Will Apple Debut “A15 Tech” in its Prosumer Mac Line, and Just How Powerful Might the First Prosumer Macs Be?

The Absolute Peak of Tech Snobbery: “Am I Getting 2021 Tech or 2020 Tech in My (Rumored) Late 2021 14″/16″ MacBook Pro (or Mac mini Pro)?”

I mean, just how spoiled can we get? The M1 is so good, just add 4 CPU performance cores, double-to-quadruple the GPU cores, raise the SSD/RAM limits, and add at least three independent TB3 ports, and hardly anyone would seriously complain.

And to keep things very quick for those thinking Apple simply goes this M1-derived route to the chagrin of tech snobs everywhere (thanks for crushing our dreams)? If this “worst-case scenario” does happen, perhaps overall CPU performance would be around 90-ish percent “as good as it could have been” by favoring “A14-platform” silicon over the just-now-shipping “A15-platform” silicon.

But it’s not November 2020. Mid-2021 is in the rear-view mirror. Enough time has passed that it’s actually quite thinkable to hope, to expect, that Apple will employ newer-than-M1 technology in its prosumer-grade Macs.

Why? Apple has its pride as a premier silicon designer, and also knows its market segmentation.

Back when it didn’t have much of a choice, Apple made do with

dual-core Core i3 chips (*involuntary shiver*) in base-model MacBook Airs,

• quad-to-hexa-Core i5 through i7 for the mid-range,

• and up to 8-core i9 chips reserved for the 16″ MacBook Pro and top-end CTO 27″ iMac (still on sale…for now)

Now that Apple’s taking complete control of Mac silicon design, Apple will soon run a grand total of two chip families (“M1” and what most tech journopundits call “M1X”), expected to cover every single Mac SKU except the top-end Mac Pro workstation.1 This takes the concept of “modular” to new heights. Of course, it’s likely that the “M1X” chips will have two or more distinct varieties to choose from, since prosumers like options, particularly the ability to add on Moar Cores™ for their demanding multithreaded workloads.

Mac prosumers have accepted that their future laptops and desktops with the possible exception of Mac Pro will not be upgradeable (well, at all) after purchase. If the cases of their MacBook Pros and iMacs must remain sealed to them for years aside from repairs or some rather-brave iFixit-style DIY, they at least want up-level staple features, such as:

8 or more performance CPU cores

discrete-level GPU performance with starting power at least in Radeon 5500M-ish territory (a mid-range option in the current 2019-launched MBP16)

• RAM limits as high as 32GB+ for the rumored MBP14, 64GB or higher for MBP16, and 128GB or higher for prosumer iMacs

• SSD max capacity way over 2TB

• plenty of Thunderbolt 3/4 lanes, at least four ports’ worth

I didn’t mention mini-LED, high refresh rate displays, or HDMI, because all of these technologies are enabled by the Apple M1 already. It’s “high-overhead” items like Even Moar Cores™, pro-level I/O, massive amounts of RAM, and 8TB-level onboard SSD which seem…not well-suited to the M1 architecture, which is laser-focused on maximum efficiency.

And if you think about it, would Apple be better off:

further stretching the boundaries of a very-low-power-type architecture,

• or instead, starting fresh with newer “building blocks” to create an efficient Mac system architecture specifically for high(er)-performance computing – with a max sustained thermal overhead of, say, 40-50W on laptop form factors?

Given that all the Apple users who don’t intend to purchase an M1 Mac represent the Mac performance-enthusiast demographic2, I really do think that Apple’s obsessive, productive focus on perf/W ultimately led them to Give the Peoples What They Want™, and utilize A15-based tech in its yet-to-be-announced prosumer Macs. For one, the “big” CPU cores are supposedly more performant at around the same power draw as A14-type cores – about 10% faster in single-core, and potentially with very significant year-over-year performance gains in those much-lower-power efficiency cores.

But there’s more. Apple introduced the concept of a 5-core GPU with the A15. And on iPhone 13 Pro/Max, it can drive very impressive performance gains in the 50%+ range (GB5 Metal compute score basis) when comparing to the 4-core GPU of the A14 Bionic (inherently faster A15 GPU cores than A14, clocked a bit higher on the Pro iPhones to boot). The A15 also brings along Apple’s 4th-gen Neural Engine, claimed to be capable of slightly over 40% more operations per second from the same number of cores.

Even if that’s “all” of the notable architectural improvements A15 brings over A14…I mean, they seem like nice-enough advancements. Particularly so if this added performance can be attained at more or less the same power consumption as last year.

How to Know the “Engine Model” of Your Prosumer Mac Within Moments After Announcement or Press Release? 20, 30, or 40 GPU Cores (Likely) Means 2021, While 16 or 32 GPU Cores = 2020.

If you’re planning on watching the rumored (yet inevitable) prosumer Mac launch event, you’ll probably get your answer within seconds after Apple announces either the GPU core configurations or the performance rating of the Neural Engine during the specifications-heavy portion of the presentation.

For everyone else, it’s as easy as take the GPU cores, and see if the number on the rumored highest-end MacBook Pros or Mac mini Pros divides by five, because that’s the “unit of measurement” introduced by iPhone 13 Pro/Max and iPad mini A15. If this rumored “M1X” is derived from the A15 as I’m hoping it will be, it will logically employ “units” of 4 performance cores and “units” of 4-5 GPU cores (possibly due to the same kind of binning that saw M1 come with either 7- or 8-core GPUs).

Yes, it’s not what well-sourced Apple tech journos including long-time big name Mark Gurman have been predicting as far as GPU cores are concerned (the consensus has generally settled on 16-core or 32-core GPU options), but that was before the A15 was officially announced. Now, Apple could announce GPU core configurations in the 20-core or even 40-core range, given these “units of five”. And if that might be a little too taxing on battery life or take up too much space on the SoC, there’s even the option to dial down the 5-core packages to 15-core or 30-core bundles. After all, since a 5-core iPhone 13 Pro GPU can perform as much as 50%+ better than the 4-core GPU within any given iPhone 12, that means multicore GPU maths could work out like this:

M1 GPU = 1x baseline performance per 4 cores = 2 units of performance @ 8 GPU cores (assume minimal multicore penalty)

= 4 units of combined performance @ 16 cores

= 8 units of combined performance @ 32 cores

“M1X” GPU based on A15 = 1.5x baseline performance per 5 GPU cores

= 4.5 units of combined performance @ 15 cores

= 9 units of combined performance @ 30 cores

So even if you assume the GPU gains are a little more modest than what we’re already seeing in the iPhone 13 Pro vs. iPhone 12 (which seems doubtful), you still get “better-than 16- or 32-core” M1-platform GPU performance out of these newer-generation GPU cores without even needing 16 or 32 GPU cores.

And don’t get me wrong. If Apple can squeeze a 40-core GPU configuration into the MacBook Pro lineup, it would be splendid.

Throwing Out Geekbench 5 Score Guesses Just For Fun

Finally, let’s estimate some theoretical GB5 single-core CPU, multi-core CPU, and Metal scores for giggles. Thanks to numerous benchmarks posted from recent Apple devices (and real-world benchmarks), we know that modern A-chips and the M1 multiprocess very well, so given certain assumptions we can get a fairly decent guess on how these (yes, “synthetic”) benchmarks might play out.

CPU

First, the “M1X” single-core CPU score. M1 scores in the 1700 range, which is around 8% higher than the A14 performance cores, largely due to higher clocking. A15 itself scores in the M1 single-core range, as confirmed by numerous GB5 runs by tech reviewers around the world. Why would we expect the “Mac version” of an A15 performance core to be any less upclocked than M1? Assign a 1720 average to the A15 single-core GB5 score, add 7-8%, and you get a score of at least 1840, a number that almost matches the Core i9-11900K — which has a base frequency of 3.5 GHz, but turbos to 5.3GHz (something that no A-chip or M-chip to date resorts to). In any case, a high-performance M-chip theoretical CPU single-core score ranking either first or second among all PC processors isn’t a bad place to start.

Then add whatever multicore multiplier penalty you like (which I personally think is modest, since Apple CPUs multiprocess well and don’t turbo) and multiply by number of perf cores. The rumor consensus seems to be 8, so right off the bat, you can imagine a score of 1840 x .95 x 8 = nearly 14,000. Even the best of x86 require at least 12 cores (often 16+) and rated TDPs of 100W+ to achieve those kinds of multi-core scores.

Oh, but that leaves out a wild card – Apple’s efficiency CPU cores. Some rumors say Apple will only have two efficiency cores. They may well be right, but I think Apple will value efficiency cores more than ever in laptops with higher average power consumption than their M1 counterparts. If you think my opinion makes more sense, add over 1000 points to the multicore score, vaulting an 8+4 CPU core configuration to a GB5 result of around 15,000, roughly a tie for 10th best multi-core amongst any PC CPU. Otherwise, add a similar-to-M1 600-to-700-ish points.

Not bad for an SoC that is essentially guaranteed to draw less than the nominal “45-65W” TDP of high-end Intel laptop chips. And what if Apple is able to add more than eight performance CPU cores to a MacBook Pro over time? There’s no reason why Apple couldn’t add more CPU cores to a new, larger iMac or a Mac mini Pro right now, given a good-enough active cooling system.

GPU

Let’s assume that Apple uses the same basic GPU cores from the A15 in either 4-core or 5-core-binned units. We know that M1 8-core GPUs can score around 20k and change in GB5’s Metal benchmark, thanks to upclocking the GPU cores based on the A14.

Starting with the down-clocked, possibly binned 4-core GPUs in iPhone 13 and 13 mini, we easily see Metal scores of 10,600, which with a 5% upclock yields around 11,000 as a base unit in a higher-performance Mac. At 16 cores, that’s 44,000, possibly a couple thousand points lower – the level of the Radeon Pro 5600M, a CTO upgrade costing well over $500 in the MBP16.

If we assume the 16-core GPU derived from the non-Pro iPhone 13 models is the absolute baseline, we can then move on to iPhone 13 Pro-derived blocks of five GPU cores. iPhone 13 Pros average around 14,000 in the GB5 Metal benchmark – add 5% to that for Macs, and you get around 14,700.

Multiply by 4 for a 20-core GPU configuration and you’ll get a score of perhaps 55,000 or so. For a 30-core configuration, that number jumps past 80,000. That’s a theoretical score higher than the Radeon Pro 5700XT – a $500 CTO option on the last-hurrah 27″ iMac 5K, a desktop machine with a base price of $2,300 and a total system power consumption of close to 300W under full load.

Managing Expectations…Somehow

Is a MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon, no matter how well-specced, going to challenge a 2019 Intel Mac Pro for the performance crown in CPU or GPU? Of course not (right now). A 24-core Mac Pro 🤣 will win in multi-core CPU with a score perhaps 25% higher than a 8+2 CPU MacBook Pro. Then again, the 24-core Mac Pro has a base price of $12,000, and the very fastest Intel MBPs ever built can’t even muster a 7,000 score in GB5 CPU multi-core, while the next level of rumored M-chips could be poised to deliver around twice that.

