When Apple released the M1 chip at the end of last year, two things were clear: Macs were much faster and the future was incredibly bright. What we did not know was how Apple would handle updates now that the entry-level models were as fast as some of the Pro computers. At the time, Apple said it was developing “a family of chips” that would be unveiled as the transition continued over the next few years, and now that it looks like the M1 Macs have been released, we look forward to on the next step.
The timeline is a little clearer now. Now that Apple has updated the entire range of consumer-level Macs with the M1
chip in the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini and 24-inch iMac are rumored to be the next round of Apple silicon-based Macs. According to the latest speculation, Apple will follow a similar cadence to the A-series chips on iPhone and iPad, but with much more power between generations.
Apple’s current M1 processor is based on the 5nm A14 chip, the first arrived in the iPad Air and later the iPhone 12. It has 4 high-performance cores with 192 KB L1 instruction buffer and 128 KB L1 data cache and shared 12 MB L2 cache and 4 energy efficient cores with 128 KB instruction buffer, 64 KB L1 data cache and shared 4 MB L2 cache. This means that a total of 8 cores are evenly distributed between power and efficiency, which leads to enormous speed increases compared to previous models. System-on-a-chip also has an 8-core GPU in most models (entry-level MacBook Air and 24-inch iMac have a 7-core GPU) with 128 output devices and up to 24576 simultaneous threads.
Memory has also changed. With the M1, the LP-DDR4 memory is not just soldered to the motherboard, it is actually part of the chip itself. That means it’s faster and more efficient than before, but it’s also a bit more limited – you can only get 8 GB or 16 GB on an M1 Mac, and there’s no way to upgrade it after purchase. (It will not be a surprise for MacBook buyers, but unfortunately the same is true for desktop models.) And finally, the chip has a 16-core Neural Engine, along with Secure Enclave and USB4 / Thunderbolt support.
M1X – Late in 2021
We started hearing about the development of an M1X chip earlier this year, and it looks set to appear in the redesigned 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro later this year. Like the A12X in the 2018 iPad Pro, it will be built on the same architecture as the existing M1 processor, but provides faster versatile performance.
According to CPU Monkey, which claims to have received references for the upcoming chip, the M1X can have a 12-core CPU with 10 high-performance cores and two high-efficiency cores, and a 16-core GPU with 256 drive units and a shared 32 GB L2 cache and up to 64 GB LPDDR4X. In a slightly different task, Mark Gurman has reported on slightly different M1X CPU specifications, with eight high-quality cores and two high-efficiency cores.
Based on what we know about previous “X” releases, it makes sense. For example, the A12 in the iPhone Xs was a six-core CPU with two high-quality cores and four high-efficiency cores, while the A12X was an eight-core chip with four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores.
These specifications will give Apple’s advanced M1X Macs a nice performance improvement over today’s crop of M1 machines. It is also rumored that they will provide support for four Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports.
M2 – Early in 2022
Apple’s M2 chip will probably come to the next MacBook Air, which seems to get a complete redesign with new colors to fit the 24-inch iMac. According to Bloomberg, Apple’s next-generation processor will “include the same number of data cores as the M1, but run faster.” It’s similar to how Apple is approaching A-series upgrades, which have had six cores since the A11 processor despite greatly improved performance. As far as the GPU goes, Bloomberg reports that the cores will increase from seven or eight to nine or 10.
We do not yet know how speeds are compared, but based on previous chips, we can expect the M2 processor to actually be a bit slower than the M1X chip. The same limitations on USB4 / Thunderbolt and RAM are likely to remain as well, since Apple is establishing non-X chips as consumer products for users who are less demanding.
M2X – Late in 2022
According to reports, Apple is planning an even higher chip for the Mac Pro and possibly a larger iMac. The chip is likely to have multiple performance levels, which can “come in 20 or 40 core variations, consisting of 16 high-performance or 32 high-performance cores and four or eight high-performance cores,” according to a Bloomberg report. It is also rumored that the workstation’s caliber chip has 64 core or 128 core options for graphics, which will replace AMD GPUs in today’s models. These specs are comparable to what Intel and AMD offer in their premium chips, and will challenge the fastest PCs, at least on paper.
Apple may very well call this chip the M2X, but since the Mac Pro processor would represent such a big leap from even the rumored chips, it will probably be separated from the package by a brand new naming system. (Apple has previously used the “Z” identifier on chips to indicate improved graphics performance.) Mark Gurman reported that the next iMac is likely to use the M1X or M2X chip in the next iMac, but it is not clear if he is referring to this chip or a M2 variant with lower power.
It’s also possible that Apple is pairing two M1X chips inside the Mac Pro to increase performance, a tactic it last used with the Power Mac G4 back in 2001. But no matter what Apple plans to do, expect the new Mac Pro to deliver tremendous speed which blows away the current model and satisfies ultra-high data needs. This chip and machine will not only be for mortals, but fortunately Apple has a lot to do.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC – the IBM Thinkpad with the lift keyboard to replace the drive. He is still waiting for it to come back in style tbh.