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Monday, November 29, 2021

Explained: Why Apple’s silicon ambition is bad news for Intel, Windows ecosystem

When Apple announced last year that its Macs will be powered by its custom silicon instead of Intel processors, it marked the end of a 15-year partnership between two tech giants.

Written by Anuj Bhatia , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: October 20, 2021 7:32:52 am
AppleApple has announced its brand new mini-LED MacBook Pro in 14 and 16-inch sizes, featuring all-new Apple silicon. (AP)

Apple Monday showcased two new high-end MacBook Pros powered by its own custom “Apple Silicon” chips. But it wasn’t just another event to show off Cupertino’s expertise in hardware and software. In fact, the event was a display of the progress Apple has made in the processor segment with its in-house silicon showing chipmaker Intel and the entire PC industry what’s wrong with Windows laptops and the chipsets that power them.

Along with the performance, even in terms of perception, the new M1 Pro and M1 Max chipsets that power the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models have hit Intel badly. “This does indeed put pressure on Intel,” Bryan Ma, vice president of client devices at market research firm IDC, told indianexpress.com. “The last thing that Intel wants is for there to be a perception that Apple silicon outperforms its own, especially when speeds and feeds have long been a huge core competency and differentiator for Intel,” he said. “It strikes at the core of Intel’s identity.”

When Apple announced last year that its Macs will be powered by its custom silicon instead of Intel processors, it marked the end of a 15-year partnership between two tech giants. The Cupertino company announced three new Macs running the first “Apple Silicon” — the M1–designed specifically for its computers.

The M1, which uses an ARM-based architecture rather than an Intel or AMD x86 CPU, brought faster performance and better battery life to Macs. It completely blew away Intel-based PCs in performance, which helped Apple set the narrative around the future of the modern personal computer. But the M1 chip –similar to Apple’s iPhone and iPad processors – wasn’t designed for consumers who want the most powerful computers to do heavy graphics-intensive work. Which is why the M1 chip was first introduced on devices like the MacBook Air and Mac mini, leaving the Intel-powered 16-inch Mac Pro mostly untouched.

But that changed with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. The new processors are a huge step up from the M1 in terms of both GPU and CPU performance and putting them in a MacBook Pro shows Apple’s confidence and its ability to take on Intel’s best-performing chip. The M1 Pro has 10 CPU cores and 16 GPU cores, while the M1 Max has 10 CPU cores and 32 GPU cores. The M1 Pro can be configured with up to 32GB of RAM, twice as much as the M1’s 16GB capacity. The M1 Max, meanwhile, features up to 64GB RAM.

“The impact of M1 Pro and M1 Max is pretty significant for Intel as these chips would be one of the key factors for creative professionals to refresh their notebooks from their existing Intel device to an M1 device,” said Gartner research director Mikako Kitagawa. She added: “Creative professionals are one of Apple’s core user community in the business market. These professionals have been waiting for the M1 device for them as well as more applications are natively written for M1.”

Even though MacBook Pro caters only to professional users such as graphic designers and coders, they are also the most loyal customers. They are the ones who are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a premium notebook and for them, performance-per-watt really matters.

The launch of the M1 Pro and M1 Max shows how far Apple has come in developing silicon on its own. Cupertino started investing in chip development way back in 2008. And since 2010, it has been using its own A-series chips for iPhones and iPads. Having full control over the hardware, software, and chip development help Apple integrate its products tightly, something you won’t get with Window-based PCs that are either powered by Intel or AMD chips. Under Johny Srouji, Apple has transformed into a chip company, a massive transformation that was away from the media glare until recently.

But Apple’s rise as a silicon major is also to do with Intel’s inability to meet the needs of Apple, which at one point in time was an important client. With continued delays in moving toward a new, smaller transistor process and its reluctance to outsource the manufacturing of chips, Intel has fallen behind TSMC in the race to make better processors.

Despite that, Intel still commands a lion’s share in the CPU market. The problem is that the PC industry as a whole, including OEMs, software providers and GPU makers, is largely dependent on Intel. It’s true that Apple controls the hardware and software, but as in the case of Intel, Microsoft and PC OEMs, they too work closely in designing products. But then the PC market has become stagnant over the years and there is a clear lack of vision. This has led to creative professionals switching to Mac over Windows laptops, putting the spotlight on Apple and the MacBook Pro.

“I believe Apple tries to control as many components as possible to differentiate themselves and also be in control of the supply chain,” Kitagawa explained, on why developing its own custom silicon for Macs benefits Cupertino and helps the company to design its products at its own pace without worrying about Intel’s timeline of developing chips. It’s also about controlling the cost since Apple does not have to deal with Intel over negotiations of chips.

Intel may have lost Apple as a client, but the chip behemoth recently laid out a roadmap to expand its new foundry business to catch rivals such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) and Samsung by 2025. Ma said Apple and Intel can be partners, though. “Not only are there other components beyond the CPU that Intel offers, but also Intel has a new foundry business that – in theory at least – could manufacture Apple’s own silicon designs.”

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