The invitations are out. The website is up. The YouTube stream is prepped.
I’m Rene Ritchie. Thanks Curiosity Stream with Nebula for sponsoring, and yes. Finally. Finally — Hit me again! — Apple’s October M1X Mac Event is… a… GO! So hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss my reviews and… punch it Chewie!
The invitation to the October 18, 2021 event shows an Apple logo making the jump into warp space or hyperspace or whatever your fav sci-fi franchise calls it.
I’ll get to the meaning in a minute, but first...
Apple almost always holds events on Tuesdays, not Mondays. The only notable exception is WWDC keynotes, which are always on Mondays, before WWDC runs all week. But Google’s already announced their yearly Pixel event for the Tuesday, rather than stepping on it and splitting attention and coverage, Apple can get out ahead of it by a day, and bleed over into all that coverage. Making Monday an easy win.
Now, back to the invitations. While I usually avoid trying to read invitation tea leaves because Apple marketing never actually tells the graphic design department what’s happening at the event. They just hand them a spec for the visuals. But in this case, I think those tea leaves pretty much read themselves.
Especially when you consider the tagline for the event...
Something that might have been roped, constrained, held back by an old, hot, processor architecture, something that was blowing thermal envelopes but also failing to take advantage of post-big-core advances. A leash. A giant, honking, x86, Intel-inside leash.
A leash so bad even Intel’s latest ads are forced to admit the only differentiation they can currently offer are form-factor gimmicks from vendors… who could just as easily do the exact same thing, and better, with AMD these days… But I digress.
Just like they did with their ultra-low-power Macs back in November, Apple is going to be unleashing their ultra-high-power Pro Macs now. Switching them to custom silicon. Essentially taking them from normal space to hyperspace. From impulse… to warp.
From Intel… to M1… to M1X
Now, yes, because Apple includes an AR experience in the invites, you have the all the usual suspects hype… hyping… virtual and augmented reality — mixed reality, basically. Finally. In other words, the Apple TV-like VR headset or Apple Watch-like AR glasses. And… they’ll probably happen eventually, but like the last year or two, sometimes a cool invite demo is just a cool invite demo.
But unlike previous events, we didn’t get the wicked Apple Park flex from Apple’s senior Vice President of marketing, Greg Jozwiak. He went with the much more classic animation this year. But what a classic.
After last year’s November Apple event, October is a return to their more usual pattern. Now, Apple doesn’t always hold Mac events in October, but more often than not… Mac and iPad events, mostly. But the iPad already had its event back with the iPhone last month. So… the Mac.
And since we’ve already gotten those ultra-low-power M1 Macs — the MacBook Air, the entry-level MacBook Pro, and the entry-level Mac mini, well… that just leaves the real Pros. And the M1X
Where M1 had 4 high efficiency cores, 4 high performance cores, 7 or 8 graphics cores, and 16 neural engine cores, M1X is rumored to have just 2 high efficiency cores but a whopping 8 high performance cores, an even more whopping-er… 16 to 32 graphics cores, and maybe more neural engine cores as well.
Where M1 offered 8 to 16 GB of RAM and up to 2 TB of storage, M1X could offer 16 to 64 GB of RAM and up to 8 TB of storage. And just the idea of all the unified memory feeding all those graphics cores.
And possibly ProRes hardware accelerators, like the A15 offers for the iPhone Pro? That would basically turn M1X into a portable afterburner box. Comping through pro workloads like Jaws… like Jaws on Hulk serum.
Likewise, where M1 offered two thunderbolt controllers for 2 full-speed USB4 ports, M1X should offer enough for 3 full speed USB4 ports, HDMI, SDXC, and hopefully MagSafe pass-through for Ethernet on the power brick.
And we should see it in a new 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro, with miniLED displays like the new iPads Pro. Basically, MacBooks Pro XDR — extreme dynamic range. And I’ve got a whole entire preview ready for you on that, and I’ll link to it in the description below the like button.
Also, maybe a new, pro-level Mac mini, with pretty much the exact same specs. Of course, I’d also love a new 32-inch iMac and a matching, new 32-inch prosumer-level Cinema Display from Apple to go with it, but the iMac sounds more like a 2022 product and the display… just a dream at this point. But a nerd can always dream.
There are also rumors we might see AirPods 3 as well. Which… have honestly been rumored for every event since last year. They’re supposed to have a more AirPods Pro-like design, if not feature set. And we could well see them. But Apple hasn’t spent a second of event time on AirPods since the original pair was announced back in 2016, not the AirPods 2, not the AirPods Pro, not even the AirPods Max. So, what could be a big enough deal about the AirPods 3 that Apple would add them to the stream? Let me know what you think in the comments.
I’ve been using an Apple Watch all day, every day, for over half a decade now. But, I’m keenly aware that many of you may not even have an Apple Watch yet. So, for you, it might be about what the new Apple Watch Series 7 can do for you and your life, and if that’s finally enough for you to get one. Where, for those of you like me, it’s all about what it can do better… how it can make our lives even better.
