Comparing Apples new Silicon vs a Battle-Tested Intel Favorite

What are the benefits to reading this article? You will learn:

  • History of Apple changing processors
  • Understand why M1 processors destroy their intel counterparts
  • Have a real world usage evaluation of the new M1 and the most popular Intel model
  • Learn how each of the two can be upgraded

*I also made a video on this comparison, have a look on youtube.

Previous Apple Architecture Change

I’ve used Apple laptops since the Intel core 2 duo 13″ back in 2008 while working at AOL. It was during a time when Apple was transitioning from their own, IBM manufactured, PowerPC processors, to Intel x86 based processors. There were many of the same concerns as today related to software compatibility and using Rosetta to run legacy apps, previously based on the PPC architecture. The full transition took five years, from its’ announcement in 2005, first implementation in 2006 (OS X Tiger: 10.4 (PPC)/10.4.4(Intel)), to 2011 with OS X Lion, 10.7 being Intel only. The current transition could take a similar timeframe as Apple is still rumored to be releasing new Intel hardware into 2022, and likely supported for years afterwards.

M1 vs x86 Performance Explanation

Processor performance is affected by two factors, architecture and manufacturing process. Intel typically focuses on each, and had previously, released a new processor each year based on an improvement in one of the two areas. They dubbed it a, Tick-Tock release cycle and it looked like this:

As you can see, the yearly change is either to the architecture, or the manufacturing process (denoted by die size reductions).

As you can see, at 1w of power, you can get 40% more frequency, or achieve 1.0frequency with 55% less power. comparing 14nm vs 7nm manufacturing process. It’s not as exact as comparing Intels latest 10nm vs TSMC’s 5nm, as intel chips have a higher density at the same nm, however the results wouldn’t be too far off.

From TechCenturion:

So, what happens when we shrink the size of a Transistor?

This results in two major improvements:
1) Performance: As the size of the transistor decreases, we can fit a higher number of them in the same unit area. Hence, we can achieve higher processing power from the same sized processor.
2) Power Efficiency: Smaller transistors require less power for their functioning. This reduces the overall power consumption of the chip. Less power also results in the generation of less heat and thus allowing us to increase the clock speeds further.

https://www.techcenturion.com/7nm-10nm-14nm-fabrication

There are a few enhancements made, like having a Unified Memory Architecture which puts RAM right no the CPU package itself, and is shared between both CPU & GPU.

All that being said, the Intel quad-core i7 in the 15″ MBP will be slower, compared to the M1, but imperceivable in 90% of my daily usage. Speaking of real world usage, let’s look at other important considerations.

Ports

2015 Macbook Pro 15″

VS

2020 Macbook Air M1

No comparison here, the Macbook Air M1 has only 2 usb-c ports while the 20215 Macbook Pro has usb 3.0 x2, thunderbolt x2, SD slot, HDMI, and a magsafe 2 power jack. The upcoming Macbook Pros for October/November are rumored to bring back a few ports, namely the Magsafe power jack, SD card reader, and an HDMI port. It’s unlikely that they will bring back the usb3.0 ports since they will still have usb-c ports, though hopefully they will be on both sides of the laptop.

Keyboard / Mouse

2015 Macbook Pro 15″

2020 Macbook Air M1

Both Machines have Force Touch Trackpads (sensor and haptic feedback rather than mechanical movement), however the M1 air has a larger Trackpad. For keyboards, there is more travel on the 2015 MBP, however the M1 also has built in Touch ID.

Overall for this category, without touch ID, I’d say inputs are equal, however having the biometric sensor does give the M1 a slight edge.

Display

The 15.4″ display is around 34% larger than the 13.3″ macbook air, however the later still has a few advantages. It can get brighter, 400nits vs 300nits, and to my naive eyes, seems to have deeper blacks leading to a better contrast ratio. The 15″ also has a full size HDMI port, while the 13″ M1 support sidecar (using your nearby iPad as a second display). Overall, both displays have roughly equivalent benefit for me. Size however greatly effects the next category.

Portability

Of all the categories, this is the most imbalanced. The smaller, might lightweight air weighs 2.8lbs which the 15″ Macbook pro weighs 4.49lbs. Interesting note is that the 15″ has a 99.5watt-hour battery, because that’s less than the 100w limit for lithium ion batteries on commercial flights. The air has a 49.9watt-hour battery btw.

While carrying dongles is an inconvenience of the M1, its’ ability to be powered by portable battery packs and its’ full day battery life easily make up for it.

Hands down, the Macbook air wins this category.

User Mods

Both machines still have some ability for user tweaks or modifications. Rare in the current landscape of complete integration.

For the fan-less Macbook Air, the ability to keep the processor cooler while under load, is an easy modification. It’s done by using a thermal pad to transfer heat from the processor heatsink to the bottom chassis of the notebook. While you will not notice a different if you are not doing a processor intensive tasks, but if you do, the air will stay fast for longer because there would be less thermal throttling.

The fairly trivial mod takes about 10-15 minutes and the thermal pad/sticker can be found on amazon for around $5-10.

For the 2015 15″ Macbook pro the mod is more significant. The SSD can be replaced for a faster, larger one. Apple charges about $400 to upgrade a 256GB drive to 1TB, however you can buy a $10 adapter and a 1tb NVMe drive for around $100. That will quadruple your storage, and the new drive is in-fact twice as fast as the stock drive.

Conclusion

Both Machines run the current version of OS X, and will both support Monterey. For this comparison, both machines were similar when evaluating user inputs (keyboard/mouse), and displays. However the M1 came ahead for performance, and portability, while the 15″ Macbook pro held an advantage for ports, and user mods.

For me, the M1 is a more future proof machine, but you will have no issues with a 2015 Macbook pro for the next 3-4 years. A new M1 air with 1tb of storage will cost around $900+$400, while a used but good/excellent condition 15″ 2015 macbook pro with 1tb ssd will cost around $700+$110. Many consider it the best laptop ever made, which apple continued to sell alongside newer models for years after its’ introduction.

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mac_transition_to_Intel_processors
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PowerPC
https://www.techcenturion.com/7nm-10nm-14nm-fabrication
https://www.apple.com/au/newsroom/2020/11/apple-unleashes-m1/
https://www.pro-tools-expert.com/production-expert-1/why-the-apple-m1-chip-is-so-fast
https://support.apple.com/kb/sp719?locale=en_US

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