After months, if not years, of feverishly theorizing about Apple’s chip roadmap for the Mac, this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference finally gave us a tantalizing look at the successor to the blockbuster M1, released a little over a year and a half ago.
Until it gets into the hands of reviewers and users, we don’t have much solid information about the M2’s performance. What we do know is that the processor at the heart of the new MacBook Air and the new (not quite) 13-inch MacBook Pro comes in two options: an 8-core CPU/8-core GPU model on the base -MacBook Air and an 8-core CPU/10-core GPU in any other configuration. We also know that Apple has added higher memory capacity, faster memory throughput, and built-in dedicated video encoding and decoding hardware from the M1 Pro and above.
But, much more exciting, now that we have a second data point to work with, we can extrapolate a bit more about the future of the M2 and when we should expect it to make its way to the rest of the Mac lineup. (Like any professional writer, I can turn two dots into a line. Don’t try this at home, kids.)
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the M2 is destined for most of Apple’s consumer-level lineup, just as the M1 made its way into the 24-inch iMac and the Mac mini. The real question is whether, as with the M1, Apple chooses to use the same version of the chip in all those machines.
In the case of the M1, Apple offered a binned 7-core GPU variant in the entry-level iMacs and MacBook Air; this time, that low-end variant is an 8-core GPU M2, which could be a binned version of the 10-core GPU. (Although it’s worth noting that the low-end M2 MacBook Air starts at $200 more than the entry-level M1 Air.)
Assuming Apple continues on a similar time frame — and it must be admitted that with the global supply chain in the form it is, it’s hard to predict anything with reliability — an M2 iMac is at least several months away. The real question is whether Apple will have the capacity to ship other M2 Macs this fall or will have to wait until next spring. The iMac’s release date isn’t tied to any particular time of year, and updates are often distributed, sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the middle of the year, and sometimes in the fall. But if Apple doesn’t start releasing its first M2 Macs until sometime next month, fall may come too early, especially with supply chain restrictions. I’m betting on next spring because when it comes to Apple product rumors, always have the upper hand – products rarely appear earlier than you expect.
There is also the wild card Mac mini. When Apple announced the M1 Mac mini at the same fall event as the M1 Air, it also made the choice to keep the high-end Intel Mac mini in the lineup. As it stands, it and the 2019 Mac Pro are the nothing but Intel Macs that Apple still sells. Much of the speculation about the replacement of that high-end Mac mini has focused on the more powerful versions of Apple’s chips, such as the Pro and Max.
The M1 version of the Pro never made it to the desktop. So will that change this time? As someone desperately looking for an M2-Pro powered desktop, I sure hope so (it would be nice to see them in an iMac too, even if a bigger model still isn’t continuity). My guess is that Apple had to prioritize where to place the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips it had available and chose to send them to the much more popular MacBook Pros and, in the case of the Max, the new ones. Mac Studio.
Like the iMac, a new Mac mini can come out at any time, even if it’s just an M2 version sitting above a cheaper M1-powered model. But if we take a holistic view of Apple’s roadmap, it’s hard to imagine the Mac mini topping the list of updates.
Pro to the limit
What about those Pro and Max versions of the M2? The M1 Pro and M1 Max chips were introduced just under a year after the first M1 Macs, and they were not only much more powerful, they also offered more configurations – especially for GPU cores – than the M1. We don’t yet know how the M2 stacks up against the M1 Pro and M1 Max – Apple was obviously very hesitant to compare them publicly – but it seems likely that the next generation of Pro and Max chips will see the gains. relative to their predecessors relative to what the M2 showed over the M1.
If the timeline moves fast, that would mean M2 Pro/Max chips probably won’t arrive until (sadly) next fall, an idea supported by Recent Rumors of Revamped MacBook Pros† And if they make the leap to the desktop this time, I still expect Apple to prioritize putting those MacBook Pros in that sell so damn well — probably the same for a speedy Mac Studio. And of course there’s still one system hanging out there…
Yes, the Mac Pro. Teased at the same spring event that announced the Mac Studio and its awesome M1 Ultra chip, there was some hope that a revised Mac Pro, fitting enough, would show up at a developer-focused conference. But since that’s not the case, we’re left with an unusual situation: Apple announced in 2020 that it expected to pass all from its Macs to Apple silicon within two years, which is what happened – with the exception of the Mac Pro.
But if the company is still trying to ship a new Mac Pro by the end of 2022, there’s little doubt as to which chip will power it: It should apparently be the M1 Ultra. When John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, unveiled the M1 Ultra, he described it as “a final chip” in the M1 family, seemingly ruling out the possibility of an even more powerful processor.
The Mac Pro certainly won’t have a processor less powerful than the Mac Studio, and since the M2 isn’t even shipping yet, it sure looks like the Ultra version won’t be available any time soon. So the M1 Ultra should be it – or, perhaps more likely, multiple M1 Ultras?
Since Apple is keeping the M1 Air in the lineup for now, the coexistence of both chip lines might not be shocking. After all, it took well over a year for the Ultra version of the M1 to come out, and it’s only been around for a few months, meaning it better keep earning its value for all those users who have invested in it.