How Does Apple's M1 Chip Compare to Current Intel and AMD Chips?

Will Apple's switch to its own Arm-based chips have serious consequences for Intel, especially in its server business?
Marcia Wendorf

Back in 2006, Apple first began using Intel's processors in its devices. Then, on November 17, 2020, Apple announced that it would be including its new M1 chip in its MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini. 

The M1 chip is based on Arm architecture rather than the x86 architecture used by both Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) and Intel. Apple has been using Arm-architecture chips for several years in its iPhones, modifying and enhancing them to increase performance.

Under the hood of the M1

The M1 is an 8-core processor, with four performance cores, and four efficiency cores that are only used during peak performance.

Several things make the M1 unique. It is manufactured using the cutting-edge Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company's (TSMC) 5 nm (nanometer) process for creating transistors, which is superior to both AMD's 7 nm process and Intel's 10 nm manufacturing process. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and the smaller the transistor, the more can be packed onto a single chip.

The M1 has unified Random Access Memory (RAM) that allows for blazingly fast data transfer, and it comes with an 8-core Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) that in many cases offers superior graphics to that of the Intel Xe Graphics processor, which is used in Intel's 11-Gen processors. The M1 also comes with a 16-core Neural Engine for machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence-related tasks.

Where the M1 really shines is its high performance per watt. This low electricity consumption comes with two primary benefits:

  • Less heat generation - this allows Apple to eliminates fans, resulting in a thinner device design
  • Longer battery life - the M1 offers a 50% to 80% gain in battery life over Apple's Intel processors.

Reviewer Joel Hruska said of the Apple M1 chip: "It represents the most potent threat to x86 dominance that I’ve seen in my entire career."

AMD Ryzen chips come with up to a massive 64 cores, which boosts their multi-tasking ability. On November 5, 2020, AMD announced the launch of its Ryzen 5000 series of mobile processors.

How the M1 stacks up against Intel and AMD chips

In side-by-side tests, PC World tested an Apple MacBook Pro M1, which includes an M1 Arm-based SoC/CPU, a 512GB custom SSD, 16GB of LPDDR4X/4267 memory, and a 13.3-inch 2560x1600 screen. Against it, they analyzed several similarly-sized laptops including:

  • MSI’s Prestige 14 Evo which includes a four-core, 11th-gen Core i7-1185G7 with Iris Xe graphics, 16GB of LPDDR4X/4267 memory, a 512GB PCIe Gen 4 SSD, and a 14-inch FHD screen
  • MSI’s Prestige 14 which includes a six-core, 10th-gen Core i7-10710U, GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q graphics, 16GB of LPDDR3/2133 memory, a 1TB PCIe 3.0 SSD, and a 14-inch 4K screen
  • Lenovo’s Yoga Slim 7 which includes an eight-core Ryzen 4800U with Radeon graphics, 16GB of LPDDR4X/4267 memory, a 512GB PCIe 3.0 SSD, a 14-inch FHD
  • Acer Predator Triton 500 with a six-core 10th-gen Core i7-10750H CPU, GeForce RTX 2080 Super graphics, 32GB of DDR4/3200 memory, a 1TB PCIe 3.0 SSD, and a 15.6-inch 300Hz FHD screen.

PC World reported that tests of 3D rendering resulted in the M1 being "a stone-cold killer," with no fan noise at all, while the fans on board the x86 laptops were racing. Most notably, the 8-core M1 Mac beat out the Ryzen chip laptops and most of the Intel chip laptops, with only the MSI Prestige 14 pulling very slightly ahead.

How Does Apple's M1 Chip Compare to Current Intel and AMD Chips?
Apple MacBook Pro Source: michal-rojek/iStock

PC World also reported that tests performed by Puget Systems on Photoshop, which is a single-threaded process, showed that the M1 bested the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7, with its Ryzen 7 4800U chip. However, Intel’s 11th-Gen Tiger Lake chip beat the MacBook Pro M1 by a small amount. What made the biggest difference in the tests of Photoshop was the amount of memory available.

As of November 18, 2020, Adobe Photoshop runs natively on Apple M1 Macs and Microsoft Surface Pro X tablets, which also include Arm-based processors. Microsoft's Surface Pro X tablet is unique in that it uses Qualcomm's custom Arm-based SQ1 chip, which was built exclusively for Microsoft.

Intel fires shots over Apple's bow

Perhaps feeling the pressure from the M1, Intel began firing back at Apple, citing benchmark tests. On January 5, 2021, the website Tom's Hardware published slides from a recent Intel presentation that put the M1 up against Intel's chips in an assortment of tasks including photo enhancement, album organization, stock options picking, and online homework.

However, Tom's Hardware pointed out that the chip Intel used in the comparison is its Core i7-1185G7, while the Intel chip used in most laptops is the Core i7-1165G7. The i7-1185G7 is only used in one production laptop — the MSI Prestige 14 Evo.

Even more peculiar was that Intel switched between different Apple devices during some of the tests. It switched to a MacBook Pro having only 8GB of RAM rather than the 16GB model, and in a battery life test, Intel switched to an Intel Core i7-1165G7 notebook, the Acer Swift 5, rather than sticking with the Core i7-1185G7.

Intel included in its statistics the M1's performance in games that currently don't work with the macOS and with the M1 CPU, including Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, games in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Crysis Remastered, and Red Dead Redemption 2. 

In its presentation, Intel touted the broader form factors offered by Windows machines, such as 2-in-1s, small-form-factor desktops, desktops with touchscreens, and even easels. Apple currently lags in the touchscreen and convertible 2-in-1 areas. Intel recently launched a campaign on Twitter seeking to show tasks that are impossible on M1 machines, perhaps indicating a certain level of desperation on Intel's part. 

Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are said to be interested in the low-power features that the M1 delivers, which would be especially beneficial for use in servers. As we reported recently, Intel's revenue from cloud service providers fell 15% from a year earlier, showing a possible weakness in its data center business. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon may try to develop their own chips, with Microsoft and AMD already reported to be working on their own ARM-based chips.

Should you buy an M1 device?

The conclusion has to be that early adopters of M1 devices may have to suffer for a bit of time before developers catch up. A key area where the M1 appears to be lagging is in gaming, but that will change as developers migrate their apps to the Arm architecture. Apple is well known for optimizing its software and hardware to create what its fans consider to be unmatched performance.

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