A high-end 30-ish-GPU-core configuration in a MBP16 also won’t top the GB5 charts in Metal, sadly. It’s still about 25% off the pace of the Radeon Pro Vega II…which costs $4,400 at the Apple Store, and is a full-on hundreds-of-watts MPX Module for use only with a Mac Pro. In fairness to the Pro Vega II, it has a theoretical 28 TFLOPs of GPU performance for all that cash, while top-end Apple Silicon MacBook Pro models may end up with half the teraflops, perhaps a bit less.

Somehow, I’m not the least bit disappointed. PC OEMs, Intel and AMD will put on a brave face, but the Apple Silicon-brnaded competition will soon arrive quite suddenly at the imcumbents’ doorsteps, with never-before-seen performance-per-watt. The resulting pitched battle in personal computing will benefit Apple Silicon users and x86 PC users alike, which is something everyone on Team Mac and Team PC can celebrate.

—————

Footnotes:

[1] I suppose you could add iMac Pro to the top-end Mac list, if you’re holding out hope for a second generation of that never-once-refreshed Xeon-based Mac running Apple Silicon.

[2] You don’t need to remind Mac users that this doesn’t really include games, which Windows has in far greater abundance. I’m one of at least a few million people who are painfully aware.

For Entry-Level Apple Silicon Macs, It All Started With the M1. For Next-Tier-Up Prosumer Macs, It May Start With “MX1”.

Painted Into an iPad-Paradigm Corner?

Once, there was Apple A4.

True, some Apple Silicon watchers see A4 as something more like a chip “co-branded” with then-foundry partner and at-the-time-increasingly-frenemy Samsung, rather than something full-custom like Apple does now and has since at least A6. But there’s no question about what A4 enabled (aside from the first iPad). It powered a jaw-dropping 326 ppi display, great performance, with really-quite-decent battery life, wrapped up in a “glass and steel sandwich” iPhone 4 design many see as the pinnacle of smartphones (at least, those with now-considered-tiny 3.5″ displays).

But barely one generation later, Apple needed to spin off a variant of its dual-core A5 (used in iPhone 4S and iPad 2) in order to enable a high-resolution display for its new-and-skyrocketing iPad business. And so the first “AX”-chip, the A5X, arrived with the additional GPU power needed to drive 4x the pixels of the 1024×768 iPads before it.

As Johny Srouji so helpfully reminded us last year, the mostly-iPad-specific, higher-powered A-chips have seen six (main) generations: A5X, A6X, A8X, A9X, A10X, and A12X.[FN1]

When Apple was finally ready to release Apple Silicon Macs, it used the same technology base as the A14 Bionic. While Apple has been careful to clarify that M1 is not merely some higher-performance variant of A14, the (ahem) core comparisons are simply too obvious to ignore:

• 4 performance CPU cores vs. 2 (with similar Geekbench 5 results)

• 7 or 8 GPU cores vs. 4

• the same Apple Neural Engine (the 3rd-gen one operating at 11T ops/sec)

• a unified memory architecture that looks, at least superficially, exactly like the basic SoC-DRAM layout of the A12X (Apple SoC on the left, two side-by-side DRAM modules immediately to the right)

I get why Apple is justifiably proud of the M1, and why it doesn’t want to give the impression that it’s an “A14X” thrown in a Mac. But…from the looks of things, that’s pretty close to what happened, and as it so happened, the M1 found its way from Macs…right into the 2021 iPad Pro lineup. At least to me, though, it’s really just fun tech trivia, and absolutely nothing to “apologize” for.

The fact is, Apple has worked so diligently on perf/W on iPhones and for so long, it later found this basic A-chip architecture scaled well enough to power its entire consumer-level Mac lineup at a basically-prosumer overall level of performance (GPU aside). It does this by combining ridiculously powerful CPU performance (again, entry-level chips at Core i5-ish system price points) and very fast I/O + storage with the power-sipping benefits that a finely-tuned, highly-optimized state-of-the-art 5nm lithography process makes possible. Sure, the A14 platform had hard limits on RAM, SSD, and I/O bandwidth beyond two Thunderbolt 3 ports and two standard USB-C ports. But these are really quite minor tradeoffs for desktops and laptops that have no business being this fast at $699/$999 starting prices, and I have little doubt Apple’s hardware engineering teams will look to improve on DRAM and I/O limitations over the next several years.

Still, this does present a bit of a marketing problem. Consumers are used to A15 this and A12X that, with the “X” standing for “more performance”. So now that we’re anticipating the next tier up from the M1 chip for Macs (MBP16, bigger iMacs, possibly a MBP14 and a Mac mini Pro), does it logically follow that Apple calls this new Apple Silicon Mac M-chip an “M1X”? Around a year after the M1 already debuted, with rumors of an M2 just around the corner?

An Elegant Marketing Solution, At Least

Why is “M1X” a “problem”? Putting aside the nigh-imperceptible impact on market uptake (because prosumer Mac buyers just want fast, and Apple is primed to deliver), it’s really a matter of timing. The future of prosumer Macs and MacBook Pros have taken so long to get here, Apple’s actually launched what looks to be a TSMC N5P-based A15 in the interim. In other words, an SoC based on leading-edge second-run (optimized) 5-nanometer lithography, throughly 2021 tech for lack of a better description. M1, great as it is, is 2020 tech.

So there’s Apple not wanting to tie the “halo Macs” ready to be unleashed on the world to “last year’s chip”.

There’s also the matter of confusing buyers, especially if Apple does not announce its next-generation entry-level Macs at the same time as the prosumer Macs. The rumor community has had a tougher go of it lately given their cat-and-mouse game being escalated in a major way by a leak-weary Apple, but their best guess is that Apple’s only announcing prosumer Macs at its next Apple Event involving…well…new Macs.

M1, for better or for worse, means entry-level Macs through MacBook Pro 13″ and iMac 24″. So M2 logically means the next M-chip update for this same class of Macs.

Apple could announce M2X first, but Apple’s never launched an “X variant” chip in advance of the normal version. With a big assist from Wikipedia:

• Apple A5 (iPad 2, Mar. 2011) >> A5X (iPad 3, Mar. 2012)

• A6 (iPhone 5, Sep. 2012) >> A6X (iPad 4, Nov. 2012)

• A8 (the infamous iPhone 6, Sep. 2014) >> A8X (iPad Air 2, Oct. 2014)

• A9 and A9X (simultaneous announcement for iPhone 6s and iPad Pro, Sep. 2015)

• A10 (iPhone 7, Sep. 2016) >> A10X (iPad Pro 2, Jun. 2017)

• A12 (iPhones XR, XS and XS Max, Sep. 2018) >> A12X (iPad Pro 3, Oct. 2018)

If Apple wants to name its chips in the same general way as A-chips, but also in a way that can easily associate a chip name with a Mac family and tech generation, it could swap a letter with a number and do this:

MX1.

M” for, of course, the Mac version of Apple Silicon. “X” for the same “higher performance” we know from many iPads. And “1” for the first Apple Silicon chip family specifically geared towards these “X-tier”, prosumer-focused higher-performance Macs.

Somewhat similar to how automakers have a “First Edition” of a new generation of a performance variant, Apple can communicate with two letters and a number about how it’s (planning to) put the rest of the higher-performance PC world on notice, redefining what best-in-class means for compute performance in everything short of (1) high-core-count workstations/servers and (2) kilowatt-class gaming/crypto-mining 🥴 PCs with triple-fan cooling (just for the GPU!), with neither HPC category really giving all that much of a damn about “power efficiency” in any normal consumer sense.[FN2]

“MX1” also has the side benefit of allowing Apple, if needed, to release prosumer-level Mac hardware updates without worrying about the consumer-side product cadence. While I suspect a large part of the Apple Silicon shift was to allow Apple to upgrade the SoCs of its higher-volume Macs as frequently as Apple updated its A-chips…who knows? Perhaps there will be a point in the future where Apple needs up to two years to launch a new Mac SoC…certainly something that sounds possible on its highest-performing Mac, the lowest-volume Mac Pro that I have to think Apple will not give up on before completing the Apple Silicon transition.

Are there potential problems with MX1? Sure – given the almost one year that’s passed since MacBook Air, MBP13 and Mac mini were given the M1, the “1” still leads to associations with M1, even though the underlying chip architecture might well resemble what many Apple Silicon watchers would consider an M2. And the “MX” thing may come with “IP baggage”, whether we’re talking Mazda (Miata, also known as MX-5) or even brand-new bitter former-GPU-partner-turned-competitor NVIDIA (which still uses its MX branding to this day). Then again, Logitech creates “MX” brand keyboards and (computer) mice, and I haven’t heard of either Mazda or NVIDIA trying to sue it out of existence. And Germany-based computer peripherals company Cherry produces its own “MX” line of keyboards while apparently not being sued by Logitech. So…maybe “MX” isn’t much of an IP gauntlet after all depending on how nicely Apple asks, or how well they can thread their branding needle.

Commonality with M1, Short-Term and Longer-Term?

I’ll freely admit to a limited imagination and total non-expertise here, but for now, it seems likely that Apple can scale up the “building blocks” of its first Apple Silicon Mac SoC (CPU and GPU cores), use the modernized A15-platform versions, add some RAM and expand I/O, and boom, it has everything it needs to both thrill a large segment of the Mac prosumer market and send a chill through the PC competition.

But will it always be that way, and should it? Perhaps pro workflows will emerge that require dedicated hardware (see Apple’s Mac Pro-exclusive Afterburner add-on card), or maybe even a fundamentally more sophisticated hardware architecture + motherboard layout that the lower-power consumer Mac market won’t benefit from. Just to give one (very important) example, in the world of system DRAM, there’s LPDDR4X which is plenty for consumers, but HBM2, despite the higher cost and theoretical latency, delivers peak memory bandwidth that looks like a friggin’ superhighway (Samsung claims a wild 1TB/s with its “Flarebolt” technology) compared to LPDDR4X’s quieter, narrower two-way country road (Apple claims around 68GB/s in unified memory bandwidth).

Sure, until an Apple Silicon Mac Pro comes along, an MBP16 CPU core and GPU core by themselves may look quite a bit like a MacBook Air CPU core and GPU core. But that could well change over time, and if so, it won’t be by accident.

Coming Up: Possible Ways to Tell Whether the Please-Arrive-Before-2021-Ends Next-Generation Prosumer Macs are Running “This Year’s” or “Last Year’s” Tech

Since this topic doesn’t quite fit in the context of this post, I’ll write up a bonus post on how we can “tell”, right off the bat, what type of chip Apple’s bringing to what I assume will be its entire prosumer (call it “premium performance just short of Mac Pro”) Mac lineup. And maybe I’ll finally get around to making some just-for-fun GB5 score predictions as well.

