processor in high-performance cores and as low as 1/10th of the power per watt in high-efficiency cores.
A huge leap forward is the inclusion of the 16-core Neural Engine used in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), allowing developers to integrate more of these technological advancements in their applications, making use of sensors for added interactivity with users, for example. Data scientists and those in AI-based fields will benefit from the increased ML functionality in their work, as the Neural Engine can make short work of even the most complicated studies and algorithms.
Another integration in M1 is that of the whooping 8-core GPU, which provides the performance of a discrete video card while maintaining the power efficiency of integrated graphics. This serves to deliver higher performance while using only about a third of the power.
Secure Enclave is the security chip located in each M1. It handles the security functions for the system, including hardware-assisted Secure Boot to ensure devices are booting trusted software that has not been compromised, encryption for data stored on disks, and the TouchID authentication keys.
When it comes to connectivity, M1 provides myriad options, such as Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, Thunderbolt, and USB4, while maintaining backward-compatibility with previous connection types and protocols to ensure users connect to external devices and peripherals using only the fastest, most secure connections available.
Rounding out the full, SoC design is Unified Memory Access, or UMA, as Apple calls it. This is the portion of memory allocated to the M1 and to be shared among all chipsets. Thanks to its incredible design, data located in memory does not need to be copied across or back when communicating with the CPU, interfacing with Wi-Fi, or ultimately being stored on SSD. This cuts down dramatically on the latency or time spent waiting for data to go around and back to the user. Less time waiting equals more time doing.
Mac mini 2020
The Mac mini 2020, arguably the hardest working Mac in the desktop lineup, continues to bring with it a balance of versatility and performance at a low price point that is hard to compete with. It also has the distinction of being among the first systems to make the leap to the new Apple Silicon. To keep the SoC performing at its absolute best, Apple has redesigned the active cooling system, while keeping the diminutive, yet tried and true, form factor in tow. At one-tenth the size of other desktops in its class, Apple states that these new Mac minis perform five times faster than the competition. In addition to the performance boost, the new Mac minis will include two USB-C ports, two USB-A ports, Gbit Ethernet, with a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and HDMI 2.0 port rounding out connectivity options. All of this while actually lowering its entry-level price to $699–$100 less than the previous model. It will be available next week with pre-orders beginning today.
MacBook Air 2020
Apple’s most popular mobile device has received the Apple Silicon treatment and is the first device in Apple’s lineup to go completely fanless. Due in no small part to the M1 architecture’s design, the new MacBook Air is touted by Apple to perform 98% faster than other laptops in its class and boasting 15 hours of web and 18 hours of video playback respectively, all displayed on a 13.3″ Retina display with P3 color space and Advanced Camera ISP for bolder, crisper looking video chats and meetings. The Secure Enclave built-in to M1 ensures that the new MacBook Air keeps data locked away using the TouchID biometric reader, which doubles as a power button. The MacBook Air has an entry-level price of $999 for retail and $899 for educational customers. It will be available next week with pre-orders beginning today.
MacBook Pro 2020
Not to be outdone by its sibling, the new MacBook Pro has also received the M1 treatment and includes Apple’s redesigned active cooling system to ensure the full performance of Apple Silicon can be uncapped, while keeping the system cooled and stable. Apple claims these new 13.3″ Retina display-equipped Pros are three times faster than other laptops in its class–boasting an unheard of 17 hours of web and 20 hours of video due to the incredible power efficiency afforded by the M1 SoC. The new MacBook Pro includes studio-quality microphones for an immersive, enriching experience when video conferencing. The MacBook Pro 2020 has all of the features professionals have come to know and love about Apple’s MacBook Pro line, plus all the benefits of Apple Silicon, while maintaining its entry-level price of $1,299 for retail and $1,199 for educational customers. It will be available next week with pre-orders beginning today.