Apple M2 chip gives new MacBook Air 18% speed boost

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Apple M2 chip gives new MacBook Air 18% speed boost

This story is part of WWDC 2022CNET’s full coverage of and about Apple’s annual developer conference.

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

The 18% speed boost comes from the M2’s redesigned CPUs. The processor has four fast CPU cores and four efficient cores, a hybrid approach from the smartphone world. By redesigning the graphics processing units and increasing their number to a maximum of 10 instead of eight on the M1, GPU performance is 35% faster. Overall, the new MacBook Air is 20% faster when editing images with Photoshop and 38% faster when editing videos with Final Cut Pro, according to Apple.

“We remain relentlessly focused on energy-efficient performance,” said Johny Srouji, Apple’s hardware team lead, at the World developer conference.

Power efficiency is crucial for shrinking laptops as the largest component is the battery. The new MacBook Airs take up 20% less volume, but still have a long battery life of 18 hours, according to Apple. The company is also using the M2 in a new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple’s M2 processor has large amounts of high-speed cache memory built into the chip itself and up to 24MB of regular memory built into the chip package, two attributes that set its performance apart from Apple’s M1 from the 2020 era should increase.

Screenshots by Stephen Shankland/CNET

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

Apple introduced the M1 at WWDC 2020 and began shipping 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 received 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 displacement of Intel processors from the Mac family of PCs and could allow the last Intel-powered member, the Mac Pro, to move to Apple chips.


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Apple introduces powerful Mac M2 processor


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

The M2 is based on TSMC’s 5nm (5 nanometers) manufacturing process, but is an improved version over that used for the M1. TSMC is working on a more advanced 3nm process that should allow customers to fit slightly more transistors, the core electronic 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 increased GPU count. Another is an improved neural engine – a block of chips used to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads. The new 16-core neural engine can perform 15.8 trillion operations per second, according to Apple, which is a 40% speed increase.

With its own chips, Apple gains more control over the technological basis of its products – a principle that is important to Chief Executive Tim Cook. This includes both the processor itself, with specific features like AI acceleration, video encoding, and security, and the software that 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 company Arm licenses designs that businesses can customize to varying degrees. Arm chips from Qualcomm, Apple, MediaTek, Samsung, Google, and others power pretty much every smartphone for sale.

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

The Apple M2 processor is significantly larger than the M1. This increases the manufacturing costs. Apple has increased the prices of its M2-based MacBook Air laptops.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel has struggled for most of the past decade to keep its manufacturing going. This blocked progress while Apple, Qualcomm, AMD, Nvidia and other Intel rivals leveraged 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 sealed off from Apple’s shift. Intel is modernizing its manufacturing and spending tens of billions of dollars on new chip factories. Intel aims to regain its lead over rivals TSMC and Samsung in 2024.

Intel’s latest PC processor, codenamed Alder Lake, includes the same mix of powerful and highly efficient CPU cores found in Apple’s smartphone and M-series chips. Future products are expected to improve GPU performance, especially with Intel’s renewed focus on high-end graphics that should wean the company off its reliance on AMD and Nvidia. This is important for a large market, gaming, where PCs with Intel and AMD processors are much more common than Macs.

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