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Apple's M1 processor means faster transition away from Intel, but Mac Mini your best bet

Processor transitions typically feature a few growing pains and Apple's move away from Intel won't be different. But Apple is clearly going in the fast lane to convert to Apple Silicon.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Apple aggressively rolled out its M1 system on a chip across its Mac portfolio -- MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini -- in a strategy that may equate to a transition away from Intel processors measured in months not years.

The biggest challenge will be how well Apple's Rosetta 2 software can run Intel-based applications on the Mac. But if Rosetta 2 delivers, Apple will transition away from Intel faster than the few years the company expects.

You see where this is headed. Apple will support Intel-based Macs, but the marketing will back the M1 chip. The ability to order today with price points of $699 (Mac Mini), $999 (MacBook Air), and MacBook Pro ($1,299) means there might be an upgrade cycle ahead. The win would be seamless workflows from the iPhone to iPad to Mac and the ability to run Apple App Store apps across the portfolio. 

"This enables the Mac to run more software than ever," said CEO Tim Cook.

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What's unclear is whether the M1 powered Macs can run key apps like Adobe's Photoshop and Tableau well. Apple indicated that key software makers such as Adobe will be making M1 versions of applications in the months ahead, but in the meantime, a lot rides on Rosetta 2.

Key points to ponder

  • Apple pitched creative pros, developers, and data scientists with the M1 processor. What Apple is really going for is that bottoms-up approach to enterprise adoption of M1 powered devices. That approach has served it well in the enterprise with iPhone, iPad, and Mac adoption.
  • "Seamless workflow from the iPhone to iPad to Mac." That pitch is another way to convince businesses to ponder M1 Macs.
  • Developers transitioned in a few hours. In some of the testimonials, developers said the switch was easy. Apple is clearly acknowledging that it needs developers on the M1 train so it can cut over from Intel faster.

MacBook Air

  • The Mac Mini is a nod to the skeptical Apple Silicon folks. For $699, you can take the Mac Mini for a spin and see what the limitations of Apple Silicon are in day-to-day workflows and applications.
  • Profit margins are going to be better. Note that Apple held the line on pricing. Also, note that Apple doesn't have to pay Intel anything. That reality means the new Macs are going to be more profitable.

Mac Mini

  • Apple Silicon is likely to be a differentiator. Apple can market its processors well and Apple fans are likely to buy-in. Apple speaks of the usual semiconductor mumbo jumbo yet makes it sound way more appealing as an ingredient brand.
  • If Apple can rally apps around the M1, it is likely to make it easier for more Arm-based processors in the PC market.

What's your best move?

Given Apple is early in this transition to Apple Silicon it may make sense to hedge your bets unless you need a MacBook this second. That hedge is the Mac Mini. For $699, you can try the M1 out and figure out whether it makes sense.

The Mac Mini hedge also makes sense since there are likely to be some natural growing pains with Apple's transition away from Intel. Let others work out the nuances as the M1 move plays out.

Patrick Moorhead, principal of Moor Insights & Strategy, summed up why a hedge on Apple's M1 may be warranted. He said:

Performance of the new M1 chip is nearly impossible to gauge as the company didn't provide any detailed substantiation around any of the performance claims made. I think these should be scrutinized extensively as I believe the CPU benchmarks are likely measured using very synthetic benchmarks like GeekBench.

The company didn't talk a lot about compatibility either, but did make some giant claims that Rosetta 2 could play your favorite games. I find that nearly impossible as the new GPU doesn't higher-end quality features found in AMD, Intel and NVIDIA's new GPUs. 

Finally, I find it telling that the company didn't replace its highest-end systems which include Intel CPUs and AMD graphics. This could be a positioning challenge as its newest lineup could be looked at as underpowered.

Another move -- depending on the discounts -- would be to buy an Intel-based Mac, but that's a purchase with a distinct time horizon. It's clear Apple is moving away from Intel faster than we thought. No one wants a dead-end MacBook. 

According to Apple, the new MacBook Air is 3.5x faster with up to 5x graphics performance than the previous generation, thanks to the M1 processor. You can get it with up to 2TB of storage and 16GB of memory, with the price still starting at $999. 

Apple also sells an Apple Silicon-powered Mac Mini. It's the same design, but with the M1 processor. It starts at $699, a drop in the price of $100, and supports up to a 6K display via USB-C Thunderbolt ports with USB-4 support.

Apple is also updating the 13-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 chip. It gets 2.8x CPU gains and 5x GPU gains, plus it keeps its cooling system and has a $1,299 starting price.

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