Apple M1: A Small step, or a giant leap?

Tech Daily Nov 15, 2020

Apple has finally launched the M1 chip, a bold move and a strong message. A message that screams that it's time to move on. To move on from the duopoly called AMD and Intel and their x86 platform. A lot of people over the years has been saying that, we all know that x86 is broken, but abolishing x86 is a daunting task as practically every imaginable algorithm under the sun has been fine tuned leveraging every major/minor feature (such as SSE, AVX) offered by these two companies.

What does the new Apple Lineup have in the store with Apple Silicon?

Apple has unveiled the following products that are powered by the Apple M1 chip

  1. Macbook Air
  2. Macbook Pro 13"
  3. Mac Mini

Surprisilngly, all of the above M1 powered laptops are powered by the exact same SoC, with the form factor and thermals being the only thing that's differentiating them. And the Macbook Air has slightly weaker GPUs.

How does the Apple M1 chip perform?

Well, I did not get one of the devices, but benchmarks seem positive and claims made by apple are as follows

  1. 3.5x faster CPU, as compared to a 1.2 GHz Intel i7 powered Macbook Air with 16GB RAM and 2TB SSD.
  2. 2x faster GPU performance, what exactly it was compared against is undisclosed at this point of time.
  3. 3x CPU performance per watt.
  4. 15x faster ML performance, as compared against a i3 powered Mac Mini.

What does these numbers represent?

Well, while I would like to question a few decisions made, for one, I found the 15x faster ML performance to be ridiculous, if you can buy a Mac Mini, you can get significantly better results than UHD Graphics 630, even on a laptop grade GTX 1650.

But apart from that, I would be lying if I said that there is no improvement. x86 is a old design, one that is flawed to its core, and newer architectures such as ARM and RISC-V has objectively superior designs, thanks to the lessons learnt from x86's mistakes.

Should laptops be built using a System-on-a-Chip design?

I would like to agree with apple on this one, SoC's make sense, for a number of reasons, for one, it is a package, and as such, all memory controllers and everything comes together in a single package.

Pros of having an SoC on a laptop

  1. It is easier (cheaper?) to fabricate and assemble, there are less moving parts around
  2. It will be more energy efficient and secure.
  3. As SoC's have to be vertically integrated, there are less chances of things breaking randomly
  4. Webcams will be much better, as right now, all webcams are internally wired over USB, hence the picture quality is innately bad. Despite having such a powerful processor and DSP, we use a tiny little ISP embedded in a few square millimetres.

Cons of having an SoC on a laptop

  1. It's impossible to upgrade any component, except perhaps the SSD.
  2. Due to the aforementioned price, it will be really easy for apple to charge a premium for slightly higher spec'd models.
  3. If anything inside the SoC fails, you're looking at a Motherboard replacement (Louis Rossman can't save you this time)

What about 5nm? When were you going to talk about it?

Never. I am not hyped about 5nm, I am not hyped about 4nm, and I am not hyped about 1nm. Each of them will bring a marginal performance improvement due to faster IPC and significant power efficiency improvements.

Besides, apple uses TSMC's 5nm process, which I am pretty sure, AMD will catch up pretty quickly. If we ignore Intel, the others will jump in rather quickly.

I am pretty stoked about 18 hours of battery life, but I am not an avid traveller, I don't take laptops on a hike, Generally, my phone can do pretty much anything, and with 14-15 hours of playback time on my phone, it never died on me.

An argument can be made for environment friendliness. While we're at it, let's use bicycles, it will save our planet better, improve cardiovascular activity and improve metabolism at the same time. I don't see an apple charger doing that. And yes, it is not hypocritical of me to say that, I do not own any fossil fuel powered vehicles, take all notes using a graphics tablet, and use public transport when possible. I would say, my laptop power usage is more than compensated that way.

RISC vs CISC: my opinion

RISC is better, period. Let us put a few billion dollars into RISC and see what can be achieved.

CISC, as its name suggests, is Complex. And complex not in a good way, it is complex in a  old legacy, hacked and patched way.

RISC on the other hand suffers from a branding problem. Reduced definitely feels inferior. I propose we rename RISC to SISC (Sane/Simple ISC), or RISC (Rapid ISC).

Is ARM the way to GO?

No. Let's go RISC-V. There's this company called SiFive who are doing awesome work with the RISC-V architecture, and this has a lot of potential.

Why not ARM?

It's because infrastructure should not be patented. Imagine if roads were patented, where only one company can build roads, it is not healthy.

If we've got one window of changing to a different and better architecture, let's go to RISC-V. It is free, open source, extensible and hence, suitable as an infrastructure.

ARM on the other hand suffers from the same problem, if we replace everything with an ARM chip, it will lead to a monopoly, they'll become complacent, and innovation will stop (just economics 101)

What does Apple releasing M1 silicon have in store for us in the future?

Clearly, manufacturers are willing to make a switch. Users are willing to switch. Computing is evolving and unfolding before our eyes.

A lot of new tech is available today that weren't available, let's use them instead. For example Vulkan is here.

My ditchlist goes as follows

  1. Let's ditch DirectX in favor of Vulkan and OpenGL
  2. let's ditch x86 in favor of RISC-V.
  3. Let's ditch C++ in favor of Rust
  4. Let's ditch smartwatches for good, we don't need them, seriously.

Sohan Basak

Hi, I am Sohan. A software engineer by profession, I am really passionate about algorithms, AI/ML, Maths and Physics. Play the guitar as a hobby, the maths behind music is fascinating.