—————

Footnotes:

[FN1] (A12Z, sort of a “higher-binned” A12X, added one GPU core over A12X, for a total of eight)

[FN2] In pure unit sales volume terms, the next performance M-chip’s relevant competition will be laptops. And gaming laptops (a category I don’t see MBP16 competing with…directly…right away) will likely be able to stuff in even more sheer GPU firepower than even a top-spec first-generation M-chip MBP16, since Apple is about efficiency-minded, balanced systems with as-respectable-as-possible battery life. Also, gaming laptops have their own significant tradeoffs. One well-known brand, Razer, has a laptop line with 14″ 4MP displays, some running an imposingly performant NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080, but requiring a 230W adapter (yes, as in one and a half entire iMac 24 power supplies’ worth) to power it all…because c’mon, the on-board ~60W-hr battery is not for those intense e-sports sessions.

Casual First Impressions of iOS 15 on Launch Day: The Good and the Buggy

Install Experience

I liked that iOS 15 was more chill about installing it than previous new versions – in fact, it’s all the way at the bottom of the software update screen. Proof of Apple’s commitment, at least for this 12-month-ish software release cycle, to support iOS 15 and the “n-1” or year-ago iOS in parallel.

But then I remembered that iOS 15 has new functionality even non-Smart Stacks-using Luddites like me can appreciate, like Live Text (spoiler alert – it seamlessly read the title text of this post with a photo of my non-Retina Mac’s screen), Offline Siri (more on that later), iCloud Private Relay, etc.

So I installed it on launch day, which is a new one for me as of late. I’m not one of those thrill-seeker beta participants, after all.

Download time isn’t what I’d call fast – apparently Apple spends a considerable amount of post-download time pre-processing the OS files before sending you to the Black Screen of Apple Logo and Disappearing/Reappearing Gray Progress Bars.

But once my iPhone 12 Pro was actually updating, it finished up in just under 15 minutes. That felt quite brisk for an entire new smartphone OS install. I’m guessing that as long as you’re on A12 or newer, the entire download-through-installation will generally take well under an hour.

Quick Spin of Features, Early Bugs

So far Live Text seems to work as advertised, and then some. It works entirely offline, and there’s a nifty text extractor mode using the camera (look for the small corner-bracketed icon enclosing three lines of “text”) which reads at near-instantaneous speeds and copy-pastas them immediately in the relevant text field for entry in Messages and doubtless other contexts. So if, for example, someone on a phone call wants to you to read something on a sign, label, or paper, there’s potentially a much faster and more efficient way of getting that text to them, rather than reading it out loud or sending a photo.

You can also leverage Live Text and that text extraction icon to automatically select recognized text within any given photo. It’s not so great on heavily stylized text, but it’s very impressive in my early “informal testing”, which included checking text on my photos library from well before the Neural Engine was a thing that existed in iPhones.

Offline Siri probably won’t be ready for you to use “out of the box”. Based on my experience, iOS 15 will download a region-specific Siri on-device voice recognition module (of which there will eventually be many, given the 150+ countries Apple sells its product in). iOS 15 let me know that a separate download was required over Wi-Fi when I tested in Airplane Mode, but there wasn’t any kind of progress bar once I turned data connections back on (you should have one, Apple). But give it several hours, and it should eventually work, as it did in my case. Chalk it up to the fact that tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of users are kind of slamming the iOS update servers right now.

Very early returns are positive. Siri responds as quickly as your SoC will interpret your speech…hopefully, accuracy is much improved in iOS 15. It’d also be nice if Siri eventually allows you to train it to understand that “maybe you wanted…” is exactly not what you in fact wanted.

Safari is…different than I remember it! Luckily, it’s one of those New Software Features that you understand right away, and that you can actually appreciate. With iPhone screens bigger than ever, it makes much more UI sense to move the URL bar to bottom of screen/”keyboard level” (search fields near the top of the screen just don’t feel quite the same now), and it’s familiar thanks to how we’ve always typed text in Messages. Tabbed browsing is much improved at the browsing level, although the removal of the “tab carousel” tab view adds context at the possible expense of UI compactness, at least when you don’t have dozens of tabs open.

Messages may have some moments where it takes too much time, or even a quick flick-off-the-screen-and-relaunch, to access conversations. There might be some cache updating or indexing at work for the first several hours after a new iOS 15 install. One of the things that’s bugged me most about Messages (easy management of sent photos that you may or may not want to keep) does not appear to have been addressed quite yet. And the new “Shared with You” feature could be a bit double-edged, since your Photos app, at least by default, now automatically displays all photos sent to you in the main album.

Just me, but I think it’d be better if iOS 15 at least puts externally-sent photos into a separate album in Photos. It would be better still if Photos and Messages interoperate, so that if you permanently save the photo or video to Photos, it creates a persistent UI element in Messages to let you know it’s already been saved…or if you delete the photo from the Shared with You album, it’s similarly deleted from your Messages thread.

Other than that, things seem pretty familiar, and thanks to stronger SoCs than before, there hopefully won’t be any perceptible added resource overhead on relatively recent iPhones and iPads. Feel free to share your iOS 15 experiences in the comments!

(Apple Fall 2021 Event) Tech Coverage by Omission: The Difference Between Healthy Apple Skepticism and “Uh, Were You Actually Paying Attention?”

My “Upfront Bias”

I know you’re all shocked, but I talk Apple when I blog. Of course, I talk a bunch of other things online, there unfortunately being so many worrisome things to talk about. But for my more formal, humble home game writings, it’s mostly earnings, sometimes tech, almost always Apple-focused.

I guess I still like it, so it’s what I do. But even if I’m a “fan”, “partisan”, whatever you want to call me (I think “Apple blogger/amateur commentator” sounds fine), I’m all about being clear-eyed, without pretense. Oh, and, uh, trying to be accurate about the things I’ve seen and heard from Apple.

Sure, you don’t just take everything Apple says for granted. But c’mon, does anyone with this tech hobby think Apple gets a pass on anything?[FN1] Being Apple-skeptical is so counterculture (and for so long), it’s practically culture.

And it’s kind of a different category of “skepticism” when you don’t even pay attention to what Apple has or hasn’t done only one year ago.

Whatever the case, accuracy matters (at least, it should). I’ll provide two examples of the recent inaccuracy I keep seeing.

The A15 Bionic Performance Tempest in a Teapot

A few examples from well-known social media and tech journopunditry-land, semi-paraphrased to protect the “innocent”:

• “It’s really uncharacteristic that Apple didn’t talk much about the silicon this year”

• “Funny thing, Apple didn’t compare the performance of A15 to the A14”

• “Usually Apple compares to its own silicon, it only compared against ‘the competition’. That just isn’t normal from Apple.”

Um, except for: “Hi, Speed.”

I mean, Hi, October 2020 Apple Event.

Followed by…
A Wild Non-Direct Comparison from Fall 2020 Appears!

(Source: Apple October 2020 Event stream – around 29 minutes in)

And of course, iPhone 12 product pages were still up right until the Fall 2021 Event. Here’s the iPhone 12 Pro product page, courtesy Wayback Machine:

Notice a lack of specifics and comparison to the rest of the (let’s face it, it’s just Android-running) smartphone competition? Well, in case some big names in tech media forgot, there’s your reminder.

Covering the Big Annual iPhone Event with selective amnesia? Why would you forget something “so shocking” from a year ago? Worse yet, are some of these journopundits so subconsciously scared of “seeming biased” that they ADD things to criticize that aren’t even there? Apple may be an incredibly powerful, popular company, but somewhat like powerful and ubiquitous company Microsoft (or Google or Amazon or…pick a name), it has its fair share of flaws to report on and keep track of, same as everyone else.

Oh, and would you look at that? A bunch of Geekbench 5 mystery benchmarks surfaced a day or two later, with more corroboration streaming in…likely because of review unit testing. Seems there are still decent A15 CPU and GPU speedups to be found here and there, particularly with the 13 Pro GPU and quite possibly the unheralded CPU efficiency cores.

iPad mini 5G “Isn’t Fast”

Same format as last time, paraphrasing of tech journopundits to “protect” the “innocent”:

• “If you were hoping for gigabit 5G, iPad mini A15 isn’t the one for you.” (Waitttttt for ittttttttt…)

• “We will say that iPad mini A15 has more non-mmWave 5G bands, same as iPhone 13’s new non-mmWave band support, so it has at least one tiny advantage over other cellular-enabled iPads currently out there.” (yes, aside from the italics emphasis I added, “tiny advantage” is a direct quote)

• “iPad mini A15 supports 5G, but not the super-ultra-mega faster 5G due to lack of mmWave…with iPad mini’s version of 5G, data can be faster than LTE. But it’s not the multiple Gbps possible with mmWave” (“super-ultra-mega” and “multiple GigaBytes per second” are direct quotes)

I’ll give a little benefit of the doubt to those tech journopundits who might have missed it (they had maybe less than 10 seconds to catch it)…or…

maybe…didn’t…follow…the…event…

but…are…reporting…on…it…anyway? (spoiler alert: two of these sources are Apple-focused sites that most likely did watch the whole event)

Moving on. Here’s Apple’s now-signature “take it anywhere” giant presentation backdrop slide, with a very notable claim:

(Source: Apple September 2021 Event stream, around 16 minutes in)

Three. Point. Five. Gigabits. Per. Second. The top-speed 3.5 Gbps claim is also repeated in Apple’s iPad mini 5G press release.

Look, I get it. 5G is confusing. Thanks to industry hype and precious little detail from 5G OEMs like Qualcomm, no one quite knows what to realistically expect from 5G. 10Gbps peak mmWave downlink from the latest modem chipset? Yeah, we all dismiss everyday multi-Gbps speeds as vaporware, unless we’re right underneath the 5G node of a Major City Professional Sportsball Stadium 5 hours before the game, at the same time a Major Celco Carrier and Qualcomm execs are doing a tech demo for press. We generally grok that mmWave is fast but extremely distance-limited plus country-limited (for now), and that “sub-6 is meh”.

A subset of us further “understand” that “mid-band 5G” is in the middle ground of coverage and speed, and “low-band” is more or less “LTE+”. Beyond that, it’s fuzzyAF for most people.

Someone at the supermarket thought mid-band 5G can do max theoretical downlink of around 1Gbps (the laughable never-seen theoretical max downlink of LTE-Advanced)?

Or maybe mid-band 5G on its best day can hit the once-hyped 300Mbps unicorn download speed hardly anyone has ever seen with any LTE carrier?

Whatever the case, 3.5 Gbps is 3.5 Gbps. That speed claim is out there, and Apple’s expected to have an actual 5G modem chip rated for that max theoretical speed.

