The Good, Bad And The Ugly Of Apple’s Mac Launch With M1 Processors

By Patrick Moorhead - November 26, 2020

In my over 30 years in tech, I've spent approximately an equal amount of time as a hardware OEM, a chipmaker, and now, as industry analyst. So you can imagine how much interest I would have with Apple (an OEM) using a new processor (M1) in their new line of Macs. I have been impressed with what Apple has done with its Bionic line of smartphone SoCs, less impressed with the way I think it treats its hardware and software partners. That aside, Apple is going on its own, casting Intel, AMD and NVIDIA aside, and plans to go it alone. It's been a bit over 24 hours since Apple held its event and I'd like to share my "good", "bad" and "ugly" of what was presented.

The Good

Form factors- Generally speaking, consumers don't like too much change all at once. By changing the processor, and keeping similar form factors, Apple lowers perceived risk with its base and increases its ability to sell.

Battery life- I am expecting the Mac to have improved battery life. While the company didn't do a good job disclosing performance as I explain below, the company has a good track record on disclosing and delivering on its battery life claims. While you can find Windows devices with better battery life, it’s a net plus for Mac users.

Fanless on Air- I liked the fanless operation on many Windows-based premium designs like the Surface Pro X and I like it on the MacBook Air. It is odd, though, that the Air is thicker than the Pro which has a fan. All I can think is that the Air needed more heat sinks to disperse heat or maybe the tooling was paid for and amortized. 

Silicon conversation- Regardless of your positive or negative assessments of the announcement, it's good that this has reopened the conversation of silicon. I have always believed that silicon was strategic and the rest of the industry is starting to agree and act. 

Intel upsell on Pro- For $100, consumers can get an equally-configured Intel-based MacBook Pro with two extra Thunderbolt ports. The rest of the conversation becomes a debate between performance and battery life. Choice is good. The Surface has done a good job with choice offering Qualcomm, Intel and AMD models. 

Apple native applications- Apple rewrote its core applications like Mail and Calendar for Arm and I think these will act and perform well. We saw with the Surface Pro X how much better it performed with native Arm-based applications and libraries and I think we will see the same here. 

5nm/16B transistor processor- This is the first notebook processor using 5nm TSMC process and deserves some kudos. I think we will see some equivalence between Intel’s 7nm and TSMC’s 5nm process, give or take a bit of performance and power. While Apple can't explain how it comes up with its transistor count (ask the company), this is a big chip and to keep it somewhat small, used 5nm TSMC to get there.

Neural engine, ISP- I am glad to see this 16 core NPU and will be even happier to see what it can do that other platforms cannot do. That is the key. Chips for chip sake do nothing and it’s all about the incremental user benefit.  We’ve seen a lot of this from other vendors with apps like Photoshop on Intel’s 11th Gen designs.

The Bad

Pricing- There were no price drops on the MacBooks, but I estimate Apple pockets $150 to $200 more on these platforms which look to be going right to the bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with making profits, but at least throw your base a bone. The Mac mini did get a small price drop. 

External graphics- From what I understand, external graphics aren’t supported. This is a “bad” and not “ugly” because I question how many users want to play AAA games and run workstation apps on this 13” MacBook platform or the mini. The “Pro” moniker could throw people as “Pro” connotes “professional”. 

No Intel upsell on MacBook Air or mini- Apple offered a $100 upsell to Intel on the Pro but not the Air or the mini. Customers want choice and I’d prefer that Apple provide an option for these platforms, too. I like what Microsoft has done on its Surface Laptop line by offering both Intel and AMD. Microsoft also offers tablets with Qualcomm and Intel processor choices.

16GB max on Pro- I believe the “Pro” in MacBook Pro connotes “professional” and many professionals want 32GB of memory for video transcoding, editing, coding and visualization. This is a “bad” and not an “ugly” as it would have been if the platform would have been 16”. If you want 32GB, users can get it on the Intel platform. 

Lack of connectivity- Given the improved battery life, one would expect that the new MacBooks would come with a modem, at least a 4G, maybe 5G. Apple certainly has the budget for them, as I believe it is reducing its BoM cost by $150-200. Come on Apple, stop protecting the iPad.

Lack of full display touch- The new Macs will run iPhone and iPad apps whose primary UI is touch. Windows OEMs have shown that you can add touch with very small bezels, thickness, and without sucking too much power. Apple had the chance to finally add touch to its MacBooks, has $150-200 to play with, and the company blew it. This would be an “ugly” if the Pro didn’t have the touch bar.

The Ugly

Claim substantiation- Apple didn’t provide any detailed substantiation on any of its competitive performance, performance per watt and battery life claims. At a minimum, I believe vendors should show what hardware tested, its configuration and what benchmarks were used. At a minimum. Apple used to do this and I don’t know why it stopped. My guess is that Apple believes everybody trusts it and it doesn’t need to provide substantiation for competitive claims anymore. Maybe you’s do the same thing if your company was the richest on the planet. Or maybe not. 

Upgrades- Want to do a post-purchase memory or storage upgrade? You’re out of luck as you cannot do this. This is especially troubling for a new platform as users don’t really don’t know how much memory or storage they will need, particularly with compatibility applets like Rosetta 2 and a new operating system.

Compatibility- There was little or no talk of compatibility of software or peripherals. Let me be clear- there will be software and peripherals that will not work and some that won’t work well on these new platforms and Apple should set those expectations. What I heard from WWDC was that everything will run which won’t be true. You can find that analysis here.

X86 Support- There was no talk or commitment on how long Apple will support the Intel-based platforms. If you recall, it got ugly with the Power to Intel transition as many users felt abandoned by Apple for cutting off support after a few years.  Apple should at least, like iOS devices, provide how many new generations it will support upgrades. 

No new form factors- You’re probably wondering why I listed this as a “good” and an “ugly”. Well, whether it’s a “good” or “ugly” just depends how risk averse a consumer is. As we have seen with iPhone, a new form factor elicits excitement and is almost guaranteed to drive a super-cycle or near super-cycle. We also see this impact on iPad, especially hen there’s a major improvement in the form factor. To an extent we saw this when Apple added the touch bar. Net-net, I believe consumers who don’t fear the new M1 processor will be less liekly to buy the new Mac as the form factor didn’t change. 

Two USB ports for “Pro”- Give me a break. If I have to explain this, you aren’t a Pro.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly of Apple’s Mac event highlighting its M1 chip. It wasn’t a complete disaster, but the company could have made it a lot better with more information and better setting of expectations. I can’t wait to review mine.

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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.