Apple's Peek Performance event may have started out with an Apple TV+ montage that name-dropped Oscar-winning celebrities, but the star of this show was Apple silicon. In debuting additions across its three champion platform lines: iPhone, iPad, and Mac–the A-series and M-series played a range of supporting to leading roles.
The iPhone SE revamp both updates 2020's model and becomes a de facto replacement for the iPhone mini. Like the latter, the SE enters the market with the same A15 Bionic processor used in Apple's more expensive models. Apple noted this means that the SE will receive OS upgrades for years to come; indeed, Apple has an excellent track record of supporting older iPhones with new system software. It also means that developers have a broader baseline when it comes to developing leading-edge apps. The marquee addition, though, is (sub-6 GHz) 5G, which has become a connectivity pillar for iPhones and in successive iPad generations like the revamped iPad Air line that also debuted at the event.
The tradeoffs include a smaller display, which could be a more attractive option for some, and a simple single-camera system that nonetheless should be aided by the phone's powerful chip and Apple's tuned algorithms. The new iPhone SE comes in at $429, a bit higher than the expected $399. Furthermore, Apple did not heed advice to keep the 2020 iPhone SE in the lineup as a replacement for the flagging iPod touch, so there's still an option out there for fans of the headphone jack. Overall, the new iPhone SE maintains the focus of the previous iPhone SE as a mid-range option for those who value Apple's ecosystem more than they value the many extra features one would find in a similarly priced Android device and not something designed as an entry-level market share grab.
The Apple playbook was also put to use in the revision to the iPad Air. Here, Apple silicon played a more pronounced role as Apple continued to bring performance and features from the iPad Pro line down to the iPad Air line. With the iPad Air now getting the M1, the iPad line is now split between more powerful M-series and more efficient A-series processors, with the former gaining ground fast. That's not surprising given that Apple has really stepped up its comparison of the iPad to Windows laptops as opposed to large Android tablets scrambling to steal from its dominant tablet share. The upshot is that the iPad line, with its larger screens, larger batteries, and more intermittent usage, has shifted closer to the Mac than the iPhone despite iPadOS and iOS having more in common from the user interface side; the A-series may soon become more exclusive to the iPhone.
But, of course, the M1 Ultra, two M1 Max chips joined by a breakthrough interconnect dubbed UltraFusion, stole the show. It captured the kind of sneaky excitement once reserved for "One more thing…" announcements at Apple events, except that the One More Thing slipped through in the debut of the M1 Max. In the Mac Studio, the M1 Ultra will power the debut of in the first new Mac model line since the debut of the Mac Pro 15 years ago. My fellow ZDNet contributor and Mac mini aficionado David Gewirtz discusses what a game-changer the high-rise, high-performance mini desktop is for the most demanding users, particularly compared to previous Mac Pros.
First look: Apple 'Peek Performance' event in pictures
Indeed, the introduction of the M1 Ultra seemed to be a run-up to a new Mac Pro, which Apple noted is still in the wings. But the Mac Studio raises several questions about what has long been Apple's most powerful Mac, particularly given that the company shared that the Ultra is the last variant of the M1. The Mac Pro could be the launch platform for the M2; beyond that, there are two major related questions: What subset of creative pros, long the target market for the Mac Pro, would need something more powerful than a loaded Mac Studio? And how would Apple court them? Mac Pros have long been defined by their internal expandability, particularly for discrete GPU cards. Discrediting their advantages, Apple has relentlessly touted the performance of the M-series' integrated GPUs but could surpass the Mac Studio's performance with a homegrown discrete GPU.
In any case, the Apple silicon-based Mac Pro will represent the completion of the Mac's third processor transition. It has not only far surpassed the previous transitions to PowerPC and Intel but has put more distance between the Mac and other PCs than anything since the launch of the first Macintosh.