Sure, you can assume Apple was lying, if you have a roll of aluminum foil handy. Or that it made a giant mistake, which seems impossibly unlikely given how Apple has taken scripting and production values to new heights in Event Films. But it would be good of tech journopundits to ask Apple what enables 3.5 Gbps 5G download speeds on the iPad mini A15 (about the same as iPhone 12 w/ mmWave max theoretical downlink from last year, btw).

If there’s no mmWave (which they can verify beyond pointing at a lack of mention in the tech specs), is it mid-band 5G improvements? Advanced aggregation (simultaneous data streams from multi-band 5G to kinda sorta multiprocess data download)? These are things they know about, and things they most definitely are able to get an answer to from Apple PR or an Apple exec interview.

Tilting at Windmills

Some tech perspectives are valuable, don’t get me wrong. If you ask me, I could generally recommend a few tech social media types. And tech media is a good source of objective testing when review units ship to them. I look forward to Device Review Time™, myself.

But honest brokering in tech coverage seems more exception than rule, unfortunately. I guess in this hits-driven world, sound and low-key fury fuels the neverending SEO-rotonin addiction. “Made you click”, for now, has decisively won over sober, accurate, tell-it-like-it-is tech coverage…to say nothing about media coverage in other contexts.

Sure, these in-the-end-rather-harmless omissions are nothing new. But they’re every bit as much not trendy, and don’t even do their perhaps-“intended” job of keeping Apple honest…because these tiny little oversights might not be entirely honest (mistakes), either.

—————

Footnote:

[FN1] I’ve heard about “blinkered Apple fan sites” or whatever. I’m aware they exist, though I don’t think they’re that common when it comes to having the sheer SEO Power of the big players. I pay even less attention to them than perhaps you do, and besides, false positivity and false negativity are both sides of the same coin – twin enemies of just telling it like it is.

[UPDATE: More Similar Mystery Benchmarks are Appearing] Yes, A15 Bionic is (Probably) Faster than A14 – Wherein I Read WAY Too Much Into Mysterious Unverified Geekbench 5 iPhone 13 Benchmarks but Hey Why the Heck Not

<Sep. 17, 2021 aka “Infamous iPhone Preorder Day” update: Additional mystery GB5 results for maybe-iPhone 13s and 13 Pros continue to roll in. The odds we’re all being trolled look a bit lower by the day.>

So, that Apple Event! Sure was an…event.

I have thoughts about it, of course, but maybe later. Right now I want to spend a little time on the latest, sounds-legit, hopefully-we’re-not-all-being-trolled benchmarks showing up on John Poole’s venerable Geekbench 5 online results (which are automatically uploaded once the benchmark finishes running), with the early returns reported on by MacRumors.

I know, I know, there’s much more to A-chips than mere CPU and GPU uplift vs. the prior year. We’ve known this for years (A15’s Neural Engine can run a claimed ~40% more operations/second than the previous generation, for example). And yes, as chip fabs push towards first- and second-run 3nm processes (will the expected annual cadence continue, or will every major player including Samsung or TSMC face delays?), there’s legitimate concern about finally starting to hit a wall in process shrinks, performance or efficiency improvements, even all of the above.

But we’re not there yet, so we get to see Apple steadily build from its strong A14 Bionic foundation for at least a few chip generations. Here’s to the speeds and feeds!

GPU

First, let’s talk GPU – with a reasonable approximate measure of performance being GB5’s Metal benchmark. With the A13, Apple managed a score of close to 7,000. This improved by a healthy 28% year-over-year to nearly 9,000 for the A14.

With the repeated caveat that we may all be being trolled, MacRumors noted the mysterious “iPhone14,5” (reportedly Apple product string code for “iPhone 13 Regular”) achieved a 4-GPU-core Metal score of about 10,600, suggesting GPU uplift of perhaps over 15%, though a bit shy of 20%. So it’s reasonably likely that Apple did in fact redesign its CPU and GPU for added performance in addition to overall energy efficiency. Is Apple trying to “hide” harder-won, diminishing YOY performance gains from consumers – very, very few of whom know or even care what a Geekbench is? Maybe, but to me it’s more likely Apple’s playing coy to deny competitors access to competitive info for as long as possible. In this case, an entire one day and change.

The iPhone 13 Pro GPU story is a bit more interesting for two reasons. First, we see our first true sign of stratification in SoC amongst the “mainstream flagship” and “premium flagship” iPhones – for the first time, a Pro iPhone has additional GPU resources (5 cores vs. 4), not just additional DRAM here or a telephoto lens there.

That means a 25% GPU uplift “by default” (y’know, because MOAR CORES), in addition to the ~15% speed-up of each additional core. In GB5 terms, we’d anticipate a iPhone 13 Pro Metal result of around the low 13,000s. That’s a very impressive estimated 45% improvement in GPU versus the iPhone 12 Pro.

Except that wasn’t actually the Metal result for “iPhone14,2”. Instead, the (for now, needs-corroboration) Metal score for the maybe-it’s-an-iPhone-13-Pro was around 14,200. That’s an indicated GPU uplift of around 55%, which brings this mystery GPU to about two-thirds the performance potential of the venerable low-power M1 GPU used in all of Apple’s entry-level Macs. So it’s possible that the iPhone 13 Pro GPU cores are not only more plentiful, but also clocked slightly higher (~7% or so) than those of the no-slouch iPhone 13/mini models. Great news for 13 Pro purchase intenders, in any case.

CPU

Finally, good ol’ CPU (the A15 CPU is the same new 6-core design across all models).

For reference, the A12 CPU, fabricated with TSMC’s first-run 7nm process (N7), ekes out a GB5 single-core score of around 1100. The A13 Bionic, created with TSMC second-run 7nm (N7P), Geekbenches around 1300, a generational gain of around 18%.

While many at the time wondered why Apple suddenly pivoted to comparing the A14 against the Android competition instead of the A13 — funny how a large subset of those same people seem to have forgotten about this — they had little reason to worry, since the first-run-5nm (TSMC N5) A14 scores around 1570 in single-core in GB5, a “perfectly acceptable” 20% boost year-on-year (in other words, a greater theoretical peak performance uplift than A13 in both percentage and absolute terms).

Bringing us to the present (just before iPhone 13-series pre-order, and mere days before reviews should begin publishing), we have reports of A15 CPU single-core numbers in the 1720 range. First, that’s a modest-ish-yet-meaningful YOY gain of around 10% vs. the A14. Second, that puts the A15 Bionic – yes, it’s not a precise comparison – at the peak performance level of the Apple M1’s performance cores (which score around 1700 in single-core as well). That should lay to rest any and all doubts about an iPhone CPU performance core being anything less than desktop-class.

There’s an additional surprise hidden in these mystery I-think-it’s-an-A15 Bionic GB5 results, however. While single-core is up around 10%, multi-core scores are reportedly around 4600, vs. the 3800-ish scores generally mustered by the A14. A14 multi-core scores vary a bit by product, but A15 Bionic is showing somewhere around 18-19% improvement in multi-core year-over-year.

But how? Same 6-core CPU complex design as before.

There’s only one reasonable explanation for how “10% faster” CPUs yield nearly 20% multi-core gains – that’s right, the oft-unheralded four efficiency cores[FN1] have had themselves a significant jump in performance.

These are all inexact calculations based on unverified results, but fact is, Apple’s featured dramatic performance gains in these new-since-A10 Fusion low-power cores at least once before.[FN2] Long story short, Apple’s performance controllers now allow all CPU cores to contribute to multicore processing without any significant multiprocessing penalty, so the contributions of the efficiency cores can be approximated on a “discrete” basis.

With iPhone 12, the A14 scores around 1570 in single-core and 3833 in multi-core, which implies around 700 of those points are attributable to the contribution of the four A14 e-cores. (You can’t run discrete tests on the e-cores, and there may be some slight multiprocessing performance loss, but I think we’re at least in the parking lot of the ballpark. 🤣)

Moving on to the mystery unverified A15 Bionic CPU numbers, it’s 1720 single-core and 4600 multi-core. Subtract out the perf cores “linearly” and the GB5 multicore difference is…wait a minute…1150-ish?

Since the basic CPU layout of A15 did not change vs. the prior year, that just might mean the A15 efficiency cores…carry the 2…are around 60% faster year-over-year. And if we further assume the single-core potential is roughly 1/4 the multi-core number, that means a single CPU efficiency core is now just about the single-core equal of the Apple A8 in the iPhone 6 (GB5 single-core score of around 310).

And since A15 Bionic has four such cores that can multiprocess simultaneously, that means these humble power-sipping CPUs can theoretically perform the multicore work of the very-first A9X iPad Pros (score range of around 1180-1200).[FN3] And why is this important for Apple and consumers? The higher the ceiling of the efficiency cores, the more tasks they can perform entirely on their own, saving precious power budget.

All things considered, the A15 Bionic might just turn out a bit more interesting than certain gloomier, slightly breathless, possibly premature tech takes may have you believe.[FN4] Which bodes very well for future Mac M-chips which may be benefitting from the same presumed TSMC second-run optimized 5nm lithography process (N5P).

************
Footnotes:

[FN1] The original A10 Fusion’s two efficiency cores used a claimed 1/5 the power of the CPU performance cores. The current M1 efficiency cores (4+4 performance/efficiency core design) use a claimed 1/10th the power of the M1 CPU performance cores.

[FN2] That would be the A11 generation, where Apple went from two efficiency cores to the now-familiar four, and boosted each individual efficiency core’s performance by a claimed 70% vs. A10 Fusion’s counterpart “e-cores”. I know, because I actually e-mailed Apple PR at the time and got an answer. In the case of A11, Apple also included a next-generation performance controller allowing the iPhone 8/X to multi-thread with all six CPU cores at once, maximizing multi-core performance. That largely explains how “25% faster CPU” managed gains of 50% or even more in multi-core – A11’s architecture allowed the e-cores to work as potent turbochargers complementing the twin performance cores.

[FN3] For reference, Apple SVP of Hardware Technologies Johny Srouji recently described the M1 efficiency cores as follows: “…M1 has four…efficiency cores, which on their own deliver similar performance as the current generation dual-core MacBook Air at much lower power.” < November 2020 Apple Event, 9-minute mark > At the time, the lowest-power dual-core MacBook Air ran a 10th-gen Intel Core i3, which like most Intel chips relied heavily on turbo frequency (far above rated base frequency) to achieve higher performance.

[FN4] Feel free to check your favorite search engine for such hits (from actually known tech websites) as:

• “Has Apple hit a wall with the A15 processor?”

• “Apple’s A15 Bionic is faster against the ‘competition,’ less so against its predecessor”

• “Report: Apple’s A15 Bionic has no major CPU improvements”

• In-article excerpt: “Unfortunately, Apple did not reveal how much faster the new chip will be compared to the A14, so we’re sceptical that there’s a major performance hike between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13.”

