Apple M3 and the state of CPUs

Jay Goldberg

Posts: 74   +1
Staff
The big picture: Apple's M3 launch stood out for its focus on how people actually use computers, the lack of AI acronyms and the fact that they launched three chips all at once. It is only getting harder to compete with them. As with all things Apple, the M3 has been extensively covered in the press, but beyond the performance metrics, a few things stood out for us, and here's our thesis on the overall sector.

First, Apple has made a smart move in repositioning the way in which it segments its products. They are now basically asking users to first decide a screen size and then pick a chip depending on how much compute they need. In their launch videos they spent a lot of time describing the tasks suitable for each of the three chips.

Editor's Note:
Guest author Jonathan Goldberg is the founder of D2D Advisory, a multi-functional consulting firm. Jonathan has developed growth strategies and alliances for companies in the mobile, networking, gaming, and software industries.

The basic M3 works fine for us – email and web browsing, the M3 Pro for people who code, and the M3 Max for people running heavy simulations or video/design software. This is much cleaner, and reflects Apple's true core competency – understanding how normal people use computers. A lot of their recent product launches have strayed from that, and it makes sense for them to revert to something far easier to grasp – now we just hope they do the same for their iPad line-up.

We also found it fascinating that Apple is the only semiconductor designer to introduce a chip this year without mentioning AI once in the product launch. To be precise, they do mention AI, but only in the context of that is one task that users might want to do with the high-end M3 Pro. But they provided no mention of any of the chip's technical specifications – no FLOPS, TOPS, cores, speeds or specs.

We think this reflects Apple's return to its core messaging themes around user human usability. There is currently no way to talk about AI in a way that is meaningful to people not neck-deep in semiconductors. We think the M3 line-up is highly capable in terms of raw neural network performance, but until there are more consumer usage patterns they see no point in mentioning it.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the M3 launch was the fact that they are launching three chips at once. Our initial assumption was that these were the same chip, 'binned' in production, but that was wrong. These are three different chips, with the differences manifest in their very different sizes of each and visible to the naked eye in the die photos (below). This is somewhat staggering, as we have to assume that tape out costs alone for the three has to be close to $1 billion. Very few companies can afford this large an undertaking.

Which leads to our broader view of the market. There are really two different sides of the PC market – Apple and everyone else. Intel remains, by far, the leader in PC CPUs, with AMD in a solid if not exciting #2 position. Qualcomm, who held their own launch event the week prior to Apple's, has unveiled their latest Windows PC CPU. As much as this looks like a highly performative chip, with some of the best AI performance out there (see above how much this matters), it is hard to be optimistic about the outlook for the product.

Add to this the news that Nvidia and AMD are also planning to launch Arm-based PC CPUs, and this tiny sliver of the market is looking very crowded. To put this in perspective, let's say Qualcomm sells 6 million of their CPUs at $150 each, that works out to $900 million in revenue for roughly 2% market share. Their total revenue for this product is less than the theoretical tape out expense for Apple's new family. This is not a direct comparison, but it does highlight the huge advantage Apple is building for itself.

Also read: PC CPUs are getting more interesting, and competition is coming

Historically, one of the big advantages that merchant silicon firms like Qualcomm and Intel enjoy versus internal silicon like Apple's is that the merchant firms typically enjoy larger R&D budgets for developing new products which they can amortize over multiple customers. Apple has flipped that equation on its head, as they are, in this sense, outspending the merchant vendors, something made possible by the large profit pool they enjoy in mobile and PCs.

There are almost no other companies in the world that can afford to do this. Dell, HP, Asus and Lenovo can't. Maybe Samsung could, but their PC market share is too small to expect a good return. Maybe Google, if they really put their minds to it and could maintain the attention long enough. Huawei, with its seemingly bottomless access to capital, could probably pull it off, and for all we know they could be working on something.

In short, the PC market is likely to remain split for a long time to come with Apple continuing to capture the bulk of segment profitability. In fact, conditions are likely to worsen for the merchant vendors as the new entrants to the market are likely to create price pressure for CPUs. As much as they all say they will not compete on price, one of them will break.

