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M3 Apple silicon is here, and there's more to it than new laptops and all-in-ones

The M3 chips aren't merely a product release. They are Apple's bold statement of intent, opening a new chapter in the chip rivalry that could redraw market boundaries and fuel a fresh wave of innovation.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Apple M3 chips
Apple/ZDNET

At the October "Scary Fast" event, Apple unveiled its M3 Chip series -- M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max. This new Apple Silicon lineup, crafted with a cutting-edge 3-nanometer process, showcases Cupertino's drive for performance, efficiency, and a strategic edge in the tech battlefield. 

Also: MacBook Pro (M3 Max) review: A desktop-class laptop for an AI-powered age

While the chips promise a notable leap in power and efficiency, the spotlight now shifts to their real-world applications and impact on consumers and the market, especially at the entry level. Let's distill the technology in the M3 chips, its resonance with different user segments, and contemplate the ripple effects on a market vying with rival chipmakers.

Fast, but an iterative advancement

The new chips represent a commendable iterative achievement for Apple, particularly in enhancing silicon capabilities through increasing transistor count and lowering power requirements. But let's face it, the M2 and even the M1 were impressive, and most consumers and business users are still unable to utilize all of the performance of those chips. 

Also: Everything Apple announced at its October 'Scary Fast' event (and what wasn't unveiled)

Case in point: I run a Mac Studio with an M1 Max on my desk with 32GB of RAM, and I primarily use web browsers to do my job as a content writer and editor, with some light photo editing. That's already overkill -- other than my own desire for more RAM when I need it, the computational improvement doesn't improve things for me. 

mac-studio-m2-ultra
Jason Hiner/ZDNET

There's no actual new functionality in these chips; it's like comparing a Lamborghini (or a Tesla Model S "Plaid") from a few years ago with 600HP to one with 1000HP. Impressive performance boost, yes, but what's the actual impact for the average end-user? We can still only legally drive 65 mph/105 kph on most crowded highways in North America -- we need the application autobahn to fully take advantage of them.

GPU optimization and AI improvements, but where are the apps?

The enhancements in GPU optimization and improved and increased AI cores in the new chips were key highlights of the event. These will make the Mac an even more attractive platform for content creators, gamers, AI software developers, and end-users who require high-end graphics visualization (medical, sciences, aerospace, etc.). 

Also: M3 MacBook Pro with top-of-the-line specs? You'll be surprised at how far it is under $10,000

In the long term, these improvements will also likely trickle down into the Vision Pro headset and, potentially, iPad Pro. However, where do the apps take advantage of these on the consumer side? Yes, some Pro apps and some 3D games can today, but that's a relatively small part of Apple's target market today. And let's face it, the PC is still the gaming king, for now.

The Generative AI question

On paper, the generative AI capabilities of the new M3 chips are impressive, but Apple doesn't have house-built gen AI apps that run on the Mac today. Apple's generative AI APIs on MacOS are also in the early stages and have not been fully exploited by 3rd party developers. It also doesn't have generative AI capabilities in iCloud, and existing clouds from Microsoft, AWS, Google, OpenAI, and others have not been able to exploit on-device computational offload on any desktop computing platform yet. The top gen AI toolsets are also open source and run in Docker containers, which aren't optimized for Apple's AI cores today.

Don't discount the low-end Macbook as an industry disruptor

The obvious target for the new chips and corresponding hardware appeal to content creators and developers willing to invest in a high-performance system -- but we should not dismiss the entry-level laptop priced at $1,599, which could set a new performance benchmark at that price point. 

Also: Professionals should buy Apple's cheapest M3 MacBook Pro for one reason, and one reason only

I know of many professionals who aren't content creation types who spend a lot of time traveling or are on the go who would love the base Macbook Pro 14", especially in the 18GB RAM configuration for $1,999. The 20-hour battery life with that level of performance is going to be too good to pass up for many corporate workers.

We should also consider what impact the lower-end M3 systems are going to have on an already weakened Wintel market. Firstly, any M1 and M2 Mac machines already in the retail channel that were already very competitive with the Intel machines being offered by other manufacturers will drop in price significantly and will apply even more pressure, additionally decimating Intel's relevancy in many market segments.

This is ultimately an Intel-killing play

The debut of the M3 chip series at Apple's "Scary Fast" event is not merely a technological leap but a meticulously calculated move in the complex chessboard of tech market dynamics. This release underscores a formidable offensive against Intel's laptop stronghold, challenging the competition on computational prowess, power efficiency, and price fronts. 

The narrative doesn't end here; the absence of M3 iterations in the iPad Pro, Macbook Air, Mini, Studio, and Mac Pro hints at Apple's unrevealed cards, indicating that the rivalry is far from over. And we haven't seen the M3 Ultra yet, which may make even the extremely powerful M3 Max look pale in its capabilities by comparison.

Also: Apple's M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chipsets: Everything you need to know

With Windows holding the fort in the corporate end-user desktop domain, the M3 release sends a clarion call to decision-makers, urging a reevaluation of their hardware allegiances, especially as web-based line-of-business applications and Microsoft's robust 365 suite for Mac blur the lines between platforms. This isn't just about a chip -- it's about reshaping market equations and nudging the industry towards a new epoch where real-world applications and robust ecosystems could unlock the full potential of silicon advancements. 

The M3 chips aren't merely a product release; they are Apple's bold statement of intent, opening a riveting chapter in the tech saga that could potentially redraw market boundaries and fuel a fresh wave of innovation.

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