My New Apple M1 Mac

by Colin Berkshire

I recently received my new Apple Mac with the M1 processor.

I will be honest, I was skeptical and fearful of this machine. It does NOT use an Intel CPU chip. The chip it uses has an entirely different microcode instruction set. That means Intel speaks “English” and the Apple chip speaks “Moonie”. There is no known conversion or translation possible.

Also, I run BOTH Apple Mac and because I DO CAD work I also must run Windows begrudgingly and on rare occasion. I stay out of Windows as much as possible…it’s just a mess.

This new Apple computer replaced an eight or nine year old iMac computer. In it’s day the old was the fastest thing Apple made and even now it is very very fast. I have never had a complaint about it. But a big feature was that it used an Intel CPU so it ran Windows flawlessly.

OK, I opened the box…of course Apple has a wonderful box opening experience and their products are always drop-dead gorgeous. You know that.

I started it up and got it going. Despite using an M1 chip, the experience is identical to other Apple Mac products. It doesn’t look or feel or operate differently in any way. It was easy to get going, which is to be expected of any Apple product.

After I entered appropriate credentials, all of my email accounts, calendars, contacts, and other stuff synchronized automatically. It was painless, as is to be expected from Apple. My iPhone contacts and calendar all synchronized. My email did as well. It was a complete non-event.

Next, I spent about two hours personalizing the machine, I am fussy about desktop colors, menu operations, I have a bunch of shortcuts, and I use a number of accessibility options. These did not synchronize from my iMac. Presumably this is because Apple thinks that each machine may want to be different. In my case I wish there was a way to sync these things, but there is not. So two hours of fiddling and I was done. Again, the Apple m1 processor made no difference whatsoever.

Now the scary part…how to get Windows up and running…

It was double scary because I decided that since this computer is going to have a long life it should run Windows 11, which is brand new. I have never used Windows 11 and there is a lot different about it. The User interface is increasingly Apple Mac like, but it is still way more Geeky.

To run Windows on an Apple you need a product called “Parallels Desktop”. (Money alert! This costs $50 to $60 annually for the subscription. They have a one-time $80 purchase option, but trust me: they will coax you to upgrade annually. The $50 subscription includes all annual updates.) There are other (even free) ways to run Windows on a Mac, but they are more fussy. Parallels is the best by far and I don’t begrudge the $50 a year.

I installed Parallels Desktop 17 and it was a non-event. It took about 15 minutes, I didn’t have to do much except enter my login credentials and then indicate I wanted to move my license from my old machine.

Parallels Desktop allows an Apple computer to run Windows, but it does not include a Windows license. That needs to be purchased separately for about $135-199. Though you can save about half of that by purchasing in Eastern European countries. The package and documentation are in some weird language, but you don’t need or get those. All you need is the license key and you use it on a US downloaded version of Windows 11.

I installed Windows 11, upgraded to Windows Pro, and then entered my License Key. Boom, everything authenticated.

I remained highly skeptical on how an Apple M1 CPU could run Windows apps, which are ONLY Intel processor compatible. Both Apple and Parallels say that it works just fine. But this is the type of thing that never just works fine. It is really complicated stuff. And With Windows 11 there is a mandatory hardware security chip on Intel processors that Apple computers don’t have.

Well it works, Perfectly. And it is stunningly fast. Apple claims that Windows runs faster on their M1 CPU computers than on intel computers. When I hear that I nearly choked and vomited. Not likely. Not as fast as Intel’s fastest CPU. Not when the CPU chips can’t even talk the same language and there is no known translation possible.

Apple’s claim appears to be correct. Windows and all Windows apps seem to perform flawlessly on their M1 CPU. And, native Intel-only apps like my CAD software is remarkably faster in the M1 than on my Intel i7 3.2 ghz machine from eight years ago.

There are no words to express my true astonishment at what Apple has accomplished. They have utterly dethroned intel.

What they do (and it is all hidden behind the scenes) is emulate Intel’s fastest CPU. That means that there is software running on the M1 that reads and simulates Intel commands. This type of trickery has been done for decades, but two things about it: 1) it never really works and 2) It usually runs with an 80% or greater performance hit. Slow and buggy makes emulation one of those promising but “never works” technologies.

