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 tough 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, and it’s clear that the M2 was a careful follow-up to the M1, designed to keep the ball rolling. But now reports abound that M3 is on the way, not later this year or early 2024, as might be expected from the 18-month gap between M1 and M2, but very soonmaybe 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 from the first two years of Apple’s silicon.
Back to the chip cycle
The first two generations of Apple’s Mac silicon chips have been complements to the 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 it hasn’t done so with the M series… until now.
However, there is evidence to suggest that Apple didn’t mean it that way. The M2 made its debut alongside the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro last June, but numerous reports from well-informed journalists like Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggested that the MacBook Air M2 was initially slated for late of 2021 or very early 2022. If this is 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, but intent matters when trying to guess what will happen next.
M3 as in nanometers
Apple’s chip supplier TSMC has been moving toward a new 3-nanometer chip process for some time. The A14 was built with a 5nm process and the A15 with a newer process that Apple calls 4nm, but which many nerds say is really still 5nm Meanwhile, the 3nm process (when it arrives) has been fully bought by Apple for use in all of its chips.
(If you’re not a chip engineer, what you should know is that smaller processes offer many advantages, 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 based on the process. This means that, unlike the last two cycles, this time it would be the Mac go first with the new chip technology, ahead of the iPhone. This also suggests that the M3 could be skipping last fall’s A16 processor and sharing more of its makeup with the upcoming A17 chip.
All of this suggests that while the early rounds of Apple’s silicon cycle suggested that Apple’s approach was to “take an A chip and now make an M chip,” Apple’s chip development roadmap Apple could be a bit smoother than this. If the M3 chip is based 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 the A16’s relatively minor upgrade over the A15, perhaps so. But it’s not a guarantee.
A new cycle begins
Bloomberg’s Gurman strongly suggested this week that Apple flight the Mac chip cycle will be annual, like the iPhone cycle. I’m not sure if we have much evidence to support this yet, but it would certainly make sense for Apple to keep the M and A series in step now that Apple has largely completed its Mac chip transition.
But yes Apple does moving 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. We’ve actually already seen hints of it, as the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro received M1 and M2 versions, but the iMac and Mac Studio are only available in M1 so far.
A pattern is slowly emerging: Perhaps Apple’s laptops, which probably account for at least three-quarters of Mac sales, will continue to be updated annually, along with each new generation of chips. Desktop Macs, on the other hand, might be updated only every two years; Gurman’s report that a new 24-inch iMac model is coming this fall with an M3 processor inside would confirm that. Imagine that the Mac mini and Mac Pro get an update on odd-numbered years, with the Mac Studio and iMac 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 due to larger supply chain issues (which really bit the Mac last year) or even delays at TSMC getting their new chip processes up and running . But as of now, it sure looks like Apple is about to get a lot more aggressive with the pace of Mac chip updates, and that’s great news for Mac users.