Breakthrough Award: Apple M1 chip
The Apple M1 chip is the kind of breakthrough that redefines what a computer can do. And this piece of Apple Silicon — which delivers stellar performance along with record-breaking battery life — was years in the making.
After creating the A Series for the iPhone and scaling it up for the iPad, Apple’s team of engineers set its sights on the Mac, but the M1 chip couldn’t just match what Intel had to offer. It had to handily beat it.
“If somebody else could build a chip that was actually going to deliver better performance inside that enclosure, what’s the point? Why would we switch?,” said Tim Milet, vice president of platform architecture at Apple. “And so for my chip architects, that was the target.”
But to get the M1 to truly sing, Apple couldn’t merely take an A Series Bionic chip from an iPhone and stuff it inside a Mac. It required a dramatic increase in performance while delivering class-leading endurance, as well as an intense collaboration between the engineers and Apple’s software team.
The M1 chip, which powers the MacBook Pro M1, MacBook Air M1, Mac mini, iPad Pro 2021 and the new iMac 24-inch, is a 5-nanometer chip that packs in 16 billion transistors and offers the best performance per watt we’ve ever seen.
The most striking thing about the M1 is its battery life. For example, the MacBook Pro lasted an astounding 16 hours and 25 minutes in our web-surfing test. The previous Intel model lasted 10:21. That’s a huge difference, and this increase caused more than one double take within Apple.
“When we saw that first system and then you sat there and played with it for a few hours and the battery didn’t move, we thought ‘Oh man, that’s a bug, the battery indicator is broken,’” said Bob Borchers, VP of worldwide product marketing for Apple. “And then Tim’s laughing in the background, ‘Nope, that’s the way it’s supposed to be’ and it was pretty phenomenal.”
Meanwhile, the M1 also blows away most Windows laptops on performance, both in so-called Universal apps that take full advantage of Apple Silicon and older programs that run on Apple’s Rosetta 2 software to make them compatible. That was a key ingredient to making Apple Silicon viable on Macs.
“We started a small project years before we started transitioning to Silicon to try to make sure that we could actually deliver the second generation of Rosetta in a way that allowed us to do this seamlessly,” said Milet. “And we believe that was a huge part of the transition story…everything worked out of the box as expected.”
As rumors swirl around a future M1X chip for the MacBook Pro 2021 and a possible M2 chip for the 2022 MacBook Air, Apple sees big things ahead for Apple Silicon, both in terms of achieving new designs and perhaps appealing to the most demanding audience of all — gamers. After all, many of the engineers building Apple’s chips are gamers themselves.
“Of course, you can imagine the pride of some of the GPU folks and imagining, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if it hits a broader set of those really intense gamers,’” said Milet. “It’s a natural place for us to be looking, to be working closely with our Metal team and our Developer team. We love the challenge.”