With Series 7, that includes a bigger, more informational, more accessible screen and faster charging system in general. For time and schedule keeping, a brighter, easier-to-glance at always-on mode. For fitness and health tracking, especially the extreme kind, a more crack-resistant display, and dust-and-debris resistant casing. For notification and communication, a built-in keyboard. And, yeah, GIF/GIFs! For fashion, or just plain fun, a minor rainbow of new aluminum colors. Still starting at $400 bucks.
And it all comes together to create an experience that’s… light years beyond the original… even if it’s still not quite where I want it to be. Let me explain!
New designs. Flat designs. 14- and 16-inch displays. Mini LED displays! M1X Apple Silicon. 2 efficiency cores. 8 performance cores. Up to 32 Graphics cores. Up to 64 GB of RAM, 8TB of SSD. Maybe. Probably… no Touch Bars, but MagSafe, HDMI, and SD Cards.
Right now, I’m going to go through all the most recent reports, and not just recapitulate or regurgitate them for you, but dive into all the little details about what these new MacBooks will actually, really mean for Pros!
Midnight. Starlight. Green. Blue. Red. Aluminum. And Nike. Gold. Silver. Graphite. Steel. And Hermes. Brushed and Space Black Titanium. 20% larger display. 70% brighter always-on display. 40% smaller bezels. 1mm bigger cases. 41mm and 45mm cases. Not square but round. Rounder even. Bigger tap targets. Bigger text. Or more text. QuickPath Keyboard. New contour face. New Duo modular face. More crack resistant. IP6X dust resistant. Still WR50 water resistant. And 33% Faster charging.
The vast majority of iPhone owners still don’t have an Apple Watch. So, while I’m sure many of you high order bit Apple nerds are weighing whether or not to upgrade, I’m equally sure many, many more of you Apple casuals are debating whether or not to buy in for the first time.
So here’s the new deal:
The screens are bigger now. 20% bigger than the Apple Watches 4 to 6 and SE, and 50% bigger than the Apple Watches 0 to 3. Part of that comes from a very slight, like 1mm increase in case size, from 40 and 44mm to 41 and 44mm, but also a second Thanos snapping… a re-snapping… of the bezels by almost half again.
That, along with some layout tweaks, means more complications for some watch faces, like a new Modular Duo, but also more text for your mail and messages. Or, optionally, bigger text if your eyes prefer that. Bigger buttons and tap targets too in many apps, like 20-50% bigger in some cases.
Big enough for a QuickPath Keyboard, which were third-party only… intermittently… before now. Type or swipe, it’s up to you.
It’s not enough to make the Watch fully independent yet, no matter how much I see beseeching Amenadael, but it’s another tiny little step in that general direction.
The display is brighter now too. Well, not peak brightness for the regular display but regular brightness for the always-on display. 70% brighter for when you need to glance at your wrist all surreptitious like. It just makes the watch work even better as, you know, a watch.
The display itself is stronger now, not in terms of scratch resistance, but crack resistance. So it’s much less likely to break if you smash it into something. Also IP6X dust resistance and still rated up to 50mm for swim proofing. So if you hike or ride or work outside, your watch will be safer than ever.
There’s no 5G or even fully independent LTE yet with the cellular option. And while the system-in-package, or SIP, has gotten some improvements, especially in the display drivers and power management areas, the CPU is the same A13-derived dual core engine as last year.
Battery life is also the same as it has been for the last few years, because Apple continues to spend whatever efficiency budget they have on new and improved features. But there is a new USB-C to Watch charging system will let you power up 33% faster now. That’s like 8 minutes for 8 hours of sleep tracking, or 45 min for over 14 hours of regular activity. So whether you’re snoozing or using, you’ll get more quicker.
You can get the aluminum model in midnight, which is an Indigo black, Starlight, which is silver with a shot of gold, a deep green, tealish blue, or rosey red, starting at $400 for the 41mm Wi-Fi.
Or the Nike version in Midnight or Starlight, with exclusive faces a sport loops, for the same price.
If you don’t want to pay that much for an Apple Watch, you can still get the SE version, which doesn’t have the always on display or health sensors like ECG and Pulse Oxymeter, starting at $279, or if you just want to dip your toe… or wrist… into the Apple Watch waters, the Series 3 starting at $199. But, at that point, unless you really can’t justify the extra 80 bucks over the multi-year lifespan of the watch, get the SE… but really get the Series 7. It’s just so much more better useful, which isn’t grammar but is 100% facts.
If you want to go higher end, you can get the gold, silver, or space black stainless steel versions, typically for a few hundred bucks more, and brushed or space black titanium for typically another hundred bucks more on top of that. Depending on which exact band you pair it with.
If you’re ultra serious about your Apple Watches, you can get the silver or space black stainless steel versions with Hermes straps. Those typically start at over a grand.
New 14-inch MacBook Pro. New 16-inch MacBook Pro. M1X Pro-level Apple silicon. Maybe M2X? Maybe Mac mini Pro? Maybe iMac Pro? Maybe all the Pro. It’s the next major Apple Event. The… Apple Event Pro! And it’s coming our way as soon as this month.
