The release of the M1 processor was a milestone. Apple has finally migrated the Mac to fast, low-power mobile processors, and the results are amazing. It’s been hard to keep track of — and about a year and a half later, the M2 processor has arrived with an (unexpected) set of incremental gains.
You can’t reinvent the wheel every time, and the M2 was clearly a careful follow-up to the M1, designed to keep the ball rolling. But now reports abound that M3 is on its way – not at the end of the year or early 2024, as you might expect from the 18-month gap between M1 and M2, but very soonpossibly as soon as possible in late spring or early summer.
a surprise! It turns out that Apple may be a little bolder with its master plan to tackle the Mac than we might have expected from the first two years of Apple silicon.
Back to the chip cycle
The first two generations of Apple silicon Mac chips were successors to the previous generation iPhone chips. The M1 was based on the A14, and the M2 was based on the A15. Apple releases a new iPhone chip every year but hasn’t done so with the M series… until now.
However, there is evidence to suggest that Apple didn’t want it that way. The M2 debuted along with the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro last June, but several reports from well-sourced reporters like Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman indicated that the M2 MacBook Air was initially slated for late 2021 or early 2022. If that’s true Apple’s original plan was to ship the first M2 Macs about a year after the first M1 models. It didn’t work out, but intention matters when we’re trying to guess what’s going to happen next.
M3 is like the word nanometer
Apple’s chip supplier, TSMC, has been going wild with a new 3nm chip process for a while now. The A14 is built on a 5nm process and the A15 on a newer process that Apple calls 4nm, but many chip nerds say it’s truly It’s still 5 nm. Meanwhile, the 3nm process (when it arrives) has been completely bought out by Apple for use in all of its chips.
(If you’re not a chip engineer, what you need to know is that smaller processes provide a lot of benefits, both in terms of reducing power consumption and increasing potential chip speed. Smaller is better.)
Although it was long assumed that Apple’s first 3nm chips would be in the iPhone this fall, the M3 chip is built on the process. This means that, unlike the last two courses, this time around the Mac go first With the new chip technology – before the iPhone. This also indicates that the M3 may bypass last fall’s A16 processor and share more of its architecture with the upcoming A17 chip.
All of this suggests that while the first two rounds of Apple’s silicon cycle suggested Apple’s approach was “let’s take an A chip and now make an M chip,” Apple’s chip development roadmap may be a lot looser than that. If the M3 chip is built on a 3nm process, it’s a step ahead of the iPhone. Will it also have the same CPU and GPU cores as the A17? Considering how small the A16’s upgrade is over the A15, that’s probably the case. But it is not a guarantee.
Start a new cycle
Bloomberg’s Gorman strongly suggested this week that Apple Wants The Mac chip cycle is annual, like the iPhone cycle. I’m not sure if we’ve got a lot of evidence to back that up yet, but it would certainly make sense for Apple to keep the M and A series flat now that Apple has pretty much ended the Mac chip transition.
But if Apple Do Moving on to the Mac’s annual chip update cycle, I don’t expect every new Mac model to get an annual update of the new chip. In fact, we’ve already seen hints of it, with the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro receiving both M1 and M2 versions, but the iMac and Mac Studio are so far only available on the M1.
A pattern is slowly emerging: Perhaps Apple’s laptops, which likely make up at least three-quarters of Mac sales, will continue to be updated year on year, along with each new chip generation. Desktop Macs, on the other hand, may only be refreshed every two years—Gurman reports that a new 24-inch iMac model arriving this fall with an M3 processor inside will carry just that. Imagine the Mac mini and Mac Pro getting an update in odd-numbered years, with the Mac Studio and iMac even getting an update in odd-numbered years.
Of course, until the M3 officially arrives, we have no idea if these reports are accurate. And delays do happen — whether due to larger supply chain issues (which really crippled the Mac last year) or even delays at TSMC in getting their new chip operations off the ground. But as of now, Apple is definitely about to get more aggressive with the pace of updates to its Mac chips, and that’s great news for Mac users.
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