The era of Apple Silicon is in full swing, and Apple’s decision to bring its chip development in house seems to be paying off in a big way. All you need to look at is our MacBook Air M1 review.
The M1 chip has absolutely smashed the records set by Intel-powered MacBooks while offering considering longer battery life. And Apple isn't stopping there. We’re already hearing rumors of a new chip, the M1X, which could be launching next year.
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The M1 has already been a big success for Apple. Our Apple Silicon benchmarks on the M1 chip show that Apple's processor blows away Intel's latest chip on Geekbench, video transcoding and Photoshop.
So the prospect of an even more powerful chip for the 16-inch MacBook Pro 2021 is rather exciting.
Apple M1X:-12 Cores.- 8 performance cores.- 4 high efficiency cores.- Coming first on a MacBook Pro 16” unveiling as a press release.- According to a source who used a prototype, “if you think M1 is fast, you haven’t seen M1X”.-Name isn’t final though. pic.twitter.com/tpBhXpDCadNovember 22, 2020
According to @LeaksApplePro, who has a good track record with this sort of thing, the M1X is set to debut in a 16-inch MacBook Pro sometime next year. Considering the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the flagship MacBook right now, it makes sense that Apple would use it to launch an ever better chipset. Especially if it really is this much faster than the M1 chip in the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
And if the details about the number of cores are true, then this really is set out to be one hell of a chip. Just for reference, the current M1 chip only has eight cores in total, with four high-performance and four efficient cores inside. Eight performance cores is going to be a sight to see, assuming Apple can keep the power requirements at manageable levels.
The only questions we have are whether the M1X name will stick, and when it might arrive. After all, if it’s really got double the number of performance cores, Apple may want to pick a name that reflects the boost in power. As for when it will be released, it could be any time between now early next year. Especially if there’s only going to be a press release, and no big launch event.
M1 has 4 high performance Firestorm and 4 high efficiency Icestorm cores - it was designed for the low-end MacBook Air (fanless) and 13" MacBook Pro models as part of their annual spec bump.
Rumor has it the M1x slated for later this year will have 8-16 Firestorm cores (depending on binning) and will be targeted at machines like the 14" and 16" MacBook Pros and possibly the low end iMac (and maybe a high end Mac Mini).
In 2008, Apple acquired PA Semi and worked with cash strapped Intrinsity and Samsung to produce a FastCore Cortex-A8; the frenemies famously split and Apple used their IP and Imagination's PowerVR to create the A4 and Samsung took their tech to produce the Exynos 3. Apple acquired Intrinsity and continued to hire engineering talent from IBM's Cell and XCPU design teams, and hired Johny Srouji from IBM who worked on the POWER7 line to direct the effort.
This divergence from standard ARM designs was continued by Apple who continued to nurture and build their Silicon Design Team (capitalized out of respect) for a decade, ignoring standard ARM designs building their own architecture, improving and optimizing it year by year for the last decade.
Whereas other ARM processor makers like Qualcomm and Samsung pretty much now use standard ARM designed cores - Apple has their own designs and architecture and has greatly expanded their own processor acumen to the point where the Firestorm cores in the A14 and M1 are the most sophisticated processors in the world with an eight wide processor design with a 690 instruction execution queue with a massive reorder buffer and the arithmetic units to back it up - which means its out-of-order execution unit can execute up to eight instructions simultaneously.
x86 processor makers are hampered by the CISC design and a variable instruction length. This means that at most they can produce a three wide design and even for that the decoder would have to be fiendishly clever, as it would have to guess where one instruction ended and the next began.
There's a problem shared with x86-64 processor makers and Windows - they never met an instruction or feature they didn't like. What happens then is you get a build-up of crud that no one uses, but it still consumes energy and engineering time to keep working.
AMD can get better single core speed by pushing up clocks (and dealing with the exponentially increased heat though chiplets are probably much harder to cool), and Intel by reducing the number of cores (the top of the 10 core 20 thread 10900K actually had to be shaved to achieve enough surface area to cool the chip so it at 14nm had reached the limits of physics). Both run so hot they are soon in danger of running into Moore's Wall.
Apple OTOH ruthlessly pares underused or unoptimizable features.
When Apple determined that ARMv7 (32 bit ARM) was unoptimizable, they wrote it out of iOS, and removed those logic blocks from their CPUs in two years, repurposing the silicon real estate for more productive things. Intel, AMD, and yes even Qualcomm couldn't do that in a decade.
Apple continues that with everything - not enough people using Force Touch - deprecate it, remove it from the hardware, and replace it with Haptic Touch. Gone.
Here's another secret of efficiency - make it a goal. Last year on the A13 Bionic used in the iPhone 11s, the Apple Silicon Team introduced hundreds of voltage domains so they could turn off parts of the chip not in use. Following their annual cadence, they increased the speed of the Lightning high performance and the Thunder high efficiency cores by 20% despite no change in the 7nm mask size. As an aside, they increased the speed of matrix multiplication and division by six times (used in machine learning).
This year they increased the speed of the Firestorm high performance and Icestorm high efficiency cores by another 20% while dropping the mask size from 7nm to 5nm. That's a hell of a compounding rate and explains how they got to where they are. Rumor has it they've bought all the 3nm capacity from TSMC for the A16 (and probably M2) next year.
Wintel fans would deny the efficacy of the A series processors and say they were mobile chips, as if they used slower silicon with wheels on the bottom or more sluggish electrons.
What they were were high efficiency chips which were passively cooled and living in a glass sandwich. Remove them from that environment where they could breathe more easily and boost the clocks a tad and they became a raging beast.
People say that the other processor makers will catch up in a couple of years, but that's really tough to see. Apple Silicon is the culmination of a decade of intense processor design financed by a company with very deep pockets - who is fully cognizant of the competitive advantage Apple Silicon affords. Here's an article in Anandtech comparing the Firestorm cores to the competing ARM and x86 cores. It's very readable for an article of its ilk.
Of course these are the Firestorm cores used in the A14, and are not as performant as the cores in the M1 due to the M1's higher 3.2 ghz clock speed.