New 14-inch MacBook Pro. New 16-inch MacBook Pro. M1X Pro-level Apple silicon. Maybe M2X? Maybe Mac mini Pro? Maybe iMac Pro? Maybe all the Pro. It’s the next major Apple Event. The… Apple Event Pro! And it’s coming our way as soon as this month.!
The iPhone 13, mini, Pro, and Max are here, but the iPhones 12 and mini, iPhone 11, and iPhone SE have all stuck around for another year. So, should you invest in the latest and greatest, or take advantage of the discounts on the previous generation?
Price and capacity
An iPhone 13 will cost you the exact same as an iPhone 12 did last year, you just get more for your money now. Including double the starting storage. 128 GB for $830, 256 GB for $930, or 512 GB for $1130.
If size really doesn’t matter, but the up-front price does, you can get the mini. Identical in every way but wireless charging speed, because mini, but $100 less for every storage tier.
If you want to go Pro, and get all the extra pro features, you’re looking at almost $300 more. I have a whole entire iPhone 13 vs Pro video up if you want all the details, but the gist is, 128 GB for $1000, 256 GB for $1100, 512 GB for $1300, and a whopping 1 TB for an equally whopping $1500.
And if size really does matter, or money is just no object, you can get the 13 Pro Max. Also identical in almost every other way, but $100 MORE for every storage tier.
If any… all of that, is just way too much to spend on an iPhone, you can last year’s flagship, the iPhone 12, at this year’s $100 price drop, or 64 GB for $730, 128 GB for $780, or 256 GB for $880.
But, honestly, a 100 bucks less for half the starting storage, or 50 bucks less for the same storage, unless you stream and cloud store everything, or absolutely don’t have an extra dollar to spend on a phone… over the course of the next year… if you’re considering the iPhone 12, the 13 will be a much better, longer term investment for you at this point.
Ditto the iPhone 12 mini, still $100 less for every storage tier, but still the much lower starting tier and smaller difference between the other tiers. Plus the iPhone 13 mini destroys it on battery life. More on that in a minute.
Now, If even the 12 is too rich for your blood, you can get two-years ago’s flagship, the iPhone 11, at a $200 price drop. But only 64 GB for $500 or 128 GB $550.
There’s no mini for that model, but it might actually be a sweet spot if you want the modern design and don’t care… or maybe don’t even like OLED displays or 5G. Which I’ll also get to in a minute.
And then there’s the iPhone SE 2. Classic not modern design. Good old-fashioned home button. And $400 for 64 GB or $450 for $128.
That’s what Apple’s offering this year, but it’s worth shopping around because sometimes carriers are still offering discontinued variants, like the excellent iPhone 12 Pro Max or iPhone 11 Pro, and there are a ton of trade-in and installment deals this year that can help you stretch your iPhone dollars further than ever.
But the key is this — you want the most iPhone for the least money. Not just the lowest price but the highest value. Find the iPhone that really suits your needs, then find the best price for it. Or if you have a set budget, find the best iPhone or best deal you can for that budget. Especially if you need it to last you several years or more.
Materials and Colors
The iPhone 13 Pros have shiny stainless steel bands and matte glass backs in silver, graphite, gold, and Sierra blue. All the other models have matte aluminum bands and shiny glass backs, but also bolder color options.
The iPhone 13 comes in starlight, which is a slightly golden silver, midnight, which is a slightly indigo black, teal blue, hello kitty pink, and deep red.
The 12s come in even more colors, lavender purple, navy blue, mint green, bright red, white, and black.
All of them have Ceramic Shield, which is Apple’s break-resistant don’t-call-it-glass fronts, and ion-exchange glass backs, and are water resistant up to 6 meters for 30 minutes.
The iPhone 11s come in a more pastel purple, slightly deeper green, black, white, and middle red. Ion-exchange glass front and back, and only 2-meters of water resistance for 30 minutes.
The iPhone SE only comes in red, white, and black, ion exchange glass front and back, and only 1-meter of water resistant for 30 minutes.
So, if you want premium, you’ll have to stick with the iPhone 13 Pro. If durability and water resistance are critical to you, you’re going to want to stick with the iPhone 13 or iPhone 12.
Display & Size
The iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 12, and iPhone 11 all have 6.1-inch screens. If you want smaller, you’ll have to go with the 5.4-inch iPhone 13 mini or iPhone 12 mini, or the non-full screen 4.7-inch iPhone SE. Just be aware, because of it’s classic design, the SE’s screen may be smaller than the mini’s but physically, it’s bigger.
The iPhones 13 and 12 all have triple density OLED displays. Which means wide color, high dynamic range, and high contrast ratios for deep, inky blacks, bright whites, and lots of detail in highlights and shadows. OLED has some issues with color shifting, smearing, and pulse width modulation, but they’re absolutely terrific for movies, TV shows, photos, video games… just glorious.
The iPhones 11 and SE have double density LCD displays. They’re wide gamut, so you still get rich reds and vibrant greens, but you don’t get the same high dynamic range and contrast. Still, Apple uses really, really good LCD panels with excellent color calibration, so unless you really care about HDR or are holding them side-by-side with OLED, you may not recognize or care about the difference.
