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Juha Saarinen: Inside Apple’s new long life Macs

OPINION

If you’re a Mac user who has been holding out upgrading the work laptop for the last four years or so, Apple just dropped a new range of portable computers that ought to last you another half decade or so.

The Apple Silicon M1 equipped MacBook Pro was a good start, but the new M1 Pro and M1 Max machines would be the ones to amortise over the next four to five years for work.

An initial peek at the specs suggest that the 14-inch new MBP, with the faster M1 Max chipset, 32 GB of memory and 1 TB storage hits the sweet spot for general use.

It’ll set you back $5349, and you can double that by ticking all the options. Actually, the M1 Max 16-incher fully specced comes out about the same price, so you might as well go for that option if budget allows, for more screen space and some serious hardware to boot.

Early Geekbench results suggest that you’ll get Mac Pro desktop performance with the M1 Max, which should keep you going for a while. Graphics performance should be more than adequate if the chips can play back multiple 8K video streams.

Apple’s promising 100 Watts less power usage for graphics as well. Apart from the obvious improvement in battery life, it suggests your lap will remain nice and cool even during gaming. We’ll see.

Not that you can tell any of the above from the outside though. Apple seems to have given up on clever but not all that practical features like the Touch Bar that changes and confuses people with different functionality depending on the application, in favour of hardware keys.

You now get more ports, and woah, an SD slot for memory cards and HDMI for video? That was unexpected, along with the MagSafe charger making a comeback – does that mean good-bye to USB-C charging in the new MacBook Pros?

If you’ve used laptops the last decade or so, the above is nice and familiar hardware that Apple built, clearly by being not at all Intel Inside.

For example, the arrangement of the ARM computing and graphics cores in the M1 Pro is 8/14 each at the low-end, or 10/16 moving up.

At the top end, the M1 Max has 10 general processing cores, and 32 graphics ones, in what appears to be a highly parallel design made with a fine, 5 nanometre process. All very unlike Intel.

Both new chipsets have 16 neural cores for image and audio recognition. Apple has kind of dipped into the 90s/early 2000s with the unified memory architecture.

This means the processor and graphics “brains” share the same very fast memory which is difficult to do but simplifies design and lowers latencies. And look: there are two custom accelerators built into the M1 Pro and M1 Max to speed up ProRes video format processing, because why not add go-faster features in hardware for your own standards if you can?

All the tiny, complex electronics are crammed into a system-on-a-chip (SoC) design that’s highly integrated, without separate cards for graphics and other parts, as traditional PCs have.

It means upgrades can’t be done after purchase, and forget about third-party add-ons.

You have to make sure to buy sufficient hardware to last you, which is a win for Apple, but it should get you a well-designed system that you can work on for the next few years. The latter is a win for customers, as regular, short upgrade cycles really are for the birds.

Fast, customised hardware tailored to Apple software means fewer coding compromises, unlike on Intel platforms, and that’s really where the beauty of being a master of your own destiny lies. It’s a little like the mid-90s all over again, except with better engineering and even less commodification of hardware.

What’s surprising is that not more companies than Apple have gone down that route, but maybe they couldn’t?

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