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Apple brings the heat with its M1 ARM processor, but takes different direction than Microsoft

Apple M1
Apple M1 (Image credit: Apple)

Apple today gave its typical launch event for refreshes to its existing MacBook line of laptops. However, this year was more significant, as Apple finally unveiled its octa-core M1 processor based on the current A14, but with a little extra oomph behind it.

Along with the announcement came the usual hyperbole without any semblance of data or details on what it is being compared to the M1. But there is also little doubt that Apple can deliver some impressive hardware, and the M1 is undoubtedly going to be a fast chip.

Here are a few takeaways from Apple's event and what it means for the broader mobile PC market.

1. New chip, but same old laptop

Apple Macbook Air 2020 Arm

Source: Apple (Image credit: Source: Apple)

One of the immediate observations from Apple's new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 is … they're the same laptops as last year.

That's not a critique, however. Apple feels its chips are powerful enough to beat last year's offerings from Intel without disappointing customers. It remains to be seen if that is true, but the strategy is a straightforward swap out. It plays to Apple's strengths.

But Windows on ARM has taken a radically different approach. With a smaller chipset and no need for fans, Microsoft and its partners have used the technology to push the boundary of modern PCs. Surface Pro X is like an iPad Pro that runs Windows; Lenovo's Flex 5G gets 15 hours of battery life and is the first PC in the world with full 5G; Samsung's Galaxy Book S is ridiculously thin and light, etc. Even HoloLens 2 runs on ARM.

A PC like Surface Pro X cannot be made with Intel chips at this time. That is why Microsoft made a whole new device, which is overall better than Surface Pro 7. Microsoft could have gone the lazier route and just made a Surface Pro 7 with ARM, but instead, they chose to deliver a different (and improved) experience.

Neither strategy is better or worse than the other, but it is a difference that is worth noting.

2. Apple M1: But how much faster?

Faster

Source: Apple (Image credit: Source: Apple)

Apple played fast and loose with numbers and comparisons between its M1 chip and what we presume is the latest from Intel (and you can't forget AMD).

Apple is hilariously vague in its claims, showing charts comparing its CPU and GPU to the "latest PC laptop chip" (whatever that means). The charts have simple labels of "performance" and "power consumption" with no X or Y-axis values.

Of course, the Apple chip is higher on the chart and has a more pleasing trajectory, but anyone who works with numbers knows that graph is entirely meaningless. The difference could be massive, or it could be tiny – we don't know because not only do we not see the comparison chip, but we don't know how they performed on the test (and which test) or what the actual figures are. That's not science, that's marketing.

I do not doubt Apple's M1 is fast and can compete with Intel 10th Gen, but that is just a benefit of the doubt and not based on any data.

3. 4G LTE and 5G are nowhere to be seen

Lenovo Flex 5g Verizon 5g Speedtest

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Even though Apple ships its iPads with an option for LTE and its new iPhones are 5G-based, these new ARM-based MacBooks do not offer either. It's an odd move, as you would think, with so much extra battery life, improved performance, and the ability to run iOS apps (built for cellular, ahem), Apple would have added non-Wi-Fi connectivity.

Interestingly, Apple's strategy is the exact opposite of Microsoft and its partners. The whole premise of "Always Connected PCs" that run on ARM is, well, the always-connected bit.

Sure, you can buy Surface Pro X and never use cellular data on it, but the value of that device is diminished. The ability to seamlessly be on the internet all the time is the main reason I use ARM-based Windows PCs.

4. Windows on ARM PCs are vastly different from Apple

Surface Pro X Sq2 Flat

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Apple knows its audience: self-proclaimed "creatives" who focus on video, multimedia, photos, and some engineering and software development (usually for Apple apps). What's not its strong suit? Business and productivity.

Windows 10 on ARM PCs, generally speaking, support inking, improved battery life, touch displays, and offer 4G or 5G always-on connectivity.

By comparison, Apple's MacBooks with M1 only do one of those things: improved battery life (and likely performance).

That is fine, as many people may not want a touch screen, pen support, or LTE. But for anyone buying a Surface Pro X, those are the reasons.

Of course, with Apple merging everything, perhaps we'll get an iPad Pro that can run macOS apps, completing the strategy. That seems probable.

