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Apple M1 Exposes Intel Gap

December 15, 2020

Author: Linley Gwennap

With the release of the first laptop PCs using its homegrown M1 processor, Apple has exposed a chink in Intel’s armor. Even though laptops have expanded to about three-quarters of all PC shipments, Intel continues to design its CPU cores primarily for desktop systems. Simply choosing a different design target allowed Apple to achieve a huge performance-per-watt increase. By further exploiting Intel shortcomings in transistor technology and the x86 instruction set, the M1 delivers 70% better performance than that company’s processors. Although other vendors will have difficulty adopting this strategy in the near term, Intel must quickly respond or risk losing additional PC share.

Intel’s x86 CPUs must serve a wide range of systems including servers, desktop PCs, and laptop PCs. Of these systems, desktops demand the highest single-core performance, so the company designs its microarchitectures to operate at more than 5GHz while burning as much as 50W per core. In thin-and-light laptops, however, this top speed is wasted; to save power, the CPU typically operates below 3GHz. But Intel’s laptop products retain the extensive pipeline logic and high-performance circuit design that fast desktops need, making these microarchitectures inefficient at low frequencies.

Apple instead designs its CPUs to operate efficiently at 2.5–3.0GHz, boosting performance per watt in a laptop. In the same 28W TDP as Intel’s Ice Lake processor, the M1 delivers 40% better single-core performance and 70% better multicore performance on the basic Geekbench 5 test, showing that the Intel chip cannot sustain high clock speeds within this power constraint. Intel’s newer Tiger Lake products reduce this performance gap but don’t close it, particularly on the multicore side. Reviewers have also found the M1 extends battery life by 50% to 80% for CPU-centric tasks using native software.

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