Apple is a company that is always looking to “innovate”. Their approach to tech has been the cause of significant industry shifts, while at the same time generating new revenue streams for them. Some are questionable, like the decision to remove MagSafe technology from its MacBooks and opt only for USB Type-C/Thunderbolt 3/USB4. Others are more nuanced like the touch bar in the MacBook Pro lineup. But the ultimate change happened on November 17, when Apple officially released its new M1 chip.
The Apple M1 chipset is a great piece of hardware for the average consumer – it’s fast, compact, quiet, and powerful. However, for computer repair shops, the M1 chip serves as another nail in the coffin by Apple in its relentless pursuit of an anti-repair ecosystem. Here’s what the future spells for Apple machines.
What is the M1 chip?
Let’s first have a look at the chip itself. The Apple M1 is the laptop variant of the company’s push to manufacture its own processors. It is the first ARM-based silicon designed specifically for the Mac OS X line by Apple and is actually a combination of multiple processors. Classified as a system-on-a-chip (SoC), the Apple M1 chipset includes an 8-core CPU and an integrated 8-core GPU. The CPU is further divided into 4 high-performance cores and 4 high-efficiency cores. These are proprietary Apple components built using a 5nm process, the first of its kind for any device. The incredibly small footprint of the processors means that its power consumption will be drastically lower than what we’ve ever seen before, and Apple knows this (more on that to follow).
Also added to the configuration is a 16-core Neural Engine, which will be responsible for several machine learning (ML) processes. This falls in line with Apple’s A-series of chips used in the company’s iPhones and iPads. The Neural Engine component will be responsible for several ML algorithms that will greatly speeden up everyday tasks. Topping it all off is the onboard memory built right inside the M1. The chip comes equipped with LPDDR4X SDRAM modules at a transfer rate of 4,266 MT/s, which is outstanding. Having the RAM built right on the chip reduces the memory overhead exponentially, and makes it so that memory transfers are tightly integrated with application processing. The modules come in 8 GB and 16 GB varieties.
In summary, the M1 chip carries all the necessary components required by a computer on a single die. This design makes the architecture very tightly-knit, in true Apple fashion, and serves a dual purpose in terms of their business strategy.
Performance & Use
Since its release, the Apple M1 chip has been a key component of 3 major systems – the 13″ MacBook Air (4th gen), the 13″ MacBook Pro (6th gen), and the new Mac Mini (5th gen). The performance metrics are actually incredible when compared to other systems. Due to the integrated nature of the chip, a lot of applications run super fast on the new Mac line.
Apple’s new systems now consume less power and perform great under load. While a lot of the official metrics from Apple are pretty vague, real-world tests show the M1 chip to be far superior to previous Intel-based offerings. The systems work very well with both optimized (ARM) and non-optimized (x86) apps, showing very little signs of thermal throttling and overheads. In fact, the MacBook Air is now the most powerful it has ever been. With specs that put it toe-to-toe with MacBook Pros of yesteryear, the MacBook Air is set to once again be the most popular system made by Apple.
Looking at the M1 MacBook Pro and Mac Mini, we also see a significant boost in performance. Since these systems have cooling solutions, thermals barely affect their performance. Throw any kind of load on them and they will not buckle under it. This brings a lot of promise to the systems, especially the Mac Mini, whose utility is now greatly expanded.
Perhaps the most impressive metric about these systems is the battery life. Because everything now lives on one single chip, power goes to just one component for it to work. That cuts down incredibly on power loss, and the new systems promise at least 17 hrs of use. All these factors ensure that the average consumer will be very interested in picking up one of these machines.
The detriment for repair shops
As amazing as the new M1 chip sounds for everyone, it’s got its fair share of caveats. For consumers, it’s going to be the limited I/O on the chip itself, lack of expansion, limited display options, etc. For repair technicians, however, it’s a whole different can of worms.
We’ve mentioned earlier that the RAM comes packed in with the M1 chip, and this is where the first problem lies. The Apple M1 is not a chip designed for repairability and upgradability in mind. Removing the RAM from the board and embedding it into the silicon essentially means that you’re stuck with the RAM you bought initially. It’s either 8 GB or 16 GB. That means that in the future, your options for upgrading it are basically to get a new machine.
This is a problem for many people. If Apple really is ushering in a new era of computing with the M1, then the onboard memory doesn’t show its potential. While it may be DDR4 in essence, 16 GB of RAM is not going to cut it for professional use. This makes the MacBook Pro a bit of a miss for the M1, at least at this point.
Another point of contention is the ARM-based architecture of the M1. Since the silicon works on a completely different instruction set than what Macs previously offered, there are some inherent shortcomings. Rosetta 2, the translation layer Apple created specifically for running x86 apps on ARM hardware, can only do so much. Reports of MacOS reinstallations failing on Apple M1 Macs throws into question just how different these systems are. The MacOS X Big Sur edition is primarily an x86 OS, and this distinction makes it susceptible to issues when running on ARM-based hardware.
Apple is the ultimate gatekeeper
With its new silicon, Apple has finally achieved its long-standing desire of creating a system on its own terms. They now completely control how the hardware and software in their systems runs, bringing them more in line with the way iPhones have been running for years. Apple expects to make the M1 chip the de-facto platform for its machines by slowly phasing out its Intel offerings over the coming years. The fact that M1 systems can run iOS apps natively – something x86 is incapable of – is proof of that.
This approach also falls in line with Apple’s long-standing antagonism for the right to repair. With the M1 chip, Apple is essentially gatekeeping MacBook repairs to its authorized service centers, leaving independent repair shops out in the cold. If any one of their customers needs a repair, they can’t go to just any repair shop out there anymore. Issues like software installations and optimizations are more tricky than before, and RAM and storage expansions are nonexistent.
Apple has also cleverly mitigated GPU performance boosts using Thunderbolt 3. Because ARM instruction sets differ greatly from x86, GPU expansions such as the Razer Core won’t work. This means you really are stuck with what’s on the chip. Any issues on the M1 chip means customers will have limited options – it’s either repairing through Apple or getting a new system altogether. As iFixit points out, these new machines are going to be difficult to repair outside of Apple’s network for the foreseeable future.
There’s no doubt that Apple has done something ingenious with its silicon here. The Apple M1 chip is pretty incredible for all that it achieves. But its decisions will affect more in the long run. By essentially limiting consumers’ options, the company has once again hamstrung independent repair shops with its devices. It may be great to use, but repairability for M1 systems is nothing short of a pain.
The approach Apple has taken falls in line with its previous record – “innovate” in a way that brings maximum profitability through multiple purchases. This comes at the detriment of both the consumer and the repair business. The only difference is, the consumer gets hit way later and has an alternative to turn to. Repair shops, sadly, will have a difficult road ahead of them.