The introduction of the M1 chip in November 2020 marked the transition of Apple from Intel processors and the x86 architecture to its in-house designed system-on-a-chip and ARM architecture. Nevertheless, since it was first released and made available to Mac computers and several models of the iPad, it has astounded both tech reviewers and consumers.
Both reviewers and users of M1-equipped Apple devices have noted amazing performance in terms of speed and responsiveness, as well as power efficiency. What exactly makes the Apple M1 chip fast? How is it different from Intel processors and other chips based on the x86 architecture? What makes it an efficient system-on-a-chip?
The Reasons The Apple M1 Chip Is Fast And Efficient: A Quick Look At Why This System-On-A-Chip Outperforms Other Processors
Apple claims that its M1 chip is faster than the Intel processors used in Mac computers that it replaced. This bold claim has remained uncontestable. Several users were dumbfounded upon learning that the Mac Mini and entry-level MacBook equipped with this chip outperformed top-tier Mac computers that retailed at around USD 4000.00.
Benchmark tests showed that it outperformed and destroyed both Intel-based macOS devices and Windows devices. The same is true for more practical tests using resource-intensive apps such as Adobe Premiere, Avid Pro Tools, and Adobe Photoshop, among others. These results were initially both baffling and amusing at the same time.
However, to understand why the Apple M1 chip is fast and how it outperforms other processors, it is important to take note of the following reasons:
The M1 is not a typical processor chip composed of a CPU and an integrated GPU like Intel processors. It is a system-on-a-chip similar to the A Bionic chips used in the iPhone composed of numerous components apart from a CPU and a GPU. These include the Neural Engine for dedicated artificial intelligence and machine learning, image signal processor and digital signal processor, a video encoder and decoder, the Secure Enclave, and a Unified Memory Architecture that shares RAM across all other hardware components.
Furthermore, the different hardware components have specialized roles that make the entire operation of an equipped device more efficient. For example, the Neural Engine handles tasks related to artificial intelligence, thus easing the burden from the CPU while also optimizing the performance of the system based on the ongoing use case.
The built-in unified memory allows the different components to exchange information across the board faster because of their proximity to one another. Furthermore, the Unified Memory Architecture does not have the disadvantages of old-school shared memory implementations because all processors in the chip equally share the same memory.
2. 5nm Process Node
It is also important to highlight the fact that this chip is based on the five-nanometer or 5nm process node or manufacturing process. This does not mean that the chip has a physical size of five nanometers. A semiconductor process node corresponds to the specific manufacturing process and design rules used in designing and manufacturing a particular chip. It specifically represents the manner in which a chipmaker compressed the transistors in a given surface area.
A 5nm chip means that it has a denser number of transistors in a given area. One of the advantages of the M1 chip and the reason it is fast and efficient because it has a total of 16 billion transistors. Chips with denser transistors compared to their counterparts theoretically have more processing power because electrons travel at shorter distances to allow more responsive on-off switches.
They are also more energy-efficient because less power is needed to move electrons between transistors. Designers and fabricators can also fit different components or co-processors and cores in a particular system-on-a-chip.
3. ARM Architecture
Another reason why the Apple M1 chip is fast and efficient is that it is designed and built for RISC architecture and the more specific ARM architecture. Note that Intel processors are based on the x86 architecture and the more general CISC architecture. Both CISC and x86 instruction set architectures have notable advantages and disadvantages. They are capable and more sophisticated but are more complicated or complex when it comes to processing instructions.
ARM instruction set architecture has notable advantages that center on a more simplified instruction processing that makes it ideal for battery-operated devices due to their power efficiency. It also supports heterogeneous computing or the more specific Big.LITTLE heterogeneous computing architecture that allows the chip to use different processors or cores and co-processors, as well as components for specialized tasks.
Note that Android and iOS mobile operating systems are developed to run on processors and devices based on the ARM architecture. The latest versions of the macOS since 2020 for Apple M series chips and all apps or software programs have been redeveloped to run and operate like iOS or iPadOS. The overall feel of Mac computers using the M1 chip is similar to the overall feel of interfacing with an iPhone or iPad.
In A Nutshell And Some Additional Pointers: A Definite Summary Of The Reasons Why The Apple M1 Chip Is So Powerful
The reasons identified and explained above collectively point to the fact that the general reason why the Apple M1 chip is fast and efficient revolves around the fact that it uses a better process node to fit different components and co-processors in a single chip, and is based on the ARM instruction set architecture that not only simplifies the processing of instructions but also allow the use of its different components and co-processors for specialized tasks.
Note that chips from Intel and AMD are general-processor CPUs with most models also featuring an integrated graphics processor. However, they are not a full-blown system-on-a-chip. Computers that use these chips also have separate hardware components for random access memory and better discrete graphics processor held together in a motherboard. These chips are also based on x86 and CISC instruction set architectures.
Apple essentially designed its M1 chip with mobile computing in mind. The previous years have witnessed how handheld consumer electronic devices such as the iPhone and iPad have features and functionalities that can rival desktop and laptop computers. Apple has brought the same principles behind mobile devices and mobile operating systems to personal computing with the launch of its own system-on-a-chip and new generations of Mac computers.