5. Apple embracing ARM validates Microsoft and Windows on ARM

Myerson Windows 10

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Apple implementing ARM-based silicon in its premier laptops won't directly impact Windows on ARM apps. There may be some obscure dev tools that overlap, but for the most part, Apple's announcement does not affect Microsoft.

But there is a more general, almost meta benefit: ARM is justified for use in computers.

Ever since Microsoft announced Windows on ARM support, many naysayers thought it was a fad or an experiment for PC makers. It is not like there isn't some truth to it as NVIDIA Tegra was a thing for a few years with Windows 8 tablet PCs until it wasn't.

Apple embracing ARM for PC does create interest in the ARM architecture beyond smartphone usage. It helps generate consumer interest and knowledge about technology. And it is probably not a stretch to think some Windows PC makers may be eyeing some new laptops to compete with the MacBook Air – after all, they have already been doing that for years.

Today's announcement from Apple is a welcome one for anyone who enjoys "silicon diversity." Google recently updated Chrome OS to support ARM, too, and it is no coincidence that Microsoft was the first four years ago.

Apple and Intel are now in a profoundly serious battle with Qualcomm, who will have to go nuclear on making a competitive chip to stay relevant. It also puts pressure on PC makers to price ARM laptops more competitively.

Let's hope that happens soon because it is clear ARM will play a significant role in mobile computing.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

