Feb 22 2022

Apple Silicon: What IT Pros Should Know About the M1 Chip and Beyond

Apple has seen significant improvements in its device capabilities and user experience with the M1 chipset, though technical differences may create hesitations around upgrading.

When Apple announced plans in 2020 to bring its Apple silicon chipset to its Mac computers, it was one of the most talked about moves in the market. There were questions from both consumers and businesses about compatibility with existing software suites, and IT departments were worried about losing some key integration features as a result of the move away from Intel.

Still, the transition has been a successful one. The latest generation of Macs in the M1 line — including the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini and iMac — have all gained market share and positive reviews over the past 18 months. According to recent statistics from IDC, Apple’s PC market share grew by 8.6 percent in the most recent quarter, largely driven by sales of the M1 line of Macs.

“You’re already seeing more organizations start to deploy or say that they’re interested in deploying the Mac,” says Ben Bajarin, CEO and principal analyst at Creative Strategies. “Primarily, it sounds like it’s driven by the M1, which I think has everything to do with the battery life benefits that they’re getting.”

Macs have long had a reputation of being easy to maintain and deploy and improving worker productivity. With that in mind, let’s look at the processor shift, the benefits that the new machines offer and the considerations IT departments should keep in mind.

How Have Mac Devices Evolved Over the Past Few Years?

The Mac has long been used in areas such as video production and graphic design. But throughout the 2010s, it gained ground in other parts of the workplace, especially as more businesses began to allow remote work.

Part of what made this a reasonable move for IT departments, according to Phil Hochmuth, program vice president on IDC’s Enterprise Mobility team, is that secondary tools can be run in Mac environments, making it possible to support Mac users even if they need to utilize custom applications.

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“Enterprise teams approached Mac support by investing in tools to virtualize or otherwise deliver secondary, non-macOS environments on Apple PCs,” Hochmuth says.

However, there have been challenges. With power consumption and heat output rising, processors proved challenging to work into thinner Mac-based devices, which created complications for performance and battery life.

Apple has now converted most of its major Mac-based devices to the Apple silicon platform, including its entire laptop line (MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro), along with two of its consumer-grade desktop machines (24-inch iMac and Mac mini).

Apple has promised a two-year timeline for the transition to Apple silicon, and higher-end upgrades to the company's iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro lines are expected later this year.

What Is Apple Silicon?

Apple silicon is the name of Apple’s custom processors, which have appeared in iPhones since 2010. The chipset, based on the ARM Instruction Set Architecture, is known for high efficiency and low power draw, making it useful in cases where a device is reliant on a battery for long periods.

While Arm processors are widely used across the industry, including in most smartphones and embedded systems such as Raspberry Pi, Apple silicon is one of the first mainstream uses of Arm in a modern desktop computer and has a number of custom features unique to Apple machines, such as a secure enclave and optimized processing to handle translated x86 code.

Macs relied on Intel chips for about 15 years, but this is actually the fourth type of processing unit that Apple has used in its Macintosh line, with earlier generations relying on Motorola’s 68000 line of processors and the PowerPC line of processors, a joint effort between Motorola and IBM that was retired in the mid-2000s.

Most of Apple’s computing devices, including the prior Intel generation of Macs, integrate some form of Apple silicon processor. For example, the Intel chips in the 2019 edition of the 16-inch MacBook Pro use a T2 processor to handle the device’s internal security and the Touch Bar.

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What Is the M1 Chip?

The M1 line of chips, which was first released in the fall of 2020, is Apple’s first foray into desktop-class custom silicon, a system on a chip (SoC) that integrates a central processing unit, graphical processing unit, neural networking units and RAM directly on the chip.

In practice, the M1 line of SoCs offers very low power consumption and high speeds compared to similarly priced machines made by other manufacturers. Key to this efficiency are two factors:

  • A mixture of high-performance and energy-efficient processor cores, which allow computers with the M1 to more effectively balance tasks
  • The use of unified memory, a shared pool of memory among CPU and GPU that works more efficiently in part because of its direct integration into the SoC

Three variants of the chip have been released so far, with the M1 appearing in lower-end products like the MacBook Air and Mac mini. The M1 Pro and M1 Max, which sport better processing and graphics capabilities, made their debut in the latest edition of the MacBook Pro. The processor line, while mostly used on Mac desktop and laptop machines, also makes an appearance in the latest generation of the iPad Pro.

