The release of the M1 processor was a milestone. Apple finally migrated the Mac to its fast, low-power mobile processors, and the results were incredible. They were a hard act to follow–and after about a year and a half, the M2 processor arrived with a (not unexpected) set of incremental gains.
You can’t reinvent the wheel every time out, and clearly, the M2 was a careful follow-on to the M1, designed to keep the ball rolling. But now reports abound that the M3 is on the way–not at the end of the year or in early 2024, as you might expect from the 18-month gap between the M1 and the M2, but very soon, perhaps as soon as late spring or early summer.
Surprise! It turns out that Apple may be more aggressive with its Mac processing masterplan than we might’ve guessed from the first couple of years of Apple silicon.
Back on the chip cycle
The first two generations of Apple silicon Mac chips have been follow-ons from iPhone chips of a previous generation. The M1 was based on the A14, and the M2 was based on the A15. Apple releases a new iPhone chip every year, but hasn’t done so with the M series… so far.
However, there’s evidence to suggest Apple didn’t actually want it this way. The M2 made its debut with the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro last June, but numerous reports from well-sourced reporters such as Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggested that the M2 MacBook Air had initially been scheduled for late 2021 or very early 2022. If that’s true, 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 the intent matters when we’re trying to guess what happens next.
M3 as in nanometers
Apple’s chip supplier, TSMC, has been moving toward a new 3-nanometer chip process for a while now. The A14 was built on a 5nm process and the A15 on a newer process that it calls 4nm, but which many chip nerds say is really still 5nm. Meanwhile, the 3nm process (when it arrives) has reportedly been entirely bought out by Apple for use in all of its chips.
(If you’re not a chip engineer, what you need to know is that smaller processes provide lots of benefits, both in terms of reduced power consumption and increased potential chip speed. Smaller is better.)
While it’s long been assumed that Apple’s first 3nm chips would 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 around the Mac would go first with new chip technology–ahead of the iPhone. This also suggests that the M3 might be skipping over last fall’s A16 processor and would share more of its makeup with the forthcoming A17 chip.
Apple likely wanted to move to the M2 at a much earlier time than it actually did.
This all suggests that while the first couple of go-rounds of the Apple silicon cycle suggested Apple’s approach was “let’s take an A chip and now make an M chip,” Apple’s chip development roadmap might be a bit more fluid than that. If the M3 chip is built on the 3nm process, that’s a step ahead of the iPhone. Would it also have the same CPU and GPU cores as the A17? Given how relatively small an upgrade the A16 was over the A15, maybe so. But it’s not a guarantee.
Beginning a new cycle
Bloomberg’s Gurman strongly suggested this week that Apple wants the Mac chip cycle to be annual, like the iPhone cycle. I’m not sure if we have a lot of evidence to support that yet, but it would certainly make sense for Apple to keep the M and A series in lockstep now that Apple has largely finished its Mac chip transition.
But if Apple does move to an annual chip update cycle for the Mac, I wouldn’t expect every new Mac model to get an annual update to the new chip. In fact, we’ve already seen hints of this, as the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro received both M1 and M2 versions, but the iMac and Mac Studio are thus far only available on M1.
A pattern is slowly emerging: Perhaps Apple’s laptops, which likely make up at least three-quarters of Mac sales, will continue to be updated on an annual basis, along with each new chip generation. Desktop Macs, on the other hand, might be updated only every other year–Gurman’s report that a new 24-inch iMac model will arrive this fall with an M3 processor inside would bear that out. Imagine the Mac mini and Mac Pro getting an update on odd years, with the Mac Studio and iMac updated on even ones.
We could see Apple deciding to put its desktop Macs on longer cycles than its MacBooks.
Of course, until the M3 arrives officially, we have no idea if these reports are accurate. And delays happen–whether they’re due to larger supply-chain issues (which really bit the Mac last year) or even delays at TSMC in getting their new chip processes up and running. But as of now, it sure feels like Apple’s about to get much more aggressive with the pace of its Mac chip updates, and that’s great news for Mac users.