July 17, 2024


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Apple M2 Chip Gives New MacBook Air 18% Speed Boost

This story is part of WWDC 2022, CNET’s complete coverage from and about Apple’s annual developers conference.

Apple on Monday debuted the new M2 processor, a chip that improves core processing performance 18% over the M1 without hurting battery life in the company’s new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro laptops.

The 18% speed boost comes from the M2’s redesigned central processing units. The processor has four fast CPU cores and four efficient cores, a hybrid approach drawn from the smartphone world. By redesigning the graphics processing units and increasing their count up to a maximum of 10 instead of eight for the M1, GPU performance is 35% faster. Overall, the new MacBook Air is 20% faster at Photoshop image editing and 38% faster at Final Cut Pro video editing, Apple said.

“We continue to have a relentless focus on power-efficient performance,” Johny Srouji, Apple hardware team leader, said at the Worldwide Developers Conference.

Power efficiency is crucial to shrinking laptops since the biggest component is the battery. The new MacBook Airs take up 20% less volume but still have a long, 18-hour battery life, Apple said. The company also is using the M2 in a new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple’s M2 processor has large amounts of high-speed cache memory built onto the chip itself and up to 24MB of regular memory included in the chip package, two attributes that should boost performance over Apple’s 2020-era M1.

Screenshots by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The M2 processor also has a significant memory boost, reaching up to 24GB instead of 16GB for the M1. Memory is important, especially as software gets bigger and laptops have years-long lifespans. M series chips build memory directly into the processor package for fast performance, but it’s not upgradable.

Apple debuted the M1 at 2020’s WWDC and began shipping it later that year in the earlier version of the MacBook Air. The M1, along with beefier successors called the M1 Pro, M1 Max and M1 Ultra, struck an effective balance between performance and battery life and earned strong reviews.

The M2 doubles down on the same balanced approach, offering updated processing cores that are variants of the chips at the heart of newer iPhones. The new chips continue the gradual ejection of Intel processors from the Mac family of personal computers and could enable the last Intel-powered member, the Mac Pro, to switch to Apple chips.

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Designing processors is an expensive, difficult undertaking. But with the M series chips, Apple takes advantage of the A series chip design work it already does for its iPhones and iPads, then pays Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. to build the chips on its advanced product lines. 

The M2 is built on TSMC‘s 5nm (5 nanometer) manufacturing process, but it’s an improved version to the one used for the M1. TSMC is working on a more advanced 3nm process that should let customers squeeze in somewhat more transistors, the core electronics elements that process data on a chip.

The M2 has 20 billion transistors, a 25% increase over the M1, Apple said.

One use of the new transistors is the increased GPU count. Another is an upgraded neural engine — a chip block used to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads. The new 16-core neural engine can perform 15.8 trillion operations per second, Apple said, a 40% speed boost.

With its own chips, Apple gets more control over the technology foundation of its products — a principle important to Chief Executive Tim Cook. That includes both the processor itself, with specific features like AI acceleration, video encoding, and security, and the software Apple writes to take advantage of those features.

Apple’s M series and A series chips are members of the Arm processor family. UK-based Arm licenses designs that companies can customize to varying degrees. Arm chips from Qualcomm, Apple, MediaTek, Samsung, Google and others power just about every smartphone for sale.

A comparison shows Apple's new M2 processor is larger than the M1.

The Apple M2 processor is significantly larger than the M1. That increases manufacturing costs. Apple raised prices for its M2-based MacBook Air laptops.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel has struggled over most of the last decade with problems advancing its manufacturing. That stalled its progress while Apple, Qualcomm, AMD, Nvidia and other Intel rivals took advantage of TSMC’s manufacturing progress.

Because Apple doesn’t offer its chips to others, and because the majority of PCs use Intel processors, Intel is somewhat insulated from Apple’s shift. Intel is working to modernize its manufacturing, spending tens of billions of dollars on new chipmaking fabs. Intel aims to reclaim its lead over rivals TSMC and Samsung in 2024.

Intel’s newest PC processor, code-named Alder Lake, embraces the same mix of high-performance and high-efficiency CPU cores found in smartphone chips and Apple’s M series chips. Future products are designed to improve GPU performance, in particular with Intel’s renewed focus on high-end graphics that’s designed to wean the company from reliance on AMD and Nvidia. That’s important for one big market, gaming, where PCs with Intel and AMD processors are much more widely used than Macs.

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