The iPhone 13 Pros will even ramp up to 120Hz now for smoother scrolling and gaming, and even ramp down to 48Hz for movies and 10Hz for books. It’s a better, more natural experience but also way more efficient for battery life. All the other iPhones are locked at 60Hz.
If you want high frame rate, you’ll have to go 13 Pro. If you want OLED, you’ll have to go 12 or 13. If you deliberately don’t want OLED, 11 or SE.
Ok, real talk. Pretty much any iPhone from the last few years will give you great photos and video under ideal conditions like bright, outdoor light. What the newer and more expensive iPhones will do is give you great photos and videos under increasingly less idea conditions, like indoor light at home, low light at a restaurant, or at night or at a concert. They’re also increasingly better at avoiding blur on moving subjects, especially kids and pets.
The iPhone SE only has a 26mm wide angle. Pretty much the same wide angle as the iPhone 11, but the iPhone 11 also has a 13mm ultra wide angle, as do the iPhones 12 and 13. That lets you zoom out to capture way more of a scene. Whether that’s a room in your house, friends at a party, or the buildings on a street.
The iPhone 13 Pro also has auto-focus on the ultra-wide and a macro mode for extreme close up photos. Like flower petals, bugs, nail polish, or minifigs. Plus a third, 77mm telephoto camera. That lets you zoom in up to 3x to capture scenes that are further away. It’s great for portraits but also kids at the park or playing sports, and sight seeing.
The iPhone 11 and later have night mode, for extreme low light. The iPhone 12 and later have Dolby Vision HDR for high-dynamic range video. The 12 caps out at 4K30, but the 13 can go to 4K60. The iPhone 13 also has cinematic video, for blurry backgrounds and rack focus. More like what you see in TV shows and movies. If you’re next level, the iPhone 13 Pros have ProRaw for photography and will soon be getting ProRes for video, which capture way more data and detail and give you a ton more options in the edit. You know them if you need them.
Pretty much the same story on the front-facing selfie cams too. If you want all the nitty gritty details, I’ll link all my iPhone reviews in the description right below the like button!
So, if a photo or video is just a photo or video to you, you can get any of them. But if the iPhone is your only camera, and you want the best possible photos and videos you can get, you’re going to want a 12 or 13. And if you want pro video, you’re going to need an iPhone 13 Pro.
All the current iPhones have Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax. No Wi-Fi 6E yet on any of them. So no difference there. They also all have Gigabit 4G LTE cellular networking. Only the iPhone 12 and 13 have 5G NR networking, both Sub-6 and mmWave. So, if you need 5G, you need a 12… or a 13 which has even more bands for more places.
All of them, except for the iPhone SE, also have the U1 ultra wide band positioning chip, which is used for things like AirTags and Find My precision location, and will increasingly be used for things like digital keys. So if you want any of that, you have to go with anything but the SE.
But… the iPhone SE is the only one with good old Touch ID, Apple’s fingerprint identity scanner, because good old fashioned Home button design.
The iPhones 11, 12, and 13 all have Face ID, Apple’s facial geometry scanner, because full screen, notched designs. Face ID can be faster and more transparent, but if you wear masks more than gloves, Touch ID might still be more appealing.
Not surprisingly, the bigger, heavier iPhones have the better battery life. Highly optimized video playback isn’t a good or well rounded IRL metric, but it gives usable scale for comparison.
The iPhone 12 mini and iPhone SE have the worst battery life of any modern iPhones. 13 hours and 15 hours respectively. iPhone 13 mini comes in at 17 hours, same as iPhone 11 and 12. iPhone 13 hits at 19 hours, the 13 Pro at 22 hours, and the 13 Pro Max a stupefying 28 hours.
Again, that’s for hardware accelerated video, so divide by half and then swirl around a bunch for average, mixed workloads.
Also, while all these iPhones can fast charge over a Lightning cable up to 50% in 30 minutes with a 20 watt charger — sold separately! — and they all have Qi-standard inductive charging, only the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 work with Apple’s new MagSafe magnetic inductive charging system and range of accessories. And the iPhones mini at 12 watts instead of 15 like the other iPhones get, because smol. Now, MagSafe may not be hugely compelling right now, but could become more so over the next couple of years.
Either way, it means if you’re ok with light use or more frequent charging, you’ll be ok with an SE or mini, especially 13 mini. If you want an iPhone that can go all day and well into the next day, you’ll want the 13 Pro Max.
All of Apple’s chipsets may seem overpowered, but they’re designed to provide headroom for future versions of iOS and apps. With a brand new iPhone and chipset, like the A15 in the iPhone 13, you can look forward to around 5-6 years of updates. With older versions, like the A14 in the iPhone 12 and the A13 in the iPhone 11 and SE, a year or so less for each number less. So, basically, an iPhone 13 might take you to iOS 20, iPhone 12 to iOS 19, iPhone 11 and SE to iOS 18. Give or take a version.
In other words, you might save some money up front on a previous generation iPhone, but you also might be giving up usability and updates over the life of your iPhone, especially if you intend to keep it for more than 3 years, or even hand it down or sell it…
When it comes to RAM, for iOS that mostly just matters in terms of how many old apps can stay live in memory without being forced to close to make room for the new ones you’re launching, especially heavy ones like the camera, games, or social. Also, how long web tabs will last without them being forced to reload when you come back to the browser.
