The release of the M1 processor was a milestone. Apple has finally transitioned the Mac to their fast, low power mobile processors, and the results have been incredible. They were hard to follow, and about a year and a half later, the M2 processor appeared with a set of (not unexpected) additional benefits.
You can’t reinvent the wheel every time, and it’s clear that the M2 was a meticulous follow-up to the M1, designed to keep the ball moving. But now there are a lot of reports that the M3 is already on the way – not at the end of the year or early 2024, as one might expect, given the 18-month gap between the M1 and M2, but very soonperhaps as early as late spring or early summer.
Surprise! It turns out that Apple may be more aggressive with its Mac processing master plan than we might have guessed based on Apple’s first two years of silicon use.
Back to the Chip Cycle
The first two generations of Apple’s silicon chips for the Mac were a continuation of the previous generation’s iPhone chips. The M1 was based on the A14 and the M2 based on the A15. Apple releases a new iPhone chip every year, but hasn’t done it with the M series… until now.
However, there is evidence that Apple did not really want this. The M2 debuted with the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro last June, but numerous reports from established reporters such as Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggested that the MacBook Air M2 was originally scheduled for late 2021 or early 2022. true, back then Apple’s original plan was to release the first M2 Macs about a year after the first M1 models. It didn’t work, but intent matters when we’re trying to guess what’s going to happen next.
M3 in nanometers
Apple’s chip supplier, TSMC, has been moving towards a new 3nm process for some time now. The A14 was built on a 5nm process, while the A15 was built on a newer process that Apple refers to as 4nm, but which, according to many chip fans, Really another 5nm. Meanwhile, the 3nm process (when available) has reportedly been bought out entirely by Apple for use in all of its chips.
(Unless you’re a chip engineer, you need to know that smaller processes provide many benefits, both in terms of lower power consumption and increased potential speed of the chip. Less is more.)
While Apple’s first 3nm chips were long speculated to appear in iPhones this fall, the M3 chip is reportedly built on that process. This means that, unlike the last two cycles, this time Mac go first with new chip technology – ahead of the iPhone. It also suggests that the M3 may ditch last fall’s A16 processor and share its lineup with the upcoming A17 chip.
All of this is to say that while the first few rounds of Apple’s silicon cycle suggested that Apple’s approach was “let’s take an A chip, now make an M chip”, Apple’s chip development roadmap could be a bit more flexible. If the M3 chip is built on a 3nm process, it’s a step ahead of the iPhone. Will it have the same CPU and GPU cores as the A17? Considering how small an update the A16 was compared to the A15, perhaps it is. But this is not a guarantee.
Start of a new cycle
Bloomberg’s Gurman strongly suggested this week that Apple wants The Mac chip cycle should be annual like the iPhone cycle. I’m not sure if we have much evidence to support this, but it would certainly make sense for Apple to keep the M and A series in sync now that Apple has basically completed the transition to Mac chips.
But if Apple does move to an annual Mac chip refresh cycle, I wouldn’t expect every new Mac model to get an annual new chip refresh. In fact, we’ve already seen hints of this, as the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro received M1 and M2 versions, while the iMac and Mac Studio are only available on the M1 for now.
A pattern is gradually emerging: perhaps Apple laptops, which likely make up at least three-quarters of Mac sales, will continue to be upgraded annually with each new generation of chips. Desktop Macs, on the other hand, can only be updated every two years – Gurman’s report that a new 24-inch iMac model with an M3 processor inside confirms this. Imagine Mac mini and Mac Pro getting updates on odd years, and Mac Studio and iMac on even years.
Of course, until the M3 comes out officially, we have no idea if these reports are true. And delays do happen – whether it’s because of larger supply chain issues (which really bit Macs last year) or even delays at TSMC getting their new processors up and running. But for now, it seems like Apple is going to get much more aggressive with the pace of updating its Mac chips, which is great news for Mac users.