Last Year on My Mac: There must be a pony

A psychiatrist had two sons, one of whom turned into an incurable optimist, the other into an incurable pessimist. In a desperate bid to get each to see a more balanced view of the world, one Christmas he tried his damndest with their presents. The boys’ rooms were quiet when he walked past them mid-morning, and he couldn’t help but peek in to see their reactions to their presents.

The incurable pessimist was sat looking glum in the middle of a horde of unwrapped toys. He turned to his father and asked him what the catch was. The psychiatrist was disappointed, so went next door to the room of the incurable optimist, who was digging like crazy through a large pile of horse manure. “Thanks, Dad,” he said, “I figured with all this horse manure, there’s got to be a pony somewhere.”

Forgive the long introductory story, but we’re just the same when it comes to Apple and Macs. The optimists are now ecstatic with the new M1 models, while the pessimists are trying to convince us that it’s just part of Apple’s grand plan to trap us all in its walled garden.

For several years, the pessimists had been complaining that Apple wasn’t interested in Macs any more. Little did any of us realise that over that period its engineers were hard at work developing what has become Apple Silicon. This wasn’t some recent garage project, but the result of many years of hardware and software development, with its firmware largely complete at least a couple of years ago. What greater interest could Apple have shown than to invest in producing the first all-Apple Macs?

We now have hard evidence of what Apple has achieved in the first three M1 models, which by any standards perform far better than the low-end Intel-based models they have replaced, with excellent benchmarks, long battery endurance, and more. The pessimist isn’t impressed, though. How could Apple be serious and expect them to work with a maximum of 16 GB of memory? That ignores the fact that their Intel predecessors have for several years had exactly the same upper limit to installed memory.

It also shows how the pessimist usually doesn’t actually want anything better or even different, so from the outset has ruled out the progress required to make Apple’s investment worthwhile. Following the same chipset architecture as Intel Macs wouldn’t have moved forward an inch. Instead, Apple is applying the big lesson in hardware design that it has learned in the iPhone: the next big advance in computer hardware comes with the tight integration achieved in the System on a Chip (SoC).

One good example is that of memory. User-upgradable memory is constrained to socket-mounted modules which are slower and require more power, but give greater flexibility. They’re generally too slow for high-performance graphics, so CPUs and GPUs usually end up with separate memory, and the inevitable overhead of moving data between them. Build high-speed memory chips into the chip carrier, and they have short high-bandwidth connections to realise high performance, consume less power, and generate less heat. This is good enough to unify CPU and GPU memory, which loses overhead and increases performance, but can’t please those who want it to be user-upgradable.

In a decade, this will all be obvious and commonplace, and we’ll be wondering why no one did it earlier.

We should also be grateful that the Covid-19 pandemic struck this year rather than last. While it has undoubtedly caused Apple and its suppliers problems, by March 2020 much of the hardware engineering work was either completed or completing, and the new version of macOS for the first Apple Silicon systems was also well underway. Even so, the fact that Apple has been able to finish off and deliver both the new version of macOS and its first three low-end Macs has been an astonishing achievement, and there must be many engineers who are still recovering from the experience.

We have, though, seen disruption in system software updates, where the strain resulting from working from home appears to have had impact on several updates over the summer. Hopefully Apple and its staff will be able to return to more normal routines next year, and can put problems like the broken release of MRT 1.68 in October behind it.

In a year when most of us have spent far too long struggling through piles of horse manure, Apple has delivered us three ponies, and that’s just the beginning.