You only get 3 GB with the iPhone SE. 4 GB with the iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and the iPhone 13 and 13 mini. But 6 GB with the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max.
That means if you want Max RAM, you’ll need the iPhone 13 Pro… or Max.
So, if you want more iPhone for less money, double check those trade-in offers and installment options and see if you can often find a way to lower the up front payment or to spread any difference out to where it’s a much, much smaller amount every month.
2 Avalanche high performance cores. 4 Blizzard high efficiency cores. Up to 5 Graphics Cores. 16 Neural Engine Cores. But, increasingly, it’s the non-big compute core features that are the most interesting…
Ok, so, A15 is Apple’s fifth-generation Bionic system-on-a-chip, or SoC. An SoC just means the components, like CPU, GPU, and memory aren’t all laid out on a board like… a charcuterie plate. They’re all on the same die or package, like… a sandwich. That sacrifices modularity for some very real advantages in economy and efficiency. Which… as you’ll see, is going to be a bit of a theme.
Now, the base Bionic architecture has been consistent over the last few years. High-efficiency cores, high performance cores, graphics cores, neural engine cores, and a bunch of other, much more specific silicon features to support the experiences Apple wants to deliver with every new iPhone.
But it didn’t start out that way. It started out with Steve Jobs, way back in the day, understanding that Apple had to own the technologies that would become critical differentiators for their products. Sure, he wanted the best Sushi chef from Japan for Caffe Macs, but he needed the best silicon engineers in the world for Apple silicon.
In 2007, the original iPhone launched with an off-the-shelf Samsung ARM11 processor, re-purposed from… set top boxes. But when the original iPad was set to debut in 2010, just a few years later, Apple’s first in-house processor was set to debut with it — the A4. And go into the iPhone 4 just a few months later.
And if you want a video on that, the decision to use the A4 in both the iPad and the iPhone, and why it was such a huge… quad major key to Apple’s eventual silicon dominance… including everything from S1 to M2, let me know in the comments below the like button.
Anyway, A4 was also ARM, a reduced instruction set or RISC architecture as opposed to the complex instruction set, or CISC, of x86 that Intel and AMD were using to own the PC world at the time. But Intel, who Apple had just finished transitioning to on the Mac, couldn’t make anything nearly efficient enough for devices as small as the iPhone or iPad.
So, Apple licensed ARM’s Cortex A8 design and came up with a single core CPU based on Hummingbird, 1 GHz for the iPad, 800 MHz for the iPhone 4, fabricated, or fabbed on Samsung’s 45 nanometer process.
But Apple, and more specifically Jony Srouji’s silicon team, had their sites set further out. Much further out.
In 2011, the A5 launched with dual ARM Cortex A9 cores, fabbed on Samsung’s 45 nanometer process. Again, 1 GHz in the iPad 2, 800 MHz in the iPhone 4s. Also, Apple’s first Image Signal Processor, or ISP, which would go on to be... beyond important for Apple’s upcoming work on computational photography.
Now, ARM has two different kinds of licenses. A design license, where you get access to ARM’s own cores, like Cortex. But also an instruction set architecture, or ISA license, where you get access to the code ARM uses but are free to make your own, custom core designs.
In 2012, with the A6, Apple switched from licensing ARM’s Cortex designs to licensing the ARMv7 ISA, and launched their first custom cores. Dual 1.3 GHz Swift cores for the iPhone 5, fabbed on Samsung’s 32 nanometer process.
Apple’s ISA license was or became incredibly open-ended as well. Where they could pretty much do whatever they wanted to do. Something we and the industry would see pay off real soon…
For their designs, Apple went wide and slow… relatively speaking. More cores. More bandwidth. Lower clock-speeds. Which let them handle more instructions at lower power and with much less heat. Something that’s also going to come up again for the A15. Also highly out-of-order and superscalar.
Because it was never about raw, brutish performance, it was the efficiency, dammit. Like… instead of trying to force everything out a firehose in high-pressure linear bursts, they envisioned a river. Instead of a 2 line highway with a ton of super cars stuck in traffic, a 4 lane or 8 line boulevard of SUVs with way more throughput.
Apple also started pushing ARM for a 64-bit instruction set. Hard. Something the existing merchant silicon vendors like Qualcomm and even in-house fabs like Samsung just hadn’t been doing. Because they made money on the chips, and the longer they could keep the same 32-bit designs on the market, the more money they’d make. Apple didn’t care about profit or loss at the chipset level. They made their money off the whole device. So they had no reason to slow walk their designs. They had every reason to run.
And that’s when we got the shot heard around the silicon world — in 2013 with the A7 and its 1.3 GHz Cyclone cores, on the ARMv8 instruction set — on ARM64, all fabbed on Samsung’s 28 nanometer process. Not just a more modern architecture but a cleaner, more targeted one that would let Apple really start scaling for the future. And the key thing here is — not because of Apple using ARM, but because of Apple starting to drive ARM.
To the point where not only were Qualcomm and Samsung totally blindsided, ARM themselves didn’t even have 64-bit core designs ready to license yet. And Apple was already racing ahead.
