Apple M1 chip

Here’s my take on it, based on what we know so far.

It’s a modified mobile APU, which means it has both strengths and drawbacks of other Apple’s mobile chips: it produces great computational power and uses very little energy. That much is obvious from the reviews.

The drawbacks are that the peripheral connections seem to be an afterthought. It appears to have two thunderbolt connections, but if you read carefully it turns out that when you connect one monitor to the USB C, the other USB C can’t connect the second monitor, and it’s questionable how much you can connect to it at all, because although they call it thunderbolt, it doesn’t work with e-GPU, and it’s questionable how many PCIe lanes it exposes, if any. Also, the connected monitors seem to mostly work at 30Hz, with 60Hz support being very… let’s say “selective”. Basically, it’s an iPad pro chip slightly tweaked to allow for the peripherals, but the “tweak” in question wasn’t serious enough to support anything even remotely resembling the level of connectivity we normally expect on desktop computers.

Also, they modified the recovery boot menu, completely turning off the option that previously allowed us to boot from an external drive. This means two things. First, if your SSD dies, you’ll need to change the motherboard, you can’t just plug in an USB or Thunderbolt SSD and install the OS there, and continue using the computer. Second, no more installing Linux on a Mac. That there’ll be no BootCamp Windows is already known. They completely locked the hardware in. If they lock the software in as well, a Mac will become a very nicely decorated prison cell.

Also, since the RAM is on the chip itself, that means no RAM expansion. This is a step further from soldering the RAM onto the motherboard, and we’ve only seen this level of non-expandability on smartphones and tablets. One would expect it from an ultrabook, but on a Mac Mini or a Macbook Pro, the inability to change the SSD or upgrade RAM is terrible news. Those systems are so closed off, they feel claustrophobic – no RAM upgrade, no SSD upgrade, peripherals reduced to one monitor, with the other USB C port switching to low capacity mode when that happens, which means the bus is quite constrained and, in lack of another word, anemic.

Having all that in mind, it’s questionable what can one do with all that computational power? It reminds me of my iPhone, which has as much power as a desktop computer, but you are so constrained by all the limitations of the form factor, lack of peripherals, and limitations of the OS, that it remains just a phone that does the trivial phone tasks really, really quickly. For professional use, where you have to consider connecting two external monitors, a fast external storage drive, LAN and similar things, which is what you would actually use to do non-trivial work, the Intel machines are vastly superior, and my recommendation would be to look into the 16″ Macbook Pro, and the new 2020 iMac, which are both excellent. The new machines are good for applications where battery life is the absolute priority, and where you need extreme computational power, but with little or no demands for peripheral connectivity.