What Advantages Do Apple Silicon Macs Offer to Users?

End users are likely to notice two things about Apple silicon Macs in daily use: better battery life and lower heat consumption. One advantage many power users will notice with the MacBooks is that the machines can run at full performance even when on battery while still maintaining a significant amount of battery life.

The shift has also allowed for some design upgrades. While earlier Apple silicon Macs maintained the design language of the prior Intel devices, more recent ones such as the 24-inch iMac and the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros have evolved to include bolder color choices (in the case of the iMac) and increased screen quality and port selection (in the case of the MacBook Pros).

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M1 devices are well known for their image-processing capabilities, with many reviewers noting the significant speed advantages they have in rendering video, even compared with the high-end Intel devices they replaced.

As far as compatibility is concerned, Apple has focused heavily on optimizing the performance of its Intel library of apps through its Rosetta 2 compatibility layer, which offers near-native performance for macOS applications built for Intel processors.

There have been some notable challenges from a software standpoint, with applications like Docker and Box and important developer tools like Homebrew facing some initial growing pains in the early months of the M1 product cycle. But in the nearly two years since Apple silicon was first announced, most developers have largely transitioned to offering Apple-native versions of their applications — and the ones that haven’t still work well, thanks to Rosetta 2.

One of the developers to jump on early was Parallels, which prioritized creating a virtualization tool for Apple silicon, notes Prashant Ketkar, CTO and product officer at Corel, Parallels’ parent company.

“The Parallels team has worked to enable M1 Mac users to run Windows and its applications as soon as possible and with the best quality possible,” Ketkar says. “In fact, re-engineering Parallels Desktop for the M1 and making it a universal binary was a very large engineering effort and a key aspect of enabling our integrated Parallels’ vision for the future.”

What Should IT Teams Know About Moving to Apple Silicon?

While the benefits of Apple silicon are plentiful, they don’t come without questions for IT departments that may face significant technical debt from their investments in Intel-based Macs.

IDC’s Hochmuth says that the shift away from Intel will definitely cause disruption for organizations that are more reliant on legacy Intel-based applications for non-Mac platforms, which previously could be accessed through means like Boot Camp, a tool that made it possible to install Microsoft Windows on Mac hardware, and through virtualization tools like Parallels.

“That said, businesses should focus more on supporting and enabling native macOS endpoints and user experiences, rather than trying to force-fit Windows/non-macOS environments onto end-user Mac devices,” he says.

With the move to web-based and mobile applications, this approach is easier than it might have been a few years ago. And, given that Apple silicon devices can run iOS apps natively, it could provide a path forward from a custom-applications standpoint.

Naturally, given the size of organizations and concerns about compatibility, there may be a continued need to have some Intel-based Mac devices around and to continue to maintain them.

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At this time, Parallels is the best option on the M1 for cross-platform access, as it currently supports virtualizing the ARM-based versions of Linux and Windows. But that comes with a caveat: While the ARM version of Windows is constantly improving, the operating system does not fully support x86 applications at this time, and only began support for 64-bit Windows applications last year.

“However, the latter translation is in active development, so even if an app does not run today, it may run tomorrow,” Corel’s Ketkar says. “We are constantly working on our engineering efforts to improve the value proposition and surface area of our feature set for customers.”

For IT departments, the bigger challenge may be considering how to manage an ecosystem of different machines within an organization. Creative Strategies’ Bajarin notes that there is a budding trend of giving employees choice over what devices they use — both between Macs and PCs and within the Windows ecosystem itself.

“When it comes to the software, I think the main thing is really just software updates, operating system updates, and how to manage that in a dual environment between Windows and Mac,” Bajarin says. “It becomes a little bit more complex for them, because they don’t want to update users’ software in two different ways.”

While Apple notably ended software support for PowerPC Macs in 2009, just three years after the release of its first Intel Macs, the company has gained a more recent reputation for supporting Macs, along with iPhone and iPad devices, for five years or longer with software updates. Additionally, the company is still selling several high-end Intel devices that will likely require years of support, such as the Mac Pro.

No matter what your IT department decides about making an upgrade, there are options for every organization.

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