In 2015, the A8 didn’t go with an entirely new CPU architecture, but with an enhanced version of Cyclone. The 1.4 GHz dual Typhoon cores were notable because they switched from Samsung’s process to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, TSMC’s 20 nanometer process for the big and bigger iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
In 2016, Samsung came back into the mix briefly for the A9 and its dual 1.9 GHz Twister cores. Supply constraints led Apple to dual-source for the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, with some of the chipsets fabbed on Samsung’s 14 nanometer process, some on TSMC’s 16 nanometer process.
Despite it sounding like Samsung’s process was smaller, and therefor better, TSMC’s process ended up making cores that beat Samsung out on power efficiency. Which highlights a few critically important aspects of silicon fabs — process size isn’t a physical convention, it’s a marketing convention. And different fabs, even on the same or better sounding processes, might not end up producing the same performance or efficiency. Thus ended Samsung as a fab for Apple silicon.
But beyond that, Apple benefitted from generation after generation of process shrinks. From 45 nanometer on the A4 to 16 nanometer on the A9. And when the process shrinks, it means you can either fit the same amount of transistors in a smaller space, which makes for less heat and even better efficiency, or you can fit more transistors in the same amount of space add heat, which gives you a bigger transistor budget spend on faster cores or, as we’ll soon see, a plethora of other features.
In 2016, the A10 was a milestone. It debuted a brand new “Fusion” architecture. Akin to what ARM markets as big.LITTLE. Basically fusing dual high-efficiency 1 GHz Zephyr cores with dual high-performance 2.3 GHz Hurricane cores, fabbed on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC’s 16 nanometer process.
The idea of the efficiency cores, or e-cores, was, as the performance cores, or p-cores got bigger and faster, they wouldn’t leave a giant, battery-draining gap beneath them for tasks that didn’t need cores anywhere nearly that big and fast. And a new Apple Performance controller, the secret sauce, would figure out which tasks would go to which pair of cores. But with A10, only the performance cores or the efficiency cores could be used at any given time, because Fusion.
Then, in 2017, we got the A11 and the Bionic architecture, which is what the A15 still uses today. It’s de… fused the new quad 1.6 GHz Mistral high-efficiency cores and dual 2.4 GHz Monsoon high-performance cores, which meant any or all of the e-cores and p-cores could be used separately or together for any task at any given time.
In 2018, Apple built on Bionic with the A12 and its quad 1.6 GHz Tempest high-efficiency cores, and quad 2.5 GHz Vortex high-performance cores, fabbed on TSMC’s 7 nanometer process. In 2019, with the A13 and its quad 1.7 GHz Thunder high-efficiency cores, and dual 2.7 GHz Lightning high performance cores, fabbed on TCMS’s second generation 7 nanometer process. Which, for the first time, included dedicated Apple machine-learning accelerator, or AMX blocks.
Then, in 2020, just last year, we got to A14 Bionic, with quad 1.8 GHz Icestorm high-efficiency cores and dual 3.1 GHz Firestorm high-performance cores, fabbed on TSMC’s 5 nanometer process. For the iPad Air 4 and iPhone 12. And… and… which would also form the foundation of the M1 in the first generation of Apple Silicon Macs and the current iPad Pro.
And now we have A15 Bionic, with quad Blizzard high-efficiency cores, probably still just under 2 GHz, and dual 3.2 GHz Avalanche high-performance cores. At least in the iPhone 13. They’re down clocked to 2.9 GHz on the iPad mini, maybe for design reasons, maybe just binned for yield and supply reasons.
Weirdly,Apple didn’t do their typical year-over-year comparisons between the A15 and A14, instead choosing to claim 50% better CPU perf over the competition, which is almost certainly Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888.
But, if you do the synthetic benchmark math, those Avalanche p-Cores come out to roughly 10% faster single core perf than last year’s Firestorm p-Cores and just under 20% for multi-core. It’s not the leaps and bounds we saw in the early years when Apple moved to fully custom cores, or added cores, or benefited from process shrinks. But that Apple moved from… a song of Ice and Firestorm… to Avalanche and Blizzard, or double the cold codenames, might be less coincidence and more of a hint at how the bandwidth increases have once again enabled a leap forward not in terms of pure performance but in terms of performance per watt.
Before we can talk about that, though, we have to talk about the…
Apple’s been doing GPU hardware acceleration since before it was fashionable, leaning heavily on it for things like interface animations and, back in the day, making sure the original iPhone ran at a solid, consistent 60 frames per second. Steve Jobs insisted on it. But Apple didn’t get into custom GPUs for a while.
Not even with the 2010 A4, which used an Imagination PowerVR SGX 535 and they stayed with PowerVR even all the way through the 2016 A10 Fusion, which was based on a hexacore PowerVR 7XT GT7600 Plus. Based on, because Apple started customizing the GPU with their own, in-house shader cores and half-precision floating point to increase performance and power efficiency. Especially for new features like the depth effect computational photography behind the iPhone 7’s Portrait Mode.
