CUPTERTINO, Calf. – How do you make something both a surprise and not a surprise at the same time? Well, if you’re Apple, you announce something most everyone expects you to do at a much different time than most people thought you would.
No, I’m not talking about the highly anticipated (but still only rumored) AR headset (that’s likely something for next year). This week’s announcement belongs to the new M2 chip-based MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops, which the company unveiled at its annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). The WWDC event is usually focused almost exclusively on software advancements with things like feature updates to iOS, MacOS, watchOS, and iPadOS taking center stage.
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In fact, the company did address software updates this year, with iOS 16 promising features like lock screen customization and text message recall or post-send editing, iPadOS 16 offering significantly more Mac-like productivity features for collaboration and multi-app windowing, and MacOS Ventura (the next version’s name) is scheduled to enable things like Continuity Camera for using a paired iPhone as a high-quality webcam and passwordless log-ins via new Passkeys.
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In addition to the expected software refinements, however, Apple also took the wraps off its highly anticipated second-generation M2 chip for Mac and the first two machines to support it – updated versions of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Even casual Apple observers all figured the company would eventually do this, but most everyone tracking the news from WWDC was surprised it happened now.
What it illustrates is that Apple is moving forward even more aggressively on its roadmap for making custom Arm-based chip designs (at the heart of the M series processors) than many realized. At the same time, it’s becoming clear that Apple’s M line of silicon is quickly becoming a more complex and nuanced set of offerings than many had originally thought.
As you would expect based on the name alone, the M2 is a more advanced version of the original M1 chip first introduced about 20 months ago in previous versions of the MacBook Air, 13 ”MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini. It is not, however, expected to be faster or more capable than the M1 Ultra, M1 Pro, or M1 Max processors the company has debuted over the past year.
What does it all mean?
Confused? Well, what Apple is clearly signaling is that it will have a tier of performance levels within each generation of its M series line and, from generation to generation, those tiers are going to overlap. So, M2-based computers are expected to be 18% faster for computation and 35% faster for graphics than M1 machines, but not necessarily faster than something based on the M1 Pro or M1 Ultra. At the same time, it’s now fairly safe to bet that we’ll see an M2 Pro and M2 Ultra and that they will be faster than their predecessors.
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What this also suggests is that, in some ways, Apple is using a page from an old Intel chip manufacturing strategy called “tic toc.” With this approach, one generation of chips provides refinements from an existing design as the M2 – seems to be doing versus the M1– and then the generation after that uses what is called a different process node to manufacture the chip with small transistors.
Practically speaking, what this means is that the M1 and M2 were made with 5 nm (nanometer) transistors, but the M3 is expected to be shrunk down to using 3 nm components. The only reason you should care is that these process node changes typically offer even greater performance boosts than design changes, meaning we could see even bigger performance jumps when Apple eventually moves to the M3.
The M2 looks to bring solid improvements versus the first generation M1 MacBooks. Even bigger news for the new M2-powered MacBook Air is a refined, slimmed down design that brings back the Magsafe power connector, improves the webcam to 1080P resolution and ups the screen size to 13.6 inches.
As I was able to witness first hand at the event, it’s a beautiful machine to see and hold, and it also now comes in four different metallic colors. The new design does come at a price, however, with the M2-based MacBook Airs starting at $ 1,199 when they’re available sometime next month, according to Apple. That’s $ 200 more than the M1 MacBook Air, which the company will continue to sell for $ 999.
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The M2-based MacBook Pro starts at the same $ 1,299 price as the M1-based MacBook Pro (which is replacing), though it maintains the same design and 13 ”screen size of the original.
The bottom line
As Apple likes to point out, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are the world’s two best- selling laptops (in part, because Apple offers significantly fewer different models than any other PC vendor), so changes and upgrades to them are going to impact and be noticed by a lot of people.
The M2 versions, particularly the newly designed MacBook Air, offer a lot of what most potential buyers will want in a notebook, including up-to-date performance, solid battery life and good designs. More importantly, they are clear representations of where Apple wants its computing business to go – full steam ahead.