Apple's M1 Chip

What is Apple’s M1 Chip?

You may have heard that Apple’s 2020 lineup of new laptop and desktop devices feature something everybody seems to be excited for, the “M1 Chip”. So what is it and why is everybody talking about it? To understand the M1 processor, we must first take a look at some history of other tech giants and what they have done, starting with Apple and Intel. 

Apple is replacing the processor in their new devices. The company has also called off the 15 year long partnership with Intel. Intel was previously responsible for manufacturing the processors in Apple devices. The M1 Chip, developed and built by Apple will now be their flagship processor. One of the reasons why everybody is captivated by Apple’s bold move, is because their new M1 processors use the ARM architecture rather than Intel’s x86 architecture. These CPU’s based on the ARM architecture are mainly used for mobile processors  in your smartphone, car, fridge, and other smart electronics. By contrast, your desktop computer’s CPU uses the x86 architecture, created and licensed by Intel.  

ARM vs x86

The main difference between the two architectures is that the x86 architecture can handle very complex instruction sets and can do many things at once, while the ARM architecture is more optimized for simpler instructions. Although the ARM architecture is limited in terms of being slower and not being able to do as much work as an x86 based processor, the advantage to that is that it uses much less power to do work in comparison. This is why the ARM architecture is used for mobile devices. It uses much less energy so no active cooling is even required. You wouldn’t want a smartphone with a heavy fan strapped onto it now would you? Another perk that ARM has over x86 is that companies buy designs for the ARM architecture so that they can build the processor around the design of the device it’s for. Meaning, that the processor is specifically optimized and tailored for the device. On the other hand, the x86 architecture is less flexible so the device has to be designed around the processor instead. This results in ARM based devices as a whole being more optimized and efficient. 

Why ARM?

If a CPU based on the ARM architecture is significantly slower than a CPU based on the traditional x86 architecture, why is Apple putting them into their new laptop devices? Apple claims that the M1 is the fastest laptop CPU and reviews have also given it much positive praise supporting this claim. So what makes the M1 different? Is the M1 just a super high powered mobile chip? The M1’s design is strikingly similar to the iPhone 12 lineup’s A14 processor with 4 high performance and 4 high efficiency cores.  

So while it might be tempting to think this is true, thinking this would be misleading since Apple’s engineering is much more detailed and cleverly designed than can be understood at first glance. Compared to the A14 processor, the M1 has about 4 billion more transistors. However, although the designs are similar to the A14, Apple changed the fundamental design with the M1 by focusing on making the CPU much better at handling parallel loads. They accomplished this by making the decoders in the chip much wider so that they can accept more instructions at a time. Another part of the design change is that the M1 can read much deeper into out-of-order execution than an x86 processor. This lets the processor read data further and prepare for which instructions a program will need and have it processed ahead of time. The M1 is unique because it’s based on the ARM architecture, this means that the chip can do all of this processing with a higher degree of power efficiency than any x86 counterpart. The reason why x86 based processors can’t simply apply the same design changes and make their decoder wider per se, is because of the vastly different architecture and design restrictions that comes along with it. 

Innovative or Obvious?

So if putting ARM based processors in desktops has brought Apple so much success, why hasn’t this been done before? Why hasn’t everyone switched from x86 to ARM? As mentioned previously, the ARM architecture is optimized for simpler instructions, so computer programs must be coded very differently. Impressive results and reviews warranting the phrase “fastest laptop CPU” have only been seen in first-party apps tailor written and optimized specifically for the M1’s unique design. However since a large majority of desktop programs are written for the more predominant x86 architecture, if you want any of those programs to be compatible with the M1, they must be emulated. This results in the processor being slowed down because of the extra complex work it has to do by running emulations. Also since programs aren’t optimized for emulation with the M1 in the first place, there have been numerous reports of emulated programs having stability issues. 


Apple’s new M1 processor is definitely impressive, but it will need time for it to be a true competitor to the desktop marketplace to compete with Intel and the x86 architecture’s dominance. It appears that the tech giant company is pushing for developers to start focusing more on working on programs optimized specifically for the M1 architecture as Apple’s promising technology continues to improve. Hopefully in the coming years we’ll see good competition and innovation that makes our electronics smarter and better.