• Another in-article excerpt from a different site that forgot what happened last year: “The fact that Apple has pivoted to talking about the competition, however, may be a way of acknowledging that this chip doesn’t actually pack much of a punch over and above the A14.”

$AAPL FQ3 2021 Earnings Preview: Riding the Wave of a Second Supercycle

A Jaw-Dropping Halftime Report

That ten-letter S-word I had sworn off, nay, scoffed at following the epic iPhone 6-driven Supercycle, never to repeat again…

…well, it’s back and it’s undeniable, at least for this sales cycle spanning fiscal 2021.

Turns out, there are certain industries that managed to do very well amidst this terrible pandemic, and Apple, being a connectivity, productivity, and increasingly an entertainment/content company, was no different.

Compute-, create-, connect-, consume-from-home and all the rest combined to drive broad-based sales momentum across every product category for the first half of fiscal 2021:

iPhone: ~34% YOY rev growth (vs. 1H FY20)

Mac: 42% YOY rev growth

iPad: 57% YOY rev growth

Wearables/Home/Accessories: ~28% YOY rev growth

Services: 25% YOY rev growth

This is quite different from FY 2015, when iPhone drove a truly bonkers 104% of Apple’s full-year YOY revenue growth, thanks to iPad being in the throes of a multi-year revenue decline.

Of course, if growing from $182.8B to $233.7B in revenues (+$50.9B) in a single year was wild (FY 2015), growing from a fairly impressive $274.5B in FY20 to an analyst-consensus-estimate $354.6B in fiscal 2021 (est. +$80B YOY) is an entirely new level of absurd. Not only is Apple continuing to rewrite the record books on consumer-tech-centric companies, it’s achieving these ionospheric results as a supergiant Fortune 3 company that doesn’t play in industries subject to, for instance, the slings and arrows of outrageous commodity-or-energy-pricing fortune.

Perhaps that’s why Apple stock is trading near market multiples lately: Around 33.3 on a ttm P/E basis, vs. 38.6 for the NASDAQ 100 and 35.5 for the S&P 500. (Yes, below average on a market cap of around $2.5T.)

To be clear, no one thinks these mind-blowing bursts of revenue growth, themselves, are regular, repeatable events. Wall Street sees Apple growing a “mere” 4% YOY in fiscal 2022, and who knows, perhaps Apple (gasp!) experiences a little bit of revenue decline, what with the $300B revenue strata being so new and all.

But Apple’s possible (probable?) upcoming “digestion” of sudden growth is for another day. For now, it’s Apple’s tech world, and the only question is just how impressive the back half of Apple’s fiscal year will be.

Apple’s “Non-Guidance Guidance” + Wall Street Expectations for FQ3 2021

Until the relevant public health authorities declare an end to the COVID pandemic (hopefully sometime in 2022 at the latest, but who knows?), I’d guess that Apple will continue to not provide formal forward-looking next-quarter guidance. It doesn’t mean there won’t be clues, however. Apple CFO Luca Maestri gave the following “directional insights”:

• “strong double-digit” revenue growth in the June quarter (I dunno, call it safely over 15%?), subject to a greater-than-usual sequential decline in revenues because of (1) “later launch timing” of iPhone and (2) a $3-4B headwind due to supply constraints

• gross margin of 41.5-42.5% (the second quarter in a row that Apple’s seen GMs over 40%, after around 20 fiscal quarters of GMs hovering in the 37-38% range)

• OpEx of $11.1-11.3B

• tax rate of 14.5%

Prior to Apple’s thunderous FQ2 2021 result, Wall Street was thinking the June quarter would see $68.9B in revenues, up 15.5% YOY. The consensus is up just about $4B since then, to $72.9B revs, a 22% gain YOY presumably net of the headwinds.

Next up, a quick look at iPhone, iPad, Mac, Wearables/etc., and Services.

Overviewing Apple’s Product Line Revenues

(NOTE: The bar charts are just for general trend illustration purposes)

iPhone – Well-Positioned, Regardless of What Next Year May Bring

iPhone’s had a bit of a turbulent revenue story ever since the heady days of the iPhone 6 era. In retrospect, it was possible for a new iPhone to be “too successful”, selling so well that its eventual successor (the iPhone 6s-series) could not possibly surpass it in revenues. Apparently, some in Wall Street call this phenomenon “pulling” demand ahead or forward, a problem a large company should be happy to have as long as it can dynamically adjust inventory (an Apple strength) and continue retaining users via high customer satisfaction (another Apple strength).

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus saw iPhone returning to revenue growth, but it turns out that iPhone X – an industry pioneer in its oft-imitated mostly-bezel-free display and its $999+ price – would usher in an appreciable wave of growth in FY18 before a somewhat rocky FY19, despite the introduction of iPhone XR and the iPhone XS Max. The key culprits even as the iPhone X line expanded? Underperformance in Greater China due to weak macro factors, continued phone subsidy phaseouts, a strong US dollar, and even customers taking advantage of inexpensive iPhone 6 battery replacements thanks to “Throttlegate”.

Finally, FY20 saw iPhone performance impacted by lockdowns around the world due to the pandemic, but Apple’s worst-performing iPhone quarter for that fiscal year was mainly driven by a lack of any new iPhone in the September quarter – with Apple needing another month or two to debut the full iPhone 12 range, all with new designs and 5G connectivity from the 12 mini to the apparently-quite-popular 12 Pro Max.

As you can see, consumers are…quite happy with their iPhone 12s. Product timings and long-term-unsustainable-50%+ growth rates aside, there simply isn’t anything on the horizon to suggest that Apple has lost its touch with smartphones, or that consumers are moving on from the now-classic, non-folding rounded-rectangle form factor.

iPadA Post-PC Device for All Seasons, Especially Work-From-Home Season

iPad was undoubtedly boosted by the need for a versatile computing device during the pandemic, but it’s also true that iPad has the strongest lineup in its history. A12 is now the performance baseline, with iPads starting at $329 (or $299 for education). Meanwhile, iPad Pro has graduated to the mighty M1 SoC (starting at $799) while the “mobile tablet workstation” iPad Pro 12.9 throws in mini-LED screen technology to boost both content consumption and creation.

While some may quibble with iPadOS’s feature set, Apple has made clear that developers can use even more RAM for their apps, if they so choose – rather quickly eliminating the complaint that the M1 iPad Pros are forced to run artificially resource-limited apps.

Things can always change, but as it stands, the future of iPad remains bright.

Mac – Supercharged by the M-Chip Transition

Macs have benefitted from the compute-from-home effect, much the same as iPad, but with one key difference – the (unfortunate) shackles of Intel have finally been thrown off, starting with Apple’s most affordable, generally-highest-volume systems (MacBook Air and MBP13 in particular). And since Apple Silicon looks to play well enough with Windows 10 and probably even Windows 11, there are generally very few reasons why the vast majority of users wouldn’t want to leave space-heater x86 Macs for the more performant, less-power-hungry Apple Silicon frontier.

Apple’s Mac installed base alone will be enough to fuel a megatrend of upgrades. And feats including MacBook Airs running with the very best CPUs AMD and Intel have to offer in more expensive systems just might bring “Switchers” back into the Mac lexicon (even though they probably never went away)

Wearables/Home/Accessories – Watch Quietly Succeeding While AirPods Grow Stale

Even though Luca Maestri has stopped providing clues about the “Fortune ____” size of the Wearables business, one compelling explanation is that the AirPods portion of Wearables won’t be a growth business again until replacements for AirPods Pro (launched Oct. 2019) and AirPods rev. 2 (launched Mar. 2019) finally arrive. It’s unfair to expect the decidedly-less-portable $549 AirPods Max to pick up the slack.

But Wearables/Home/Accessories continues its 4-year-plus YOY revenue growth streak despite “languishing” AirPods, and the only logical driver isn’t Beats (which Apple hardly mentions in earnings calls, AFAIK). It’s good old Apple Watch. Yes, HomePod mini probably shares a certain amount of credit, but at $99 a unit, they simply don’t drive the kinds of revenues that Watch Series 6, SE, and even the Series 3 do per unit.

Overall, W/H/A continues to perform well, albeit “quietly”, while Apple prepares its next-generation AirPods and what should be a Watch Series 7 and what could be a revised design, since Series 4 (Sep. 2018) was the last time Watch saw a change in form factor. Also, Apple? Series 3 has done enough. It’s *ahem* high time for a new budget Watch Series to take its place.

Services – A $60B-Class Barometer of the Strength of Apple’s Ecosystem

The fields of green speak for themselves, really. Until Services growth drops to around 10% or below without good explanation, there’s really no reason to believe Apple’s ecosystem is under any real threat. Of course, various regulators, attorneys general, etc. may have something to say about that, but it’s unlikely these external forces could bring about an 1980s AT&T level of disruption…certainly not without a vigorous fight.

FQ4 2021’s All-But-Guaranteed Growth, Mindful of the Year-Ago Compare Landscape in FY 2022

Apple has an easy compare in FQ4 2021, thanks to the delay of the iPhone 12 launch pushing those sales to the December quarter, instead of the last days of most September quarters. That probably explains why analysts (Yahoo! Finance/Refinitiv) see Apple increasing FQ4 revenues from $64.7B to $81B, a 25% YOY jump.

The “problem” with supercycles is that they set up very difficult YOY compares for the following year. But reasonable observers have already adjusted for this, and acknowledge – maybe even admire – the sheer ridiculousness of a tech company[FN1] vaulting from the mid/high-$200B sales class to the mid-$300B dreadnought class in the space of 12 calendar months. Only the most committed bears see Apple somehow losing momentum, when the pandemic has proven that Apple products and services are essential in the minds of so many customers.

And with that, I’ll see you all on Tuesday for the post-market-close earnings call!

_________

[FN1] I’m talking typical consumer-tech-focused tech company, rather than a certain online retailing juggernaut, burdened with glorious purpose on its mission to grow even larger than ~$550B revenue-class Walmart, seemingly because it simply must.

$AAPL Earnings Sneak Preview: Comparing Apple’s Indirect Guidance vs. Wall Street Consensus

Let’s get right to it.

Here’s what Wall Street consensus, as gathered by Yahoo! Finance (data source: Refinitiv), thinks of the March quarter:

You’ll notice the consensus hasn’t moved that much from the post-earnings whopper of a $111.4B holiday quarter, perhaps due to almost 33% estimated rev growth from a year-ago base of $58.3B being kind of insane. When I checked at the end of January, expectations stood at $76.8B.

Still, it’s what I would call a rather bullish consensus, given Apple’s implied range guide of $75.2B – $76.6B (based on sequential seasonality of FY17-FY19). Wall Street’s thinking is three quarters of a billion higher than that “guide”.