The Apple M1 processor is so utterly blazingly fast that the performance hit from emulation doesn’t matter. It is still faster than the (crap?) that intel is peddling. Apple claims that they solved the problem of emulation never really working by custom designing several M1 instructions that optimize the emulation process. Whatever black magic that they are doing, it really works. My CAD software just flies and it generates no exceptions or crashes.

Apple faced the same basic problem within macOS. All apps out there are compiled into intel; CPU language and it would be an impossible barrier to require every developer to rewrite and re-compile code for the M1. So Apple’s emulation (called Rosetta) automatically kicks in. You don’t even know it is happening. So the Apple M1 computer can run every Apple application without changes. If it happens to be an intel app then so be it…and it is still remarkably fast. Bottom line: complete compatibility with old apps you may have.

Now, independent developers have the option of writing code for the M1 chip. And when they do this the emulation is eliminated. Whatever you thought was fast before is now “triple fast”. This new M1 processor is unbelievable.

Part of what makes the M1 a true leapfrog in performance is not only that it has a nice, crisp, efficient architecture but that it is highly integrated. In an intel system there is the CPU chip and next to it are some graphics accelerator chips. They talk to each other though hundreds of interconnections on the printed circuit board. And, because they can be inches apart those signal lines must run pretty slow. In the same way, the memory chips you plug into the printed circuit board are far away and must talk slowly. Well, not wasn’t considered to be “slowly” until Apple came along.

The M1 chip takes between 8 and 10 CPUs and bonds them into one silicon die. Then, on the same die they bond in up to 32 GPU graphic CPUs. Next they add in up to 16 Neural Engines. I don’t even know what those are, but apparently they are self-learning AI processors. And, instead of RAM being externally connected by being plugged into the main board, it is on the same silicon die, too, right next to all of those CPUs. Now, all of the IO such as USB ports, HDMI ports, and other stuff is on the same die. The whole computer system is on one chip. (This is sometimes called SOC or “System on a Chip” technology and it is cutting edge.)

With everything on the same die, everything is close. There are no pins or PC board traces or connectors. Everything can talk to everything. There is a switch fabric (like a phone system) that intercommunicates at up to 400 billion bytes per second. That’s something like 50~100 times faster than what you can usually push across a printed circuit board. Because everything can talk to everything quickly, things just speed up.

Oh, and because modern computers spend a lot of their time talking to SSD flash memory, they put the entire SSD (equivalent to your main hard drive) onto the same silicon die, too. So Disk IO is also incredibly fast. The phone friggin’ computer is on a chip. (Actually, in the larger configurations it requires two chips, but Apple again broke all of the rules and they placed the chips adjacent to each other and bonded them so they can talk to each other within the chip package. I have never heard of this being done even in military hardware.

This is all done in a 5nm process. To put that into perspective, Intel’s new Chip Fab plants can’t even make the chips, because the plants can only produce 7nm chips. And most of Intel’s stuff is much larger than that.

So my take on Apple’s new “Apple Silicon M1” is that it is a home-run product. The only reasons not to go for it are:

  • You don’t need or want a fast computer.
  • Apple charges more than other companies, so their stuff is expensive.
  • You want to remain entirely in Windows, and macOS is only an inconvenience to you.
  • You think an iPhone is all the computer that you need.

Apple offers Apple Silicon M1 processors on a number of computers:

  • Laptops
  • Small desktop box
  • Large and powerful desktop box

The configuration that I think may be most appealing for many people is to buy an M1 laptop and Apple’s new Studio 27” monitor. You can grab the laptop and go with it. Then, when you are home you can plug it into the studio monitor and have a ginormous screen that is truly a delight to look at. (Crisp, bright text.)

Apple will ask for a lot of money for their stuff. Their products are for people that care about quality and are willing to pay more. But they deliver value for what you pay. So I would place their stuff in line with an upper-end Honda Accord up to Mercedes and Tesla. Intel is Ford.

I’ll just close with a summary that you can anticipate. If money is less important than quality, and if you want to live in Apple’s macOS ecosystem, then their new Apple Silicon M1 products appear to be a safe choice that will offer seven years of happiness.

Oh, and this fall I am hearing that the M2 processor will be announced. Not sure how Apple can improve upon what they have now. Do they have a vendetta against Intel?

Related: Great article about the man behind the M1 processor. It emphasizes repeatedly how Intel is broken.