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While Apple has a fantastic series of Chips on their hands I don't think it will over take the market like some people are expecting. ARM chips could certainly be the future, but Apple will not be able to hold down a significant !DESKTOP! market share simply because you have to use their software and buy into their overpriced hardware.

I see nVidia making ARM CPUs and building a dominant market share with Microsoft surrounded by gaming being far more likely than Apple ever doing anything more than Adobe creative cloud and iPhones with their M series chips. Which is unfortunate because their M series chips are really F***ing awesome.
 
Right now an older Macbook Air M1 sells for about $650. This is by far the best value all rounder laptop you can buy right now in my opinion. Unless you need Windows for a specific reason id get the Air. My girlfriend just bought one and I must say im very impressed. The battery life in particular is really good and its 100% silent. It kinda feels like Intel/AMD X64 stuff is out of date by comparison. $650 doesnt get you a very good windows laptop at all by comparison.
 
Silly article. It takes the pro-apple spin. For example...

"This is somewhat staggering, as we have to assume that tape out costs alone for the three has to be close to $1 billion. Very few companies can afford this large an undertaking... There are almost no other companies in the world that can afford to do this."

Well... not correct. Apple has to spend $1 billion just to keep up with AMD and Intel. It's a sign of weakness, not strength.

"... they (Apple) provided no mention of any of the chip's technical specifications – no FLOPS, TOPS, cores, speeds or specs. We think this reflects Apple's return to its core messaging themes around user human usability."

The average Apple user is computer illiterate. That's why they don't provide information. It might confuse the customer base. If Apple felt their products were superior to AMD and Intel, they would definitely let the world know.
 
So, we ignore Apple's pitiful pc market share at 13%. Most people don't care, they will never buy overpriced Apple laptops. Apple is still comparing their latest chips to ancient and rather pathetic 3 gen old Intel's for reference. Article also ignores how Intel especially is focused on increasing efficiency of cpu's and Apple's advantages will wane with time. Meteor Lake is just the start.

And no I'm not anti-Apple, I own iPad and an M1 based laptop, but I got it second hand at 50% discount because it was far cheaper than getting an M1 based 12.9" iPad Pro. But I would never ever buy a new Apple laptop, as prices are insane in Australia.
 
Silly article. It takes the pro-apple spin. For example...

"This is somewhat staggering, as we have to assume that tape out costs alone for the three has to be close to $1 billion. Very few companies can afford this large an undertaking... There are almost no other companies in the world that can afford to do this."

Well... not correct. Apple has to spend $1 billion just to keep up with AMD and Intel. It's a sign of weakness, not strength.

"... they (Apple) provided no mention of any of the chip's technical specifications – no FLOPS, TOPS, cores, speeds or specs. We think this reflects Apple's return to its core messaging themes around user human usability."

The average Apple user is computer illiterate. That's why they don't provide information. It might confuse the customer base. If Apple felt their products were superior to AMD and Intel, they would definitely let the world know.

Motivated reasoning is always a LOL. With $100 Billion net profit, $1B is the cost of doing business. And you can bet that Intel and AMD spend similar if not more on their CPUs.

Apple doesn't need to spout specs to anyone because they were Intel + AMD until just recently and didn't then either. But AMD and Intel don't have anything else other than specs to spout at their users and investors. And few know what they mean anyway, otherwise you wouldn't have rabid fanboys arguing the same specs to each other are somehow bad for one company but good for the other, and vice versa.
 
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The more interesting part to me is that it ignores the real reason Apple chips perform so well. They have one thing going for them that no other chip will probably ever have which is complete control of the hardware, software, and for that matter, the entire ecosystem. Much of their performance and success is due to the fact that they have control and efficiencies that others only dream about. Can their on board GPU draw things faster than many other chips, absolutely. Is this because they have more shader and raw horsepower than a 4090? not on your life.

They are very good at what they do, and if you can afford the price premium and live within the limits of their 1000% closed ecosystem, it's the best game in town. But not an option others can emulate or follow.
 
