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Apple event 2021: Today marks a critical moment for Apple's next M1 Macs

Last year, Apple released its first Macs powered by new company-designed chips. The stakes are high for big changes in the sequel.

Apple's in the midst of one of its biggest upgrades in years.

Apple/GIF by Caitlin Petrakovitz/CNET

Update, Oct. 18: Apple is hosting a launch today to show off its latest devices. You can follow CNET's live blog here. So far we saw the AirPods 3, an Apple Music 'Voice' plan, new HomePod Mini colors and new MacBooks with Apple's M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Apple's new MacBook Pro laptops will ditch the Touch Bar but bring back MagSafeadd more ports and updated cameras. Here's how you can buy Apple's new MacBook Pros. Original story follows.


Apple has always been known for its showmanship, particularly with its Mac computers. Whether it was Apple's famous 1984 Super Bowl ad, presenting the original Macintosh as a liberator from a dystopian hellscape, or with the playful "Hello, I'm a Mac" ads, the company's always tried to make its devices seem like more than merely the latest computers it can offer. But it will need more than marketing magic to justify why people should pay up for a Mac powered by its own home-grown processor. 

Monday will mark a critical moment for the Mac and Apple's breakaway from Intel chips. The company is expected to announce the second generation of its Apple Silicon initiative to radically remake Mac computers with chips designed by the same team that makes custom processors for the iPhone and iPad. When it was unveiled last year, the M1 chip helped turn the company into the only major PC maker that no longer relies on outside companies like Intel, AMD or Nvidia to create microprocessors to power its devices.

Read more: Apple event live updates: Watch the 'Unleashed' Mac launch today

Its next iteration, rumored to be called the M1X or possibly the M2, is due to be presented alongside newly redesigned MacBook Pro laptops, among other devices. Apple is said to be taking the opportunity to augment the laptop with popular features like MagSafe charging cables and better screens. But Apple's M-series chips will be the most closely watched feature within the tech industry. With it, Apple will have to prove whether it can live up to the showmanship that's made its Mac one of the world's best-regarded laptops.

"To make people happy, they will have to deliver," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. For her, that means showing off what the computers can do that others can't, beyond merely getting better battery life.

Apple so far is confident. When Apple announced its upcoming event, the company used a graphic reminiscent of light rays you'd see as you're speeding through space. And the tagline for the event: "Unleashed."

For most people, this type of inside-baseball techie stuff is unimportant. As long as the computer works, they're happy. But inside the tech industry, Apple's next iteration of its M-series chips will give an indication of how much better it thinks its technology can be. And, most importantly, whether it can go up against companies like Intel that have been designing microprocessors since before Apple even existed.

Apple said its chips are more energy-efficient than the ones from Intel it relied on before, which translates to slimmer case designs and longer battery life. But in order to truly take on the rest of the industry, Apple's chips also need to pack as much computing power as those of the competition, if not more. That's what industry watchers will be looking for in Apple's chips on Monday.

"I'm expecting with this one there will be something new on the hardware side," Milanesi said. "A different design? Maybe different colors? What else are we going to see?"

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Apple's new M1 iMac came in seven colors. Orange you pleased?

Screenshot/Apple

Anticipated sequel

Apple turned heads when it introduced the M-series chips last year. Back then, the $999 MacBook Air, $1,299 MacBook Pro and $699 Mac Mini didn't look different on the outside, but CNET's computer reviewer Dan Ackerman found they offered impressive battery life while still running apps well.

Fast forward to today, after Apple also released a redesigned $1,299 M1-powered iMac in seven colors in the spring, and Ackerman is more convinced. More software like Adobe's creative apps work so well on Apple's M1 computers that there's no real difference when compared to Apple's older computers running Intel chips, he said. That in and of itself is an accomplishment, considering how technologically complex a transition it is.

"Things like this are at their best when you don't realize when they're happening," Ackerman said. "When you buy something, you shouldn't have to care what chips are in it. You should really only have to worry about whether it can do what you want."

Customers appear to agree. Apple said it sold so many M1 Macs that the product line helped push its desktop and laptop revenues to an all-time high of $9.1 billion during the first three months of this year. That was up 70% from the same time a year earlier, a dramatic change in an otherwise slow-going market. "Keep in mind, in the five years prior to the pandemic, the Mac was essentially a flat business, growing on average 1% annually," Loup Ventures analyst Gene Munster wrote in May. 

Now that Apple's got people's attention, the question is what it'll do next. Ackerman is on the lookout for when Apple will feel confident enough of its M-series chips to replace the Intel-powered devices at the top end of its product line, meant for professional-level video, audio and graphics editing. He says that, to do that, Apple has to show how its graphics capabilities can compete against or work with technology built by industry leaders Nvidia and AMD.

"That's what keeps Apple from going completely M1," Ackerman said. 

Apple didn't respond to requests for comment about upcoming product plans.

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Dan Ackerman's setup comparing the new M1 Macs with their Intel counterparts.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Crowd pleaser

Apple's laptops may have winning designs, but they haven't substantially changed in years. Rumors are that Apple has plans for that too.

The company may be preparing to bring back fan-favorite technologies, like an HDMI port on the side of its laptops, making them easier to plug into televisions and computer monitors. Apple's also rumored to be adding back the MagSafe magnetic charging cable, which the company stopped using in 2015 when it switched to industry-standard USB-C charging cables. (Disclosure: I am a vocal advocate of magnetic charging cables and am rooting for their return, even if other people at CNET wrongly argue against it.)

Whatever Apple introduces alongside its newest computers is likely to be a crowd pleaser.

"The ability for Apple to customize and tweak the chip for everything you want to do is really powerful," said Jon Erensen, an analyst at Gartner. "Apple's definitely showed it has the ability to compete."