The chip that could transform computing
By Farhad Manjoo
For decades, the chipmaking giant Intel reigned as one of the most technically advanced companies in Silicon Valley.
It was Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore who famously predicted that computer chips would keep getting unimaginably more powerful. And it was Intel’s products, the x86 line of microprocessors at the heart of just about every personal computer, that turned Moore’s prophesy into a governing “law” of tech. The promise that every year, Intel’s new chips would be much faster than its old chips set the rhythm for advances across the entire industry.
But somewhere in the past decade, Intel lost the plot. It was blindsided by new trends — the rising utility of graphics processors, the widespread adoption of mobile devices — and beset by a series of embarrassing operational delays. Even more surprising than Intel’s slippage has been which company has come to succeed it as the pacesetter of processors. Meeting with employees early this year, Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s then incoming chief executive, was reluctant even to speak the enemy’s name — according to The Oregonian, he jokingly referred to the new chip champion only as “a lifestyle company in Cupertino.”
Cupertino, California, of course, is the home of Apple, whose focus on design, aesthetics and usability has often left it vulnerable to Gelsinger’s implication that its products are more fashionable than capable. But last month, Apple unveiled new laptops built around its own custom-designed processors, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, that have rendered such digs completely ridiculous.
Early reviews for Apple’s new machines have been so rapturous — “the most powerful laptops we’ve ever seen,” “dramatically better than they have any business” being, “just generally absurd” — that I worried I’d only be let down when I got my hands on one and it proved to be as frustrating as all computers always inevitably are.
I have not been let down. I’ve been bowled over. I’ve been using a new MacBook Pro with Apple’s fastest new chip, the M1 Max, for about two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time a laptop has wowed me like this. Actually, I don’t think a laptop has ever really wowed me, because it’s just a laptop.
This ridiculously fast laptop, though, got me thinking expansively about what’s to come. Over the last several years some in tech have worried that Moore’s Law has been running out of steam. At some point soon, experts theorized, microchips would begin to hit fundamental physical limits that would make further performance gains extremely challenging. And because processors are essentially the engines of computers, their impending limit implied an eventual limit on the usefulness of computing, too.
I called up several experts to ask what Apple’s innovation tells us about the future of computing. The short answer: We still have a way to go before hitting a wall.
The M1 chips make laptops as powerful as some of the fastest desktops on the market yet so efficient that their battery life beats that of just about any other laptop. The chips portend a future absolutely saturated with computing power — with extremely powerful processors not just in traditional computers and smartphones but also in cars, drones, virtual-reality machines and pretty much everything else that runs on electricity.
How Apple achieved these gains is an interesting business and technical story. In 2008, about a year after Apple released the first iPhone, it purchased a small semiconductor startup to build specialized chips for its phones. For many years, Intel’s chips were made primarily for stationary machines like servers and personal computers. To hit their top speeds, Intel’s processors had to draw a lot of electricity and created a lot of heat. But Apple’s most important products are mobile, powered by batteries, so chugging a lot of power wasn’t ideal. Its chip designers had to take a starkly different approach. Rather than maximize raw power, Apple aimed to build chips that were optimized for power and efficiency.
The technical ways Apple has achieved this combination will sound like geeky gobbledygook to anyone unschooled in semiconductor theory. Broadly, though, Apple’s systems use a lot of specialized processing units and are optimized to run more operations “out of order,” a technical term that basically means they can execute more code simultaneously.
The result is something like the difference between a muscle car and a Tesla. The muscle car achieves high speeds with a huge engine that burns a lot of gasoline. The Tesla can hit even higher speeds while consuming less power because its electric motor is inherently more efficient than a gas engine. For years, Intel was making muscle cars; Apple’s big innovation was to build the Tesla of computer chips.
Apple also benefited from enormous economies of scale. Because the iPhone is one of the most profitable products ever sold, the company could afford to invest billions in a custom chip operation — and then to repurpose its iPhone chips for the iPad, the Apple TV and now the Mac.
Apple’s investments have helped spark a new race in the chip business. Intel is investing $20 billion on new chipmaking plants, and other chip manufacturers — Samsung and TSMC, which manufactures processors for Apple — are collectively investing hundreds of billions of dollars to increase capacity.
If I sound a little too giddy about microchips, it’s because there hasn’t been much breakthrough technical innovation in the tech business for years. Facebook is off ruining democracies, Google just keeps sucking more money out of ads and each new iPhone is just incrementally better than the last.
Apple’s processors feel genuinely new. For better and worse, they will dramatically improve the capabilities of our devices in the next few years. Today’s fastest phones are more powerful than computers from just a few years ago; Andrei Frumusanu, who covered Apple’s new processors for the tech-news site Anandtech, told me that he expects Apple will be able to keep pushing similar gains at least through the next decade.
And other tech companies will spend heavily to catch up. After seeing what Apple has done, Frumusanu said, “everyone’s just freaking out.”