Apple's M2 Chip Gives New MacBook Air a Speed Boost
Apple maintains its focus on efficiency for its second-generation Mac processor.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Apple on Monday debuted the new M2 processor, a chip that improves core processing performance 18% over the M1 without hurting battery life in the company's new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro laptops.
The 18% speed boost comes from the M2's redesigned central processing units. The processor has four fast CPU cores and four efficient cores, a hybrid approach drawn from the smartphone world. By redesigning the graphics processing units and increasing their count up to a maximum of 10 instead of eight for the M1, GPU performance is 35% faster. Overall, the new MacBook Air is 20% faster at Photoshop image editing and 38% faster at Final Cut Pro video editing, Apple said.
Power efficiency is crucial to shrinking laptops since the biggest component is the battery. The new MacBook Airs take up 20% less volume but still have a long, 18-hour battery life, Apple said. The company also is using the M2 in a new 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The M2 processor also has a significant memory boost, reaching up to 24GB instead of 16GB for the M1. Memory is important, especially as software gets bigger and laptops have years-long lifespans. M series chips build memory directly into the processor package for fast performance, but it's not upgradable.
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 ejection of Intel processors from the Mac family of personal computers and could enable the last Intel-powered member, the Mac Pro, to switch to Apple chips.
Watch this: Apple Introduces High-Performance Mac M2 Processor
Designing processors is an expensive, difficult undertaking. But with the M series chips, Apple takes advantage of the A series chip design work it already does for its iPhones and iPads, then pays Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. to build the chips on its advanced product lines.
The M2 is built on TSMC's 5nm (5 nanometer) manufacturing process, but it's an improved version to the one used for the M1. TSMC is working on a more advanced 3nm process that should let customers squeeze in somewhat more transistors, the core electronics 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 the increased GPU count. Another is an upgraded neural engine -- a chip block used to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads. The new 16-core neural engine can perform 15.8 trillion operations per second, Apple said, a 40% speed boost.
With its own chips, Apple gets more control over the technology foundation of its products -- a principle important to Chief Executive Tim Cook. That includes both the processor itself, with specific features like AI acceleration, video encoding, and security, and the software 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 Arm licenses designs that companies can customize to varying degrees. Arm chips from Qualcomm, Apple, MediaTek, Samsung, Google and others power just about every smartphone for sale.
Intel has struggled over most of the last decade with problems advancing its manufacturing. That stalled its progress while Apple, Qualcomm, AMD, Nvidia and other Intel rivals took advantage of TSMC's manufacturing progress.
Intel's newest PC processor, code-named Alder Lake, embraces the same mix of high-performance and high-efficiency CPU cores found in smartphone chips and Apple's M series chips. Future products are designed to improve GPU performance, in particular with Intel's renewed focus on high-end graphics that's designed to wean the company from reliance on AMD and Nvidia. That's important for one big market, gaming, where PCs with Intel and AMD processors are much more widely used than Macs.