In 2017, the A11 took it not just a step further but shader-fueled leap, with the first fully custom 3-core GPU, the Apple G10. A12 took that to Custom GPU to 4-cores with the G11P.
The A13 and A14 kept that same 4-GPU core configuration, and so does this year’s A15. Kinda!
The iPhone 13 Pro (and iPad mini) GPU, presumably the G14, have a 5th core that gives the Pro a whopping 55% increase in Metal performance over the A14. Again, according to synthetic benchmarks. What we see in the real world will vary depending on workloads.
But like I said, GPU accelerates a lot of the iOS experience. And Apple’s making sure all those cores are being fed by double the already beefy, beefy system cache in the A15 as well, which should mean 32 MB this year. And, yeah, hot damn. Or rather, cold damn.
Anyway, with the A15 GPU, Apple’s also added support for lossy texture compression. The A12 previously added lossless support, but lossy support means half the memory for the same resolution textures or, better still, double the resolution for the same memory.
Also, sparse depth and stencil textures, which save memory by not rendering textures below UI elements, for example, or shadows that fall outside the camera area. And SIM-D shuffle and fill.
Now, we still need to talk about the A15’s most impressive new capability, but there’s one more set of cores to dive into first!
A15 Neural Engine
In the beginning, in the early days of hardware accelerated machine learning, Apple relied on the GPU. But in 2017, for the A11, they debuted a new, dual core Neural Engine, or ANE, to better handle the massive processing required for all the new algorithms and adversarial neural networks behind new features like Face ID on the iPhone X, and in a faster and more efficient way than the general purpose GPUs ever could. That’s why Apple called this architecture Bionic, because of Steve Austin. Not Stone Cold, the 6-million dollar man. Wikipedia it.
And what was particularly interesting here was at a time when a lot of pundits were piling on the “Apple is way behind on artificial intelligence”… pile on. Apple had been busy implementing it not only in software for things like battery optimization, but baking it right into the silicon starting 2-3 years earlier.
It was more of a proto-neural engine and wasn’t accessible to developers yet, but that changed in 2018 with A12. It went from 2 to 8 cores, and from 600 billion operations per second to 5 trillion. In 2019, with the A13 and the AMX blocks added to the CPU, Apple also added a Machine Learning controller that, similar to the performance controller, dispatches tasks to the AMX, GPU, and the ANE in real time. The secret… saucier?
In 2020 with the A14, Apple doubled the Neural Engine count again, going to 16 cores and 11 trillion operations per second.
And now, with the A15, they’re sticking with 16 cores but has increased the amount of operations per second by over 40%, from 11 trillion to almost 15.8 trillion.
And that makes the kind of sense that does, given the ANE is what Apple’s leaning on for new A15 features like Cinematic Mode, which applies bokeh and rack focus to videos. Unlike Portrait Mode, which used depth data to create a segmentation mask for a still frame, then applies a custom lens model to it, Cinematic Mode has to process not only the current frame, but adjacent frames before and after it, to make sure the bokeh stays consistent and isn’t jumping around, and the rack focus is not only detecting things like shifts in gaze, but moving smoothly between them. Even when a new gaze is coming into a shot from outside the crop, so it can anticipate and lock on immediately. Again, all in real time, in the view finder, so what you shoot is as close to possible what you get. That’s some extreme silicon heavy lifting.
Especially when you consider how long it took phones like Google’s Pixel to begin doing even basic Portrait Mode previews.
But it’s also more than that. Because for a while now, Apple’s been recognizing that the era of big, general-purpose compute cores is behind us. Sure, there’ll be future process shrinks, like TSMC’s 3 and… who knows Quantum Realm nanometer, and architectural advancements, and instruction set bonuses, but there will also be a point where the laws of physics, the thermal envelop of the iPhone, and the need to avoid browning out iPhone-sized batteries will all come into play.
Which is why, I think, Apple is increasingly spending their transistor budget, especially this year — not on the traditional big cores but on specific feature.
Everyone knows about the Image Signal Processor, or ISP by now. For the vast majority of people, cameras are probably the second most important feature of any modern phone. Apple added it with the A5 for things like auto white balance, focus, face detection… all the basics. But it’s gotten more and more sophisticated over the years, especially in the age of image stacking and bracketing, and, yeah, computational photography.
With the A12 in the iPhone XS, Apple introduced Smart HDR, their first, more sophisticated imaging pipeline. With the A13 in the iPhone 11, Smart HDR 2 and Night Mode for extreme low-light and astro-photography. With the A14, Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion, for indoor lighting. And they tied it into the performance controller and unified memory so the pipeline could round-trip to the GPU, ANE, anything else it needed to accomplish the increasingly complex features Apple was providing.
Unified memory architecture allowed those tasks to not only be assigned to the best possible cores at any given time, but even round-tripped between the different cores without wasting time and energy on copying, which significantly reduced overhead and increased capability. That big advantage for SoC’s… for silicon sandwiches.
This year, with the A15, the ISP and Smart HDR 4 can handle semantic rendering for multiple people in the same shot. In other words, identify all the different faces, skin tones, textures, and other elements in the scene, and process them separately and individually to provide the best results for each one.