Let’s “normalize” Apple’s FQ2 2021 not-a-guide guide to establish something of a baseline:

• $75-77B revenue (it would be an exceptionally narrow range during normal times)

• Gross margin between 39 – 39.5% (FQ1 2021 GM was 39.8%, yes, Luca Maestri did say to expect “similar” gross margin sequentially)

• OpEx of $10.7B – $10.9B (actual guidance)

• Tax Rate of 17% (actual guidance)

• OI&E of…was it something comically low like $50M? I just remember it was so “low” compared to Apple’s revenue scope that it was immaterial, and it basically is.

Anyway, just add your favorite best guess on diluted share count (I went with 16.9B shares), and you end up with an “implied EPS” of around $0.90 to $0.97.

You can, of course, disagree with my assumptions. If you assume Apple can manage GM of closer to 40%, then the top end of “implied EPS” at 16.9B diluted shares rises to 99 cents. Assuming a percentage less in tax rate makes maybe one cent’s worth of EPS difference.

There is, of course, the matter of Apple shattering the FQ1 2021 Wall Street consensus of $103B revs by an insane $8B and change. Is there some wild “whisper number” of 6-8% over Apple’s “top-end guide”, which would put “true” expectations in the rev range of $81-82B?

A strange world where under $80B in revenues for a March quarter would ever be considered a “disappointment”, in the middle of a pandemic where every vaccine dose administered counts. But that’s the equities market for ya, I guess.

See you on Wednesday for a much-anticipated earnings call!

$AAPL FQ1 2021 Post-Earnings Extra (“Guidance” Edition): How Does One Sentence Equal Billions of Dollars in Additional Expectations?

Apple’s Non-Guidance Guidance

Remember how Apple wasn’t giving guidance during the pandemic? Well, it depends on how strict your definition is. The one sentence I referred to in the title is this one, from Apple CFO Luca Maestri:

“For total company revenue, we believe growth will accelerate on a year-over-year basis, and in aggregate, will follow typical seasonality on a sequential basis.”

[Apple FQ1 2021 Earnings Recording/Podcast, available at https://rss.art19.com/apple-quarterly-earnings-call until around Feb. 10, 2021 or so, about 21:50 in]

The great news is, unlike, say, Wearables (well, at least the link still works, right), there’s actually little work to do to further unpack this clue, thanks to a very useful clarification from Luca based on an analyst question later in the call.

In reply to well-known Wall Street Apple (plus other companies) professional analyst Toni Sacconaghi, of the apparently-recently-renamed AllianceBernstein,

who asked Luca about iPhone channel inventory and “above-seasonal iPhone growth” (y’know, because iPhone didn’t actually begin to ship until FQ1 2021, which is both the latest and earliest an iPhone has ever shipped…it’s a fiscal/calendar quarter thing),

Luca answered in part:

“At the end of December, we exited with a level of iPhone channel inventory which was slightly below a year ago. So … we still had some level of supply constraints which we believe we’re going to be able to solve during the March quarter.” 

“In terms of the sequential change [that] we talked about, during the prepared remarks we talked about total company average, and we said that we expect that sequential progression to be similar to the typical seasonality that you’ve seen in past years. Certainly last year is not typical because of COVID. But if you go back, you know, fiscal ’17, ’18, ’19, you know, that’s our typical seasonal progression.” (emphasis mine)

[around 37:30 into the earnings podcast, link above]

A Potential “Revenue Range”

After that, it’s just the matter of a quick visit to the Apple Investor Relations website. Or, you can just check out my quick chart:

I mean, I just did the maths the way Maestri suggested: “if you go back, you know, fiscal ’17, ’18, ’19…that’s our typical seasonal progression.”

Since Tim and Luca are generally pretty intentional with their guidance and commentary, here you go: A “range” of between 30.8% and 32.5% sequential drop in revenues in that three-year measuring period.

FQ1 2021 actual was $111.4B, so that yields $75.2B given FY17’s seasonality pattern (lowest number), and $76.6B given FY19’s pattern (highest number).

And now you know why the Wall Street consensus (I track Yahoo! Finance, YMMV) went from around $74.5B just before the earnings release to $76.8B just before the weekend:

(Screenshot from Yahoo! Finance.)

Thesis Defense: “Are You SURE Luca Intended to Be THAT Bullish?”

I am. “Well, could you have misread Luca’s commentary?” There’s always that chance, but I doubt it in this case.

Yes, “first principles” of Luca’s guidance was expressing management’s belief that rev growth will accelerate YOY. The most sensible read of that, given the sheer bullishness of the results alone plus iPhone 12-series’ first full shipping quarter, is “YOY rev growth rate for FQ2 2021 will be higher on a percentage basis than that of FQ1 2021”. FQ1 2021 saw Apple revenue grow a somewhat impressive (🥴) 21.4% from an incredibly high holiday quarter revenue base. So, if you apply a base-case 22% YOY rev growth rate to the March quarter, that yields around $71.1B…which, you know, for a company this big, is also kind of totally bonkers.

But Maestri didn’t stop there. He specifically added, and later reaffirmed, that company growth in the aggregate would follow typical revenue seasonality on a sequential basis. And then pointed out three specific fiscal years as examples. The intent could not be more clear, at least in my humble opinion.

It’s not to say management never gets guidance wrong…I can count two or three occasions in the past 5-6 years. But you really can’t interpret this “guidance” any other way, even if Apple did go out on a limb (which I will assume Apple didn’t do, given recent-past miscues).

Also, Luca added the very important assumption that the COVID situation would not significantly worsen in the March quarter, and pointed out that it wasn’t all favorable YOY compares down the line (the games subsegment of GC’s Services business would be a tough compare in the March quarter, for instance).

So yes, provided the global COVID situation is “same-or-improving” vs. Apple’s assumptions, Luca fully intended to be that bullish in his “management” of Wall Street expectations. And incredible as it seems during this awful pandemic, Wall Street (1) took Maestri’s deliberate cues, (2) noted that their reasonably lofty $103B December-quarter consensus (which Apple had to have known about) was just beaten by eight freakin’ billion dollars, and (3) rather logically bumped their consensus numbers higher than ever to nearly $77B for FQ2 2021.

This 32% YOY projected growth to $76.8B, by the way, exceeds Apple’s YOY growth rate (~30%) and total revenue ($74.6B) from Apple’s then-mindblowing FQ1 2015.

In other words, Wall Street is expecting a March quarter that beats the holiday kick-off quarter of the iPhone 6 Supercycle Year. To repurpose a quote from new Apple Senior VP of Hardware Engineering John Ternus: “That’s just nuts.”

Prelude to an Extremely Strong Apple First Fiscal Half…and More

Note, this isn’t necessarily related to stock sentiment, given the not-without-justification argument that Apple may still be relatively overvalued given current ttm P/E of about 35.7 (post-earnings “disappointment”) being at levels not seen since…maybe 2007.

However, management guidance absolutely hints at a thunderously bullish March quarter that we’ve never seen before…

…and an Apple First Half of the fiscal year with a half-decent shot at clearing OVER $190B in revenue, a level that Apple didn’t even approach in a full fiscal year until around FY13 ($170.9B) and FY14 ($182.8B).

Even though the back half of FY21 is bound to be weaker by comparison (it historically always is), that still puts Apple in position to reach a tremendous revenue milestone. Likely “by default” since Apple’s 2H FY20 revenues were about $124B (and no one serious on Wall Street thinks Apple’s growth wave ends with the March quarter).

Which milestone? After a mere six fiscal years “languishing” (heh) in the $200B-ish revenue range (FY15-FY20), Apple is all-but-certain to vault into the head-spinning $300B+ annual sales strata, with lots of room to spare (Wall Street’s actually thinking $330B in Apple revenue for FY21).

It’s an insanely large revenue number for a consumer tech-centric company, with the next closest consumer-ish tech company, Alphabet[FN1], likely over $75B in annual revenues away.

For what we all hope will be a year marking the start of a cautious-but-lasting pandemic recovery in terms of global public health, mental health and personal finances by the summertime, Apple’s fiscal 2021 and overall business trends are somehow looking…not bad, to say the least.

_______________________

[FN1] Oh I agree with all of you incredulous skeptics. Alphabet/Google, a “consumer-ish” tech company? That’s one heck of a stretch. But the next closest tech company is…well…Microsoft, which analysts project to reach around $160B or so in annual sales for its fiscal 2021.

$AAPL FQ1 2021 Earnings Quick Preview: A Record-Breaking Quarter Amidst a Terrible Pandemic

The Cognitive Dissonance of Unimaginable Public Health Crisis With Stock Markets at All-Time Highs

It’s far above my pay grade to even attempt to make sense of this COVID-19 nightmare, but of course I have to take a moment to acknowledge the tremendous amount of suffering and loss

…fortunately though, multiple bright lights are at the end of the tunnel, in the form of effective, surprisingly adaptable mRNA vaccines (in the US, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines available under FDA emergency use authorization). May the global vaccination campaign proceed as swiftly and safely as possible as the horrible winter wave of COVID-19 appears to have plateaued or crested for now.

In the meantime, we’ll need all the natural defenses against rising new case counts that we can get (if they indeed help mitigate this pandemic).

Apple Proves Itself in Fiscal 2020, Setting Expectations High for the Holiday Quarter

Wait, the Mega-Pricey iPhone Max company? Which is suuuuuper anti-competitive, to hear some tell it?

Never mind $299+ education-pricing iPads or a $399+ iPhone SE sporting a rather capable A13 SoC (y’know, the A13 Bionic in iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max). Or that M1 chip offering jaw-dropping performance starting at $699 for the Mac mini.

Undying memes and narratives aside, yes, Apple proved surprisingly pandemic-proof amidst economic conditions that devastated other swaths of industry. Starting with FQ2 2020, more-or-less covering January through March 2020:

FQ2 2020

Apple didn’t grow revenues much year-over-year, but grow it did ($58 >> $58.3B), despite worldwide lockdowns mostly in the month of March. Revenue declines in mostly iPhone (-$2.1B, -6.7%) and iPad (-$500M, -10.3%) were overcome by the usual strength in Services and Wearables (although Wearables growth has been relatively modest recently).

Of note, $AAPL stock had already bottomed out at a split-adjusted $56 and change in March (oh, right, there was a 4-to-1- stock split on Aug. 28, 2020…about 200 years ago), and was already in the middle of a tremendous, still-ongoing rally as of the March-quarter earnings release.

FQ3 2020

Work-from-home (“WFH”) begins working its magic on a bunch of tech companies around the world…along with WFH’s cousins “shop-from-home” (Amazon likely the biggest beneficiary), “watch-from-home” (any given Major Streaming Provider™), and “play-from-home” (Nintendo, etc.).

Apple was no different, with Mac’s slight -$160M/-2.9% YOY revenue drop from Q2 2020 reversing to $1.26B/21.6% YOY growth, marking a new all-time Mac revenue record for the June quarter at $7.08B. iPad growth was even more impressive, going from $500M YOY revenue decline to $1.56B/31% revenue growth in a single quarter…narrowly beating out Wearables, Home and Accessories’ $6.45B revenue total by over $100M.

