The release of the M1 processor was a milestone. Apple eventually migrated the Mac to its fast, power-efficient mobile processors, and the results were incredible. They were hard to follow – and after about a year and a half, the M2 processor arrived with a (not unexpected) series of incremental gains.
You can’t reinvent the wheel every time, and it’s clear that the M2 was a careful successor to the M1, designed to keep the ball rolling. But now there are plenty of reports that the M3 is on its way – not at the end of the year or early 2024 as you might expect from the 18 month gap between the M1 and the M2, but Very fastperhaps as early as late spring or early summer.
Surprise! As it turns out, Apple may be more aggressive with its Mac processing master plan than we might have guessed based on the first few years of Apple silicon.
Back on the chip cycle
The first two generations of Apple silicone Mac chips were successors to previous generation iPhone chips. The M1 was based on the A14 and the M2 was based on the A15. Apple releases a new iPhone chip every year, but so far has not done so with the M series.
However, there are indications that Apple didn’t actually want it that way. The M2 made its debut last June with the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, but numerous reports from well-informed reporters, such as Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, suggested the M2 MacBook Air was initially slated for late 2021 or very early 2022. If that’s correct, then Apple’s original plan was to ship the first M2 Macs about a year after the first M1 models. It didn’t work out, but intent is important as we try to guess what happens next.
M3 as in nanometers
Apple’s chip supplier, TSMC, has been moving towards a new 3-nanometer chip process for some time now. The A14 is built on a 5nm process and the A15 on a newer process called 4nm, which many chip nerds say is Real still 5nm. Meanwhile, the 3nm process (when it arrives) has reportedly been bought out entirely by Apple for use in all of its chips.
(If you’re not a chip engineer, you should know that smaller processes offer many benefits, both in terms of lower power consumption and higher potential chip speed. Smaller is better.)
While Apple’s first 3nm chips were long believed to be in this fall’s iPhone, the M3 chip is reportedly built on the process. This means that unlike the last two cycles, this time the Mac would go first with new chip technology – before the iPhone. This also suggests that the M3 might skip last fall’s A16 processor and share more of its makeup with the forthcoming A17 chip.
All this suggests that while the first few rounds of the Apple silicon cycle suggested that Apple’s approach was “let’s take an A chip and now make an M chip,” Apple’s chip development roadmap may be a bit more fluid than that. If the M3 chip is built on the 3nm process, it’s a step ahead of the iPhone. Would it also have the same CPU and GPU cores as the A17? Considering the A16’s relatively minor upgrade over the A15, maybe so. But it’s not a guarantee.
Start a new cycle
Bloomberg’s Gurman this week strongly suggested that Apple want to the Mac chip cycle becomes annual, as does the iPhone cycle. I’m not sure we have much evidence to support that yet, but it would certainly make sense for Apple to keep the M and A series in line now that Apple has largely completed the Mac chip transition.
But if Apple do Switching to an annual chip update cycle for the Mac, I wouldn’t expect every new Mac model to receive an annual update to the new chip. We’ve even seen hints of this as the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have received both M1 and M2 versions, but the iMac and Mac Studio are only available on M1 so far.
A pattern is slowly emerging: Perhaps Apple’s laptops, which probably make up at least three-quarters of Mac sales, will be updated annually, along with each new chip generation. Desktop Macs, on the other hand, may only be updated every two years – Gurman’s report that a new 24-inch iMac model with an M3 processor inside will arrive this fall would confirm that. Imagine the Mac mini and Mac Pro getting an update on odd-numbered years, while the Mac Studio and iMac are updated on even-numbered years.
Of course, until the M3 officially arrives, we have no idea if these reports are accurate. And delays happen – whether they’re due to larger supply chain issues (which really hit the Mac last year) or even delays at TSMC launching their new chip processes. But as of now, it certainly feels like Apple is about to get much more aggressive with the pace of its Mac chip updates, and that’s great news for Mac users.