Apple Silicon

by Colin Berkshire

I am pretty stunned by Apple’s M1 “Apple Silicon” processor announcement. In a surprisingly good way.

I’ll start with the conclusion: Apple seems to have developed a superb, outstanding, brilliant, design. This could be a genuine game changer for Apple and the industry. However, the devil is in the details and what is unsaid is often more important. As Tom Waits* says: “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away”. So we will see.

The user features that make this outstanding are speed, long battery life, and security. Every indication given by Apple is that this is the fastest microprocessor (“in its class”) by no small margin. The CPU seems to be 3x to 5x faster than almost anything out there, and battery consumption seems to be about ¼ to ½ most systems. This is dramatic.

My greatest concern about Apple making a shift to a proprietary architecture was Microsoft Windows compatibility. I love my Mac, but I have to go to Windows-land almost every day for one reason or another. Whether it is to review and edit a schematic (Yes, I am a wanna-be hardware designer) to having to run some obscure Windows app. There is no escaping the need for Windows. Apple claims that with their Rosetta emulation layer their new CPU is so fast that it will typically emulate an x86 processor as fast as a conventional computer (give or take). This is profound, because the lack of Intel x86 architecture is not a negative.

How did Apple achieve such a breakthrough? Two ways

  1. Intel is asleep. They are easily five years behind the times. They still fabricate chips that use ginormous dies because they can’t produce 5nm cells, indeed, for the most part they can’t yet make 7nm cells. Intel is a fat, slow, lethargic, and mostly complacent company. Long gone are the days of Andy Grove and his “only the paranoid survive” mentality. This makes Intel a sitting duck, and it explains why Intel ticked Apple off so much.
  2. Apple is a master at integrating many things on a chip. Thanks to their early choice of using the ARM architecture on the iPhone, Apple built up a proficiency of including many things on a single chip. The Apple Silicon M1 integrates eight processor cores, 16 GB of main memory, eight GPU cores, their Neural engine, Thunderbolt 4 and hardware-based media encode/decode engines all on a single chip. This is significant because it means that all of these can talk with each other without ever going through a pin. Those chips with hundreds of pins are a thing of the past…if you don’t need to interconnect chis then you don’t need those pins. Apple uses a 5nm fab process, which is the absolute smallest, fastest, and least power consuming technology in commercial use.

So it is the unique combination of a sleepy-stupid Intel and Apple’s having built up silicon experience that allowed this to happen.

When I first heard that Apple was going to abandon Intel I thought it was a dubious idea. But I didn’t realize they could keep x86 architecture compatibility through emulation, and I didn’t actually realize how brain-dead Intel had become. Apple seized the moment. I’m impressed by their audacity and insight.

I have often accused Apple of having “Product Constipation,” but not this year!

* This saying is frequently attributed to Tom Waits for his 1976 song, but it actually goes back to Amos ’n’ Andy (1928-1955).