Apple’s also been using custom encode and decode blocks for hardware accelerated video for years as well. For H.264, then H.265, aka HEVC, then VP9 for YouTube. This year, they’re all new, and in addition to improving performance efficiency, there’s hardware acceleration for ProRes video. Something Apple was using a reprogrammable ASIC Afterburner card for on the Mac Pro just a couple years ago.
There’s also a new custom NVMe storage controller. The original one debuted in 2015 with the A9. It was brought over from the Mac and used PCIe internally and SSD, instead of embedded flash chips. The goal was to make sure every photo in every burst and every frame in every video was safely and properly recorded, the whole time, without dropping a frame, at any time. Something other phones, including and especially Google’s Pixel, struggled with for years.
The new version is… just on Hulk serum. Meant to support Cinematic Video, along with the depth maps and focus data, that you can use to edit the aperture and rack focus in post, and not only sustain 10-bit 4K HDR ProRes data, 6 GB per minute — 6 GB per minute! — for extended periods of time, but all the throughput needed to handle record all that video in real time.
And that’s not the type of innovation that typically gets called out on stage or in comments, but it’s the kind that makes a huge difference everyday, whether it’s instant shutter making sure you get exactly the photo of your kid or pet, in exactly the fun moment you were hoping to, or you have usable video for the client work you’re being paid for or social media work that’s paying you.
Like Portrait Mode, Face ID, Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos, HDR and Dolby Vision, it’s an example of Apple’s silicon team working with the hardware and software teams, years in advance, not to deliver spec bumps — though they’ll certainly brag about those too and at every opportunity — but specific features and experiences they think can only be delivered in that way. Or, at least, best delivered and differentiated in that way.
The biggest example with A15, is battery life. A15 manages to deliver 10%, 20%, 55% better performance across single, multi, and graphics, but it does it while also helping provide for 1.5 hours of additional battery life on the iPhone 13 mini and iPhone 13 Pro, and 2.5 hours on the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Max.
It’s literally making this year’s mini last longer than last-years non-mini, midi, whatever! And that’s just for mixed, everyday workloads. For highly optimized workloads like streaming hardware accelerated video, you’re getting 3 extra hours for this year’s mini over last year’s, and a brain boggling 13 extra hours for the Max.
Now, sure, the batteries are slightly bigger this year. Software optimizations are better. The Qualcomm X60 modem is on Samsung’s 5 nanometer process, which isn’t quite as good as TSMC’s but is way better and more efficient than last year’s X55 modem, especially for 5G. Also, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max have adaptive refresh displays now, which can ramp up to 120Hz for high frame rate scrolling or gaming, but also ramp down to 10Hz for high efficiency idling. And that’s driven by the A15’s new Display Engine and guided by it’s new always-on touch controller, which adjusts that refresh rate in real-time based on how fast your finger is moving on the display at any given time.
And that’s kinda Apple silicon’s big secret — they don’t focus on performance. They focus on efficiency and the performance comes from that.
They want to be able to deliver most tasks, most of the time, at the lowest voltage and frequency, but still be ready to ramp up, to spike even, if and when you need it. And not just now, the year when the chipset is introduced, but for the 5 or more years that follow, when new versions of iOS and apps will deliver increasingly valuable and demanding features. That’s why the Apple A9 from the iPhone 6s and original SE, which shipped with iOS 9, will still be getting iOS 15 this year. And why the A15 Bionic, which ships with iOS 15, will almost certainly be getting iOS 19, 20, maybe 21 one day.
In other words, barely supporting smooth scrolling on the current software stack isn’t cool, being able to support it 3-5 years from now, with heavier future stacks… that’s cool. That’s the customer-facing advantage of Apple’s chipset lead — the headroom it delivers for us.
It’s why Apple’s silicon team has never really cared about MAXIMUM PERF in terms of a spec sheet number, especially not if it comes at the expense of maximizing efficiency. They’ll even go to the time, effort and expense of swapping out components if they can find a version that’s more efficient. Because of the efficiency, even modest increases in performance end up feeling significant.
They’re not architecting for the number, for the highest right point on the graph, but for the experience.
It’s why Apple’s philosophy is to move the whole chip forward, all the silicon IP forward, every generation. Year over year, to leave no corner untouched. And a lot of that is informed by looking at the kind of apps people are using, both Apple apps and App Store apps, what the OS, the operating system teams inside Apple are planning for the next few years out, and what sorts of tasks and workloads seem to be coming onto the market, or they expect will be coming onto the market. The trends they’re anticipating.
And that relentless drive towards efficiency isn’t even just at the chipset level, but for the whole entire architecture. Just like Apple extended the A14 into M1 for the first generation of ultra-low power custom Silicon Macs, it’s not hard to imagine them extending A15 into M2 for a second generation. Increasing the amount of Avalanche pCores and graphics cores, including those Thunderbolt controllers and x86 translation accelerators, and supporting new features for the next MacBook Air and 24-inch iMac, and the next iPad Pro.
From Steve Jobs' legendary, iconic introduction of the original iPhone back in 2007, to Tim Cook's announcement of the iPhone 14 just last week, this video highlights the technology, evolution, revolution, iteration, and innovation along the way.