They've gone back to basics, call it the Steve Jobs mentality. When he took over Apple in the mid to late 90s the company had something like 30+ products, he slimmed it down to 3 and then eventually introduced the iPod, iPhone, iPad etc. I think having hardware in 3 tiers is like saying bronze, silver, gold. The same can be said with intel with the i3, i5 and i7. It keeps it simple for consumers who don't understand or care for specs as the numbers are meaningless to them. Also the fact that the majority of sales now are online and not in a retail store so there's no tech salesman to necessarily talk to these days unless you're willing to drive to your nearest retailer.
 
I'd be very excited about the M* series chips if they ran software I care about. Alas, Apple stopped offering access to the Nvidia ecosystem a long time ago, and now that native x86/uefi is out the door, sadly all I can do is admire their technology from a distance.
 
Right now an older Macbook Air M1 sells for about $650. This is by far the best value all rounder laptop you can buy right now in my opinion. Unless you need Windows for a specific reason id get the Air. My girlfriend just bought one and I must say im very impressed. The battery life in particular is really good and its 100% silent. It kinda feels like Intel/AMD X64 stuff is out of date by comparison. $650 doesnt get you a very good windows laptop at all by comparison.
As long as you do not like gaming. I would not replace my windows laptop for this reason alone even if it was given to me for free.
Another thing is soldered storage. I would boycott Apple for this reason alone.
There are 0 reasons for them to do it. SSDs are many times less reliable than RAM and CPUs.
Why the heck would you do it knowing it will make it obsolete faster as no sane person would spend 400 bucks on a new motherboard if they purchase it for 650.
For these reasons Apple is not better. It is quieter and more energy efficient. But at the end of the day, there is no clear winner.
 
I looked up prices in NZ for M2 or M3 MacBooks

Stupidly expense for as an adjunct for a browser , media consumption , and document work

As for media consumption - you will really need external storage - as 256Gb and 512GB options abound

For video processing for speed needs to be onboard - not a lot of space to trash your main drive , day in day out if working on 100Gb 4K 60fps video etc
again horses for courses - probably great screens for watching your iphone or apple TV - or students , or grandma .

Least with an expensive Surface Pro or equivalent I can play lots of my steam games
add in AMD up and coming APUs promise pretty good gleap in graphics power

Again maybe young people will buy them for Uni and game on PS5/Swtitch etc
 
While I feel Apple really nailed it with the M1, but they started losing it from that point onwards. The problem with M2 and M3 is the incremental performance improvement. I can kind of ignore M2 given that it is still on the same 4/5nm, and hence, expected to have a small improvement. But with M3, I feel the main driver is the increased clockspeed to drive the performance improvement. It seems like there is little change in the architecture, and the performance is mostly derived from increase clockspeed, and cores. At this point, I am more interested to see what Qualcomm can bring to the table next year. I feel at this trajectory, Apple is going to fall behind competition in another few years with Qualcomm, AMD and Nvidia starting to make ARM based SOCs.
 
The Apple M-series of chips are indeed impressive feats of engineering, there's no doubt about it. As SRB said, and I'm going to quote it...
The more interesting part to me is that it ignores the real reason Apple chips perform so well. They have one thing going for them that no other chip will probably ever have which is complete control of the hardware, software, and for that matter, the entire ecosystem. Much of their performance and success is due to the fact that they have control and efficiencies that others only dream about.
Bingo. Apple can marry the software and the hardware together in ways that the generic PC industry can't even come close to. It's that level of optimization that makes the Mac such a performance powerhouse. They engineer specific silicon to do the job whereas in the generic PC world you just brute force the job and hope for the best.
Apple is still comparing their latest chips to ancient and rather pathetic 3 gen old Intel's for reference.
That's a major problem that I have with a lot of Apple advertising. Take away the specially engineered silicon and you'll be left with a generic ARM processor that would probably get curb stomped by modern AMD and Intel chips. But again, as I stated above, it's the custom silicon that really makes the magic happen in modern Macs.
 
I have to think Arm and TSCM are doing all the work. Apple can't even figure out how to put a touchscreen on a laptop. Yes, I am being facetious, but still. Come on Apple.
 
