Speculation about the future of Apple silicon

One of the most exhilarating things about the current state of the Mac is that we don’t know what’s coming next. Most of Apple’s time is spent in iteration, punctuated by big leaps forward. (The new 24-inch iMac, for instance, is the first iMac redesign in nine years.)

But once Apple switched the Mac over to Intel processors, the shape of the Mac product line was determined by what Intel had on offer. Occasionally Apple would push Intel to make something new, as with the processor on the original MacBook Air. But for the most part, Apple had to build around Intel’s processors and differentiate between models with different classes of Intel processor.

That’s all gone now. What we know is that Apple has released Macs that use the Apple-designed M1 processor, and has committed to move the entire product line to Apple silicon over two years. Intel’s road map just doesn’t apply anymore.

All we have is a list of Macs that haven’t yet been updated, and the inevitability that there will be new, more capable Apple-designed chips in Macs in the future. There’s no guarantee that Apple will keep existing models, and no previous M-series track record to use as a guide. Sure, Apple might want to echo the moves it made when Intel was powering the Mac—but it also might want to tear away its restraints and do what it never could when it didn’t control this part of its destiny.

So many choices. People inside Apple know what path they chose, and have known for years. Those of us on the outside are left with pure speculation. So let’s speculate.

What’s in a name?

First, it’s worth noting that names are marketing. Apple doesn’t need to name its processors anything. When it does so, it’s doing it to send a message. The A series name is a flag of pride—look, we designed this!—and its attached numbers are an indicator of constant iteration and improvement. The M series, introduced last fall, is about a rebirth of the Mac and processors designed to handle heavier workloads like you might find on a traditional computer.

Could Apple have called the M1 the A14X, in line with previous iPad chips? It certainly could have—and all indications are that the M1 is really an evolution of that approach. But in doing so, it would have been suggesting that its new Macs were “just using an iPad chip.” Instead, the new iPad is so powerful it’s using a Mac chip. I can see why that works better for Apple. But in the end, the M1 is what it is: a more powerful chip built on the same architecture as the A14 inside the iPhone 12.

So when we consider the future of Apple silicon, we need to consider two things: the actual chips and the names they’ll carry.

Next steps

Given that Apple’s first four Apple silicon Macs were replacements for existing Intel Mac models, it seems highly likely that whatever comes next will be based on models that haven’t been updated yet: The high-end 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro, the 27-inch iMac, the space gray Mac mini, and the Mac Pro.

Apple’s annual developer conference is just around the corner, in early June. And while new Macs aren’t required at a WWDC keynote, the company frequently enjoys announcing pro hardware there. After all, developers are among Apple’s most enthusiastic pro-level users. Reports suggest that new MacBook Pros could be around the corner, powered by a newer, more powerful chip.

But what chip would that be?

My guess is Apple isn’t overhauling its entire approach to processor development, the one that has served it so well for years now. That approach is simple: roll out a new iPhone once a year or so, powered by a brand-new chip architecture that improves on the previous year’s model. If that’s the case, and Apple does ship more new Macs this summer, it seems unlikely that they’d be based on a new architecture. That would presumably be reserved for A15-derived chips beginning in the fall.

This is a guess. It’s possible that the entry of the Mac has caused Apple to completely rethink its cadence of developing chips. But it has been so successful with the A-series chips and the iPhone that I have a hard time thinking they’d mess with it.

So if there are indeed new MacBook Pros coming this summer, what will be the chip that powers them? The M1 is a remarkably powerful and efficient chip, but it’s effectively a low-end model, and Apple has rolled it into its four least demanding Macs. And while it’s a huge speed boost for those low-end systems, for a lot of pro-level tasks, users will want even more performance.

Apple knows this, and would never release a truly pro-level Apple silicon-based Mac that lagged behind the previous generation. There’s too much pride involved. When Apple releases higher-end Macs with Apple-designed processors in them, you can bet that they will shine when compared to their Intel predecessors.

This all points to the idea that there’s a scaled-up M1 processor coming, based on the same A14 architecture. The M1 has four high-speed processor cores, four power-efficient cores, seven or eight GPU cores, two channels of Thunderbolt, and support for 8 or 16 GB of RAM. A new, pro-level variant would need… more.

That means a chip with more cores—12 or 16, depending on whether Apple doubles all its CPU cores or just the high-speed ones, and likewise 12 or 16 GPU cores. Given the hunger of more connectivity—both screens and devices—that I’ve heard from pro-level users who scoff at the limited ports on Apple’s M1 Macs, the chip had better support more channels of Thunderbolt, too.

And of course, the RAM ceiling has to be raised. Given the RAM-on-package approach Apple has taken with its A-series chips and the M1, it will be interesting to see if Apple rolls out a more modular approach to RAM with higher memory ceilings. My gut feeling is that it won’t, at least not on the M1, and instead will just offer a base configuration of 16GB, upgradeable to 32GB or 64GB—just as it does on the Intel 16-inch MacBook Pro.

The M2 two-step

What will Apple call this thing? Again, it’s a marketing decision. I can see the simplicity of incrementing to M2, though that leads to challenges down the road when it needs to release a new low-end Mac chip and update last year’s models. It’s probably better to either introduce another chip name—the X1?—or just follow its existing approach and tack letters on the end of M1-generation chips. Introducing… the M1X?

Speaking of updating existing models, another mystery is how Apple will differentiate the Mac product line over time. My guess is that Apple will keep some older chips around for a while, on lower-priced products. So instead of having a couple different MacBook Airs or iMacs available with different types of Intel processors, people will be able to buy a MacBook Air and choose whether they want the cheap M1 version or the more expensive and faster M2 version.

The 24-inch iMac is the first example of a Mac being redesigned for Apple silicon, but it won’t be the last. The Mac actually seems to be in two transitions at the moment—one to Apple silicon, and one to new designs based on what Apple silicon enables. I wouldn’t be shocked if the M1 MacBook Air and low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro are actually the last of their lines, replaced by a new low-end laptop design. Reports of a miniature Mac Pro are fascinating, making me wonder if there’s a Mac Mini Pro or Mac Pro Mini in the offing.

I’m sure Apple will surprise us all, at least a little bit, with the Mac decisions it makes in the next year. There will be areas where it decides to stick with its existing approach, because that approach has worked so well. And there will be almost certainly places where Apple moves in unexpected directions, finally freed from Intel and able to make bold moves that will lead to better products.

Let’s just hope there’s a faster MacBook Pro on the horizon. I know a lot of Mac power users who are desperately waiting for it—no matter what name Apple gives the chip that’s inside of it.

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