In fact, in this traditional Apple “nadir” quarter, every single revenue geography and every single product line, even iPhone, showed YOY revenue growth! $59.6B in June quarter revenue? That used to be the stuff of December-quarter legend.

FQ4 2020

Apple strongly hinted at a dip in iPhone revenues due to future iPhone shipping delays during the June-quarter earnings call, and they were right – iPhone line revenue dropped a massive ~$7B YOY, from $33.4B to $26.4B.

But overall Apple revenues still grew over $650M anyway! This was largely thanks to astounding WFH-fueled revenue growth in iPad (+$2.1B/+46% YOY) and even Mac, which grew to an all-time-high $9B in revs for the quarter (29.2% rev growth) despite the pre-announced, not-yet-begun Apple Silicon transition.

Now, it’s not like Apple didn’t launch anything in the first three calendar quarters. Of course the second-gen iPhone SE and MacBook Air + MBP13 refreshes helped. But Apple launched a huge amount of product in September, October and November…which is near-certain to reflect in Apple’s fiscal first half of 2021, if nothing else.

And it all starts with December-quarter results due Wednesday.

“Sneak-Previewing” a Blockbuster FQ1 2021 by Reviewing the Wall Street Consensus

Apple doesn’t give guidance due to the pandemic, but Wall Street analysts continue to estimate their collective best anyway.

And this quarter’s projected to be a doozy. According to Yahoo! Finance (after 1/25/2021 market close), the consensus of 27 professionals is for Apple to ring in $103B in sales, which would be 12% YOY rev growth over the year-ago, then-all-time-high quarterly revenue record of $91.8B.

Over. One hundred. Billion. Dollars. In the middle. Of a pandemic.

Seriously?

Unlike most quarters, I’ll just be providing a “meta-commentary” on that top-line estimate, and devise a WAG scenario that gets us to the $103B consensus to serve as a base for comic relief further discussion.

First, let’s review the limited guidance Luca Maestri provided for the December quarter. From my contemporaneous earnings call notes:

To organize those thoughts a little + in case that tweet link didn’t load right, Maestri:

  • assumed a certain baseline for COVID-19 (which sadly set all kinds of awful records over the winter instead)
  • guided to iPhone rev YOY growth vs. FQ1 2020, despite iPhone 12 and 12 Pro shipping on Oct. 23 and iPhone 12 mini/Max shipping on Nov. 13
  • made a confident prediction that all other revenue categories (iPad, Mac, Services, and Wearables/Home/Accessories) would be up 10% or more YOY

Next, here’s my for-entertainment-purposes-only “derivation” of the $103B consensus into a sample estimate.

  • iPhone: $59.2B (up 6% YOY)
  • Mac: $8.7B (up ~21% YOY)
  • iPad: $8.4B (up ~40% YOY)
  • Wearables/Home/Accessories (“W/H/A” as VERY helpful shorthand): $11.5B (up 15% YOY)
  • Services: $15.2B (up ~19% YOY)
  • Sample Combined Revs: $103B (up ~12% YOY)

While “working with” my trusty Excel spreadsheet to get this post ready, I ended up with nearly $103B without trying very hard or specifically having the $103B number in mind, so I’ll take that as a sign that I can reasonably approximate “the consensus view”. So let’s run this sample estimate, category by category.

iPhone

Granted, Maestri’s “we expect iPhone revs to grow YOY” guide could mean anything, but mid-single-digits sounds reasonable, because:

>> Apple’s “mainline” iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro phone launched in late October 2020, around a full month later than we’re used to (in the past, Apple tended to ship and sell new iPhones with mere days or slightly over a week until the end of the September quarter)

>> Apple’s “niche” (?) iPhone 12 mini and 12 Pro Max (which showed early signs of strong demand for a $1099+ device) launched mid-November, the latest any iPhone has ever launched…in a calendar year, that is (around the middle of the to-be-reported December quarter)

This means that Apple’s first full quarter of iPhone 12-series sales is FQ2 2021, and Luca’s guidance implies that overall iPhone 12 demand is just that strong (iPhone 12 mini supply chain rumors aside). That leaves a little room for upside surprise for the December quarter, and a lot of room for optimism for FQ2 2021 (a little more on this later).

Mac

WFH continueth, and the New Age of M-chip Macs beginneth! I don’t think the consensus would expect (meta-commentary, get it) all-time-high Mac sales since the December quarter’s well past the typical seasonal back-to-school peak. On the other hand, Macs are riding a major WFH wave (even as some Mac buying may be paused in anticipation of further M-chip changeover) and it may well be foolhardy to bet against it…yet. So why not go with 21% growth, which I think Maestri would describe as “strong double-digits” in his inimitable style.

So about Mac’s recent growth streak. We all remember the iPhone 6s lesson, right? I wouldn’t be too surprised to see “lackluster” Mac growth at some point, given WFH’s inherent effect of “pulling ahead” Mac demand, whether it be from individual consumers or Fortune 500 corporations making massive IT purchases for employees. Everyone buying a Mac in 2020 or 2021 won’t be upgrading all that soon…that’s just how it goes with Mac/PC replacement cycles and macOS software and “extended security” support lifecycles (easily 7 years in many cases).

All that matters longer-term, IMHO, are

>> customer satisfaction (which, Touch Bar and recent butterfly keyboard walkbacks be damned, is a reasonable 93% in the New-and-Improved Scissor-Switch Keyboard Era™) and, relatedly,

>> installed base growth, which will continue as long as Mac users don’t leave the platform for iPad, x86-based Windows, or perhaps other ARM-based non-Apple compute platforms like Qualcomm’s 8cx.

But who knows? Maybe the Intel-to-M-chip transition supercycle will drive an accelerated migration away from Intel Macs. I mean, aside from Win10 support, which Parallels is feverishly trying to address via Microsoft’s ARM64 fork of Win10, Apple’s first M1 Macs have shown themselves to be quieter, cooler, considerably-longer-running on the same battery, reasonably compatible and performant with Intel Macs apps, all that and much faster than any PC in their class. As long as you’re not locked into a mission-critical Intel app/plug-in/workflow situation (a situation that should largely fade away within a year or two), what’s not to like?

iPad

I’m guessing that iPad is going to have a triumphant banner year, as it continues to rebound from a relentless multi-year slide in revenues that finally troughed around calendar 2016-2017 (in part because of its insane initial success). Two points first: One, whatever the formerly unsustainable sales pace, iPad is minting all-time highs in installed base in the here and now. Two, even though a projected 40% YOY growth rate to $8.4B in revs is still short of the all-time high of ~$11.5B set in FQ1 2014 (thanks for the quick assist, Statista!)…well, it’s still 40% growth, right? iPad just might be on a comfortable $25B-and-rising annual revenue trajectory before long.

It certainly won’t hurt that the 8th-generation iPad (A12) and redesigned iPad Air A14 launched in September, just in time for iPad’s seasonally strongest quarter.

As with Mac, there is a chance that the iPad WFH Effect could dampen sales momentum in the shorter-term. But iPad Pro and iPad mini are both due for refreshes. And consistently high iPad customer satisfaction, combined with iPadOS’s continued evolution, all bode well for iPad’s future.

W/H/A

Wearables, Home and Accessories had a relatively quiet year. The only new products in calendar 2020 were HomePod mini (Oct. 2020) and AirPods Max (Dec. 2020), so AirPods Max will barely impact sales for FQ1 2021, higher price aside. Fine, there was Watch Series 6 and maybe some new Beats gear, but AirPods wireless audio has been the biggest apparent driver of the audio category (AirPods gen. 2 – Mar. 2019, AirPods Pro – Oct. 2019), and Watch may not be quite the growth driver it once was (we’ll have to see if management gives any Watch-specific clues on Wednesday).

Fine, maybe there’s a few other things, including MagSafe accessories, but c’mon, “dongles and such” have never been particularly large segments of Apple’s overall business.

That’s some pretty “dour” commentary for perfectly respectable double-digit growth, isn’t it? I’m hardly bearish on AirPods or Watch, and HomePod mini seems nice for $99, but I just can’t see any catalysts for W/H/A segment growth without some new AirPods in the mix, and $550 cans alone won’t do the job.

Services

Perennial, not-very-seasonal performer is perennially performing. App Store, Watch-From-Home, Apple One combining iCloud, Music, Arcade, tv+, News+, and now Fitness+ into packages that often save family users money each month…

Apple Pay and Apple Card also chipping in, and AppleCare actually doing very well when various locales have allowed in-person shopping…

Momentum has always been there, and looks to remain there absent some major inflection point. Apple device installed base growth still happening? Check. Increasing Services engagement from Apple users over time, including some who may or may not have rented a movie or two or ten since…well…circumstances? Check.

If a $15B all-time record of a quarterly number isn’t achieved in FQ1 2021, it should be very soon.

Uncurbed Enthusiasm for FQ2 2021, Thanks Mostly to iPhone

Finally, a very quick look at FQ2 2021. Long story short, analysts are expecting iPhone 12 momentum to carry over to the first full shipping quarter in a big way.

How big? $74.5B overall revenues big, representing a whopping 28% YOY growth. It would be the highest-revenue March quarter for Apple by far, and would actually be very close to the sixth-best Apple quarter by revenue for all time. Just in case a $70B+ non-holiday quarter for a consumer tech-centric company didn’t sound bonkers enough right out of the gate.

Let’s just set a few parameters to better visualize how the consensus might be thinking here:

  • Mac +15% YOY rev growth (to ~$6.2B)
  • iPad +15% YOY (to ~$5B)
  • W/H/A +12% YOY (to ~$7B)
  • Services +15% YOY (to ~$15.3B)

Solve for iPhone, and it seems the Wall Street consensus may be expecting iPhone revenues to improve slightly over 40% YOY. Even if you assume one or more of the not-iPhone Apple business lines outperform my control baseline, it really doesn’t change the lofty consensus expectations for an incredibly strong iPhone quarter.

Will a soft compare from the prior March quarter, plus a running production start from the December quarter, help? Is $AAPL stock, with a trailing P/E of over 40 (remember when it was more like 10?!), now “dependent” upon meeting unsustainably high expectations? If nothing else, these storylines could be brief, hopefully welcome distractions from the pandemic.

Thanks as always for reading. Stay safe, stay well, and I’ll probably see you online on Wednesday for Apple’s biggest earnings release ever amidst these truly unprecedented times.

What the M1 Apple Silicon Platform (Generally) Is (and Isn’t), From a Home Gamer’s Perspective

In semi-particular order…

A Redefinition of Low-Power PC-Paradigm Computing

The reviews from tech journalists, the social media tech set, and users are in – and reaction is about as positive as I can remember for any previous Mac launch.