Right now an older Macbook Air M1 sells for about $650. This is by far the best value all rounder laptop you can buy right now in my opinion. Unless you need Windows for a specific reason id get the Air. My girlfriend just bought one and I must say im very impressed. The battery life in particular is really good and its 100% silent. It kinda feels like Intel/AMD X64 stuff is out of date by comparison. $650 doesnt get you a very good windows laptop at all by comparison.
Once again, that sounds great until you come to the part where you have to replace all the software and hardware you've used for decades and start living in the Mac/IPad/IPhone ecosystem. If you're all-in on Apple (and have been for a while) then you get used to the Apple Tax (as it used to be called) and overlook the fact that there are alternatives. EG. - For phones you can get a good Android experience from $200 - $2000 and quite frankly you don't need to spend a lot to have a great experience (my year old $349 Google Pixel 6a still does everything I need it to and takes great pictures). And, if you not into building Hackintoshes you need to take Apples prebuilt configurations (including exorbitant upgrade costs for more storage or memory (reference the other feature story about AM4 motherboards lasting through 4 Generations of CPUs). Got to see it when I did 4 years in Academia and the Mac was the only machine that could do chemical formulas for our exams. Hated the OS, the small B&W screen, and the OS was pretty incomprehensible to a DOS guy (didn't get Windows 3.11 until 92 or 93 and then the real breakout in Windows 95). So, they will keep their 5% market share with obscene margins and anybody who buys any Apple product needs to go all in on everything else (iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, etc.). The price tag of doing that really adds up.
 
I have to think Arm and TSCM are doing all the work. Apple can't even figure out how to put a touchscreen on a laptop. Yes, I am being facetious, but still. Come on Apple.
They did figure out a touchscreen on a laptop, it's called an iPad. Honestly, a touchscreen on a laptop isn't that useful for most stuff, especially since MacOS and Windows are built for keyboard and mouse and not touch. I have a ROG Ally, with Windows and Touchscreen. In this form factor is makes more sense but, only because you are likely to be holding the Ally in your hands. Put that on a desk with keyboard and mouse and no one touches the screen.
 
There is currently no way to talk about AI in a way that is meaningful to people not neck-deep in semiconductors.

Patently false. This is like saying you can't talk about a CPU in a way that is meaningful to people if they are not neck-deep in coding, binary math or simple logic.

AI is nothing more than the computer's ability to learn how to produce complex outputs based on a set of inputs, often times as simple as making a request in a natural/common language. For example, you can ask an AI application to draw a picture of a mountain by the seashore. Or you might request a more complex result, like asking the application to write a program to calculate average food sales, per hour for every menu item in a restaurant.

There's no talk of semiconductors at all and I believe people can understand the concept of a computer that can produce a result without having to understand the underlying data models, programming languages or the actual silicon needed to do that.
 
They did figure out a touchscreen on a laptop, it's called an iPad. Honestly, a touchscreen on a laptop isn't that useful for most stuff, especially since MacOS and Windows are built for keyboard and mouse and not touch. I have a ROG Ally, with Windows and Touchscreen. In this form factor is makes more sense but, only because you are likely to be holding the Ally in your hands. Put that on a desk with keyboard and mouse and no one touches the screen.
I'm using a touchscreen linux laptop and I find it extremely useful, from tapping on links in Firefox to editing pictures in gimp. And no, iPad is a content consumption device, not a laptop. Having the Apple silicon with a touchscreen Mac would be amazing though. I respectfully disagree with you on this.
 
I'm using a touchscreen linux laptop and I find it extremely useful, from tapping on links in Firefox to editing pictures in gimp. And no, iPad is a content consumption device, not a laptop. Having the Apple silicon with a touchscreen Mac would be amazing though. I respectfully disagree with you on this.
I appreciate your viewpoint. I've had touch laptops and didn't find them particularly useful especially since I tend to use an external monitor and the laptop sits a little too far away for easy touch. I haven't used Linux in a while, but Windows is not that great for touch because the things you need to touch, like windows controls and menus are somewhat small. MacOS isn't any better in that regard.

I disagree that an iPad is just a consumption device. I don't use mine very much anymore, but I have used it in the past for email, Word, Excel, Teams and more. I do think the usefulness of the iPad is based on what you're doing. It's certainly not the best coding platform, but for the 75-80% of what most of us do on a daily basis at work (email, web browsing, etc), it can work.
 
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