69 Comments
  • The biggest benefit for MS is Point #5. Hopefully the naysayers, and more importantly, developers will not be immediately dismissive any longer. Let's see if MS can spring board this into some momentum to enhance the WoA strategy overall.
  • It's not that bad thaz this happens half a year before releasing Windows 10X either.
  • Won't developers then be motivated to make ARM Mac apps? This doesn't make sense unless they are cross platform, which I am sure they aren't.
  • Qualcomm really need to step up their game. Apple has been beating them on power for a few years now.
  • And always will. When you produce the hardware you are always better off producing your own chip as well. Hence Microsoft started custom chips for their Surface line as well.
  • Those are not custom chips, those are slightly modified off the shelf chips. You can say that XBox has a custom chip as at least it is a heavily modified existing chip. But even that is far far from the chip that the company builds from the ground up.
  • That has more to do with ARM the company itself, however that will possibly change with the Cortex X1 cores that are designed from the ground for laptops. Apple went with a 2 high power cores where each consumes more energy for their phones instead of 4 high power cores where each consume less energy, this allowed Apple to scale their SoC to have 4 high power cores on laptops, Qualcomm on the other can't double the cores because they already use 4, that however is going to change with the new Cortex X1 as this core has the same approach as the cores that Apple makes.
  • I have no doubt these chips are going to be fast for what they are, if there is one thing Apple is good at, it's designing proprietary chipsets that absolutely trounce the competition. It looks like the main goal is improved battery life, at least for the first generation, which is more than fine.
  • I think the difference between the Qualcomm and Apple flagships are marginal at the most. There's only so much difference you can get from same number of cores at same technology node clocked at almost the same frequency and power envelope. Yes there may be architectural differences that yield some performance differences, but chip design is in some ways pretty standardized, there are only so many known techniques out there from the most skilled designers in the game. By far what creates the apparent difference is the software. Qualcomm's chips have traditionally been used in Android while Apple's have been used in iOS. The Android OS stack is simply not as efficient (for various technical reasons such as the virtual machine). I am curious to see how the M1 will compare with Qualcomm's SQ1 or SQ2 on native for native comparisons between Windows and MacOS.
  • I think the difference between the Qualcomm and Apple flagships are marginal at the most. There's only so much difference you can get from same number of cores at same technology node clocked at almost the same frequency and power envelope. Yes there may be architectural differences that yield some performance differences, but chip design is in some ways pretty standardized, there are only so many known techniques out there from the most skilled designers in the game. By far what creates the apparent difference is the software. Qualcomm's chips have traditionally been used in Android while Apple's have been used in iOS. The Android OS stack is simply not as efficient (for various technical reasons such as the virtual machine). I am curious to see how the M1 will compare with Qualcomm's SQ1 or SQ2 on native for native comparisons between Windows and MacOS.
  • It would be interesting to see them compared with each running similar versions of Linux.
  • Are you serious? The difference (native vs native) is around 70% faster per core for Apple, it's like night and day...
  • Nah, the main goal is to get off of Intel, while not losing anything. If they do better at some stuff, battery life, performance, fan-less...bonus for now.
  • Whoever made that graph has a career in politics ahead of them. Making random statements with pretty pictures and no quantifiable metrics or evidence should not be part of any kind of announcement that the world cares about.
  • It's fascinating really, I'm amazed that not a single quantifiable metric was shown - not even the basis of the test. At least show comparative video render times or something, anything. Some tangible comparison. Makes me suspect performance is not as great as Apple wants to project. And compared to what processor? Dual core i5? Quad core i7? AMD Ryzen 4000? 10th Gen or 11th Gen?
  • It's definitely not compared to Ryzen 4000, there is no way Apple can compete with those.
  • I'm way more intrigued by Cloud PC and this whole "MetaOS". I think they have the apps across enough platforms to pull this off, Apple is catching up to something that I don't even think is the real future of computing, just a mere branch on the tree...
  • Apple is going to be beaten by... chatbots. Oh wait it doesn't work. PWAs. Oh wait it doesn't work. Dual screen... hmm it isn't likely to work. Oh we've got a fresh take, MetaOS!!! Apple deals with the past technology while we successfully reinvent the future every 6 months!!!
  • I don't think that Windows on ARM devices need to be always connected. I would love to use these devices if they ran faster and had better battery life compared to Intel devices. I know I don't have the money to pay for my PC to always be connected to a cell phone provider.
  • I've got an spx and it will never be on lte. Why spend extra money when I can just tether it at no cost? I bought it for the improved battery life over the trash sp7 I had.
  • You are only talking $10-20 per month. That's a bit dependent on what your phone plan looks like, and how much data you actually need, or allow to happen.
  • You've got an extra 10 to 20 a month to spend for no reason? I wish I had your income. Wife is a med student, I'm a law student, but there is no situation where I will burn money for no reason, even when we are making good incomes.
  • The biggest benefit I see from Apple transitioning to ARM is that it will indirectly help Windows on ARM's ecosystem as well. Adobe, DaVinci are a few that are already porting their apps to Apple silicon, and since they have already done the work to get it working on Apple on ARM, why not make it work on Windows on ARM while they're at it? It won't replace x86 overnight, but it will at least start to make ARM more mainstream-relevant on the laptop/desktop.
  • I don't see any relevance of Apple moving to ARM and Windows developers offering ARM builds. It's mostly about companies not wanting to expend the effort of maintaining a second code branch, or rewriting nearly from scratch on new APIs, until they see that there is a payoff for them, i.e. people adopting the platform and wanting that software on it. With Apple they know Apple fans are frequently people with money to burn that will go out and buy the latest just for the hell of it, vs your average PC user only upgrades out of necessity of an aging device. (I'm still using a 13 year old desktop, only felt the need to upgrade laptop for better portability and battery life.). Also I believe MAC OS APIs haven't changed much over the years, only packaging method changes and addition of store API, other than that it's still basically standard BSD OS, just gotta hit the code with a different compiler.