Heck, The Verge (a generally “tough-but-fair” reviewer when it comes to Apple) gave the carryover-design, non-touchscreen, two-TB3/USB4-port-only MacBook Air a 9.5/10, where recent, more “technologically-advanced” iPhones (5G, LiDAR on Pro, U1, non-potato-cam, etc.) get a 9/10.

So it’s not just because of the much-better-received second-generation scissor-switch design (alas, poor butterfly keyboard, we hardly knew thee). It’s “so much more” – mostly due to a single, incredibly savvy change-of-chip from space-heater Intel to an unnervingly-cool, winter-unfriendly, 5nm-process, energy-efficient 16B-transistor M1 SoC. That Rosetta 2s its way through Intel Mac apps with generally impressive ease.

That also somehow boasts single-core performance better than any Intel Mac ever shipped, and exhibits (albeit in brief sprints for the fan-free Air) multi-core CPU potential that’s a little bit better than…the state-of-the-art (albeit 14nm) Core i9 CTO option on the $2800+ (US) MBP16. Among other surprising feats of speed.

Suddenly, the humblest of Macs…fine, in overall PC context, semi-premium $1000+ fairly-mobile and moderate-priced $700+ small-form-factor PC computing…just got a lot faster. And just as suddenly, the competition is left with some serious catching up to do – yes, even on price. Because Apple has made a powerful statement on value.

Compare a base model Mac mini to the Lenovo SFF PC I tweeted about two weeks ago, and you can kind of see how Apple’s timing and choice of target market (the broadest demographic of the Mac installed base, by far) couldn’t have been better:

A New Definition of the Limits of Low-Power PC Computing

Sure, in most use cases (and post-ARM64-software optimization, pretty much all use cases), the M1 Macs change what’s possible all the way from energy consumption to prosumer-and-up workflows that would cause a Core i5 MacBook (or worse, a Core i3) to recoil in terror.

And then there’s the small side benefit of Apple offering very performant, superior-battery-life machines for a somewhat important subset of the Mac installed base – y’know, millions of third-party iOS, iPadOS, watchOS and/or macOS developers running Xcode, without which there is no “developer ecosystem”.

But there are limits to being a pioneer in Strange New Smartphone-Inspired PC Architecture™, as it were. Intentional, but still limiting all the same.

Yes, the M1 is kinda, sorta an “A14X Plus”. That’s because Apple challenged itself to create the most performant SoC it possibly could within an enclosure (capped at ~10W sustained thermal envelope) purposely designed to eliminate active cooling (though M1 certainly benefits from a little “fresh air”).

Apple’s enhanced thermal constraint, along with the unified memory architecture, necessitated extreme restrictions on how much logic board space, GPU power, and sheer thermal/power overhead could be applied to the M1’s design.

As it turned out, we should have seen this coming around two years ago.

The intrepid team at iFixit was one of the first to make the discovery with the 7nm-process A12X:

Credit: iFixit (link above)

Computer, rotate and zoom in on the A12X itself!

Credit: Yep, still iFixit!

SoC on the left, two DRAM modules parked right next to it. The exact same basic layout as the just-launched M1.

M1 schematic. Credit: Apple November 2020 Special Event, ~7:40 mark

Given that DRAM isn’t process-shrinking anywhere near the rate of Application Processors like A14 Bionic, M1 and inevitable AMD/Qualcomm competition, it’s at least understandable – if frustrating – that this super-compact design would have a relatively modest RAM cap for the time being. There’s room to expand the boundaries of the M1 “Silicon City”, but that’s for future, higher-power-budget variants.

Long story short, the M1 can take you very far (comfortably meeting Johny Srouji’s “best-in-class” mandate for each M1 Mac vs. its relevant competitive set, I’d say), but it’s literally the absolute least that an M-chip can do, by design. So if you want features like:

• a 32/64GB-and-up RAM ceiling,

• 6+ performance CPU cores,

• a stronger GPU,

• more than 2TB SSD,

• 4+ Thunderbolt 3 / USB4 ports,

• a bigger display,

• being able to simultaneously run more displays,

or something else the M1 platform just can’t provide, then you might want to wait for the corresponding M-chip MBP16, iMac, or maybe i/Mac Pro 🥴 versions to launch, if at all possible. And maybe “Pro” versions of the Mac mini and 13″ MacBook already-called-a-Pro, who knows.

An Engine Swap That Was “Obvious in Hindsight”

First of all, everyone knows we’re still in the middle of a terrible COVID-19 pandemic, right? November 2020 being the worst month yet on a worldwide, newly-reported-cases-per-day basis?

And Apple still launched an impressive array of products, from Watch Series 6 and SE to iPad Air A14 and some mildly important iPhone 12 SKUs (which were delayed from “a few” to “several” weeks).

So yeah, perhaps some of Peanut Gallery Tech Twitter/Journopunditocracy can appreciate the overall context of 2020 here before complaining about the lack of shiny new things.

That aside, why did anyone expect Apple to start the Apple Silicon transition with radical redesigns anyway? It’s never been done in any past transition (Moto 68040 >> PowerPC, PowerPC >> Intel), in part because reengineering the hardware for a totally new chip architecture is probably tough enough as it is.

Aside from the other very good reasons others have given (for instance, Rene Ritchie points out that it’s much easier to work with existing design and thermal tolerances)…

and the fact that MacBook Pro (Late 2016) and MacBook Air (October 2018) designs aren’t that old (the keyboards are pretty new, in fact 🤣)…

…it’s really not a particularly good idea to “obsolete” the rest of the Mac lineup right out of the gate with major redesigns, especially when the remainder of the Apple Silicon Transition could take until sometime in 2022.

Apple’s Own Spin on “Modular”

I know, I know. Apple’s under constant existential threat from Android or WinTel or WinAMD or maybe even some more “open” flavor of RISC computing. Whether or not that’s looking particularly true anytime in the foreseeable or longer-term future, a theme you generally see with this line of argument is the spectre of “modularity” (y’know, Snapdragon 765 or 8cx this, Ryzen 5000-series that, etc.), a crashing wave of commoditization overwhelming whatever “high-margin moat” Apple has allegedly, tenuously trenched via integrated products.

Oddly, though, Apple’s making its next, bet-the-Mac big push on personal computing with

  • an M1 in a Mac mini
  • an M1 in a MacBook Air
  • an M1 in a MacBook Pro

Isn’t that…modular too?!

Why yes, yes it is! And if you think about it, it’s much more aggressively modular than anything we’ve ever seen in personal computing (a single SoC for three distinct form factors, including a desktop). And it’ll probably happen again with another subset of the Mac lineup.

It’s radically different from anything we’ve ever seen in any Mac, and yet this “one-size-fits-all” approach is really quite sensible (and exhibited in iPhones since the 6/6 Plus).

Also interesting is the complete lack of compromise (where RAM isn’t a major consideration, which it’s not supposed to be on “low-end” systems given classic usage patterns).

Sure, M1’s thermal bandwidth allows it to work just a little bit better on the top-end, and for longer when it has access to active cooling and/or unlimited power, but for the first 10-15 minutes of a person’s computing day, the overall speed experience will be probably be almost exactly the same.

It saves on costs to target a single SoC for three different Mac form factors, of course, but when the entry-level Mac SoC is this fast, consumers really won’t care much. It’ll just take a little getting used to from the customization fans among us, because for Apple, the concept of choosing a faster CPU for a given Mac trim level may now be a thing of the past.

Legitimate gripes about LPDDR4X RAM expandability and (impressively fast) SSD storage upgrade prices aside, this move to M-chip modularity is very likely to save Mac users money over time ($200 or more for the MacBook enthusiasts), because Apple’s goal is to never make you want for CPU performance on a brand-new system ever again.

The Beginning of the Inevitably Uncomfortable Intel/Apple Silicon Feature Divide

It’s bound to happen, and unfortunately, Mac users having bought a system within the past two to three years or so might be feeling a bit “left out” as they approach Year 5-7 of their particular Mac’s lifecycle, if not sooner.

To be clear, Apple will not, cannot possibly break its commitment to support Intel Macs “for years to come”. Big Sur support looks back up to 7 years (2013 MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Pro), and I don’t see that support lifecycle changing very much when whatever macOS version in 2024 or 2025 launches. As many non-thrill seekers know, Apple also tends to fully support security updates looking back up to two macOS releases, so macOS software security support could easily extend up to and slightly beyond 2026 for any new Mac with a “model year” of 2019 or later.

But there’s security support, and then there’s feature support. And there’s already one giant difference between an M1 and most (all?) Intel chips: neural processing power. The A14 Bionic and M1 Neural Engines are both capable of 11 trillion operations per second. In the case of M1 MacBook Pro, it’s claimed to be 11x faster at ML vs. the 2020 MBP13 running an 8th-gen 1.7GHz Core i7 CPU.

Of course, neural-network-type tasks will be faster with 11th, 12th, 13th? gen Intel Core chips…assuming any of them are available in quantity and in time for the final Intel Macs yet to launch. But Intel’s and Apple’s approaches in the short term are just too different. Intel seems to be leveraging its existing CPU/GPU-centric platform to enhance neural-computing performance; Apple’s gone full-bonkers Moar Cores™ with a discrete NPU, the same strategy as major RISC chip players.

For now, the Neural Engine’s main benefits seem more related to specialized image/video processing tasks (Face ID which is “old hat” to Apple by now, Pixelmator’s ML Super Resolution), or machine learning academia. Other features it enables, from Siri Suggestions to object detection, are well within the capabilities of “lower-end” neural processing power (read: 11T ops/sec are slight overkill for these tasks)

But that’s definitely changing over time, given the quadrillions of operations being left on the table every single day (and a certain ex-Google AI Chief champing at the bit to move the AI/ML industry forward). With an on-device engine that fast, why not “teach it” to accelerate all kinds of anticipatory tasks in typical users’ lives, including finally making Siri…um…better, or even available on-device, no cloud required just for timers and alarms?

It’s also possible that allowing Mac developers and Mac-based researchers access to the Neural Engine will unlock use cases Apple hasn’t thought of…or can Sherlock/acquihire in the future. 😁

Those benefits…will not really accrue to Intel users’ benefit over time, since their AI/ML performance is vastly inferior to the M1’s NPU. And aside from inevitable Neural Engine improvements each M-chip generation, the feature upgrade gap could only get worse if the Apple Silicon platform continues to add new hardware functionality including:

• hardware 8K encode/decode

• Mac *touchscreen* support

• further image/digital signal processing improvements/other ways to make videoconferencing as battery-efficient as possible

• possibly moving up to a full-system 256-bit encryption base via a more powerful Secure Enclave

• supporting higher AirPlay screen mirroring resolutions than 1080p, and in HDR

• any number of things people much smarter/more well-versed in macOS than me could think of

Apple’s hellbent on making Macs as compelling as possible, now that it’s finally able to assert full control over the entire Mac widget for the first time ever. It’ll be interesting to see how macOS updates 3-5 years from now offer differing amounts of functionality uplift depending on chip platform.