  • This is true but not as relevant in a world where a lot of popular desktop apps use cross platform tools/libraries.
    Then, an influential platform like Apple moving to ARM64 is incentive for the cross platform tooling developers such as Electron to prioritize that target and for the developer that only maintains one branch of code but gets multiple targets, it's as easy as a recompile in the majority of cases.
  • All kinds of pixie dust here. Yet thousands of "video editors" and "music producers" are ready to "upgrade" - money being no object when it comes to that particular shiny logo. At some point they'll add a notch to the screen just so that Gregory's patrons all across Manhattan and northern Brooklyn can tell the difference. "That Justin Long lookin' guy must be an independent filmmaker!" Anyway, nice breakdown.
  • Video editors wanting to edit 8K video are going to have little choice. I do not see why music producers would have to upgrade at all.
  • “A PC like Surface Pro X cannot be made with Intel chips at this time. That is why Microsoft made a whole new device, which is overall better than Surface Pro 7. Microsoft could have gone the lazier route and just made a Surface Pro 7 with ARM, but instead, they chose to deliver a different (and improved) experience.” I have to disagree with this whole paragraph. I don’t know how you use your devices, but in what planet is the X overall better than the Pro 7? Also, putting an Arm chip inside the 7, or even the Go would mean a lot more than just creating a new Surface Pro line. It doesn’t feel like they’re really committed to Arm. It never really felt that way with Windows.
  • I have never used a Surface Pro X. But I do use a Surface Pro 7. However, if I think about the things I do on the computer and read various reviews of the Surface Pro X, clearly my use case is tailored made for the Surface Pro X. I just did not want to pay the price when I could get the Surface Pro 7 at Costco of $899 (i5/128, keyboard, and pen), on sale this summer. I use outlook, edge, kindle, Spotify, tune in, Office, and various other minor apps. None of this software needs horsepower to run. I would like to use OneNote and inking more often, but I spend most of the day driving to home depot or renovating apartments. My business operations are mostly done through AppFolio (a SAAS) over the internet via edge. Call it cloud computing, cloud PC, virtual PC, or whatever the newest technology is used to allow a person to process information. The first computer I used was an IBM PC XT that my dad bought in 1980 or 1979. It had two floppy drives. I have seen companies come and go (leading edge, Sun microsystems, Compaq, various mail-order suppliers, Digital, etc.) The list of companies that were big time and that are no longer around is many. But guess what, we still use Excel. We still use Word. We still use Windows. Now we have added Android or iOS to the mix. Yes, I know a few people (less than 10%) use MacOS. But the point is the same. Whatever silicone that will best allow people to keep using the software they love that fits their lifestyle will gain market share. This has a lot to do with the internet and cellular service. Where is the silicone processing the data? On the device you are holding or in a data center connected to your device? How big a screen do you want? Inking? mouse? Keyboard? How will the device translate your interaction to the software? There are multiple form factors that give many variations of these interactions. The silicone pulls all that together. ARM is more power efficient which is why more companies will use ARM in more devices. Will ARM displace intel x86 CISC chips? Time will tell.
  • In design, display, and features eg LTE, removable SSD, better screen, longer battery life, thinner chassis, Eye Contact AI, etc. CPU performance and x64 compatibility are another issue.
  • The Surface Pro X uses a different processor which gives MSFT the flexibility to re-engineer the Surface experience in a way that increases the utility of the device that is not possible with Intel chips. If you are trying to state that a Surface Pro i7 is better than the Surface Pro X, then you are interested in the performance of the CPU versus the form factor. But CPU performance is just one aspect of the computing experience and why MSFT focuses on productivity versus CPU performance.
  • Maybe you've been lucky, but eye contact doesn't work for me. It does nothing, and I've tested a number of different calling apps, including zoom, Skype, meet, and teams. I would expect that if I wasnt white, because facial tech always sucks for minorities but I'm just a middle aged white guy like you (windows hello does not recognize my black daughter on any machine no matter what we do).
  • Some absurd performance comparisons made by apple. that last ad featuring "pc" guy was really silly as if fanless laptops were invented just yesterday & quality ultrabooks that offered acceptable battery life never existed before. Though their chip M1 will most likely deliver good performance & battery life. but still their idea about laptop is same old. No touchscreen, no 360 degree hinge, no pen input etc. Although now with apple silicon & iPad apps support, idea of IPad - mac hybrid is not that far away. Let's see how 64bit windows program emulator preforms & how capable are Qualcomm's next gen chips for windows on arm platform. An area in which windows on arm platform is falling short is lack of value for money products. hopefully with 64bit emulation & capable Qualcomm mid range chip, Microsoft manages to convince oems in to making cheaper windows hybrids like those windows 8 tablets powered by Intel baytrail.
  • "Apple is joining Microsoft and Google in embracing ARM for computers and not just phones." LOL, good one. The reality is, MS is FINALLY joining Apple in embracing ARM for computers. iPads have always been ARM. Yes, an iPad is a computer. "Computer" is not defined as having a mouse and a C drive.
  • By same logic, a mobile phone is also a computer, so is your pocket calculator etc. Likewise the Palm series from over a decade ago were computers. Same goes with the Nokia communicators and so on.
    The definition of 'computer' while quite arbitrary, is loosely understood to be a true multi-process OS based device, capable of complex tasks such as compiling its own operating system.
  • No, it is not. "Compiling its own OS" has nothing to do with anything. There is no technical reason why an iPad can not compile iPadOS. All it needs is a compiler. Hell, an iPhone could do it with a compiler. Yes, a phone is a computer. Again, "computer" is not defined as "must be running a Microsoft OS".