Man using a laptop
A man using a MacBook on a couch. Image credit: Dorieugene via Bigstock.

Last year Apple released the M1 series of Apple Silicon processors. These processors are ARM-based and are designed by Apple Inc. ARM laptop/desktop processors are nothing new. However, the M1 processors have turned heads due to their significant performance gains over previous Intel-based Macs. The performance gains are complemented by impressively long battery life.

ARM processors can be fairly powerful, but they are generally not as powerful as their x86 counterparts. They do, however offer energy-efficiency benefits and that helps them to reduce their heat output. Processor heat output is a significant issue for phones, tablets, and laptops.

Heat output matters in desktops too. However, the issue is significantly easier to resolve in desktops due to the amount of space they have for airflow, as well as larger heat sinks and larger fans. The heat produced by a phone or laptop processor must be dissipated, and that requires a thermally conductive medium with a suitably large surface area.

The surface area can be smaller if there is strong airflow. Unfortunately, laptops lack both. The solution to this is to use either a less powerful processor that generates less heat, or to build a more efficient processor. Most processor and laptop manufacturers strike a balance between both.

Laptops utilize ‘mobile’ processors (for example: the Intel Core i-series processors with model numbers ending with a U) that are optimized to improve battery life, but they aren’t as powerful. Mobile processors are also more expensive than desktop processors.

Did you know: There are different types of processors, including but not limited to Central Processing Units (CPU) and Graphics Processing Units (GPU). GPUs handle graphics and video-intensive tasks more efficiently than CPUs, and CPUs handle tasks that are not graphics-related.

Mobile CPUs generate less heat, enabling them to operate within the confines of a laptop’s thin airflow-deficient chassis to avoid overheating. This lower heat output is evident in their Thermal Design Power (TDP) ratings. The Apple Silicon M1 processors are offering desktop-level performance with an even lower heat output than a typical laptop processor.

That’s a significant leap forward. Higher performance, lower power consumption, longer battery life, and at the same price of similar laptops (e.g. Toshiba Portege, Dell Precision, and other high-end slim laptops) is a winning combination. This isn’t quite as simple as a processor manufacturer offering a better product, because Apple is a computer manufacturer as well.

They have the ability to use the M1 to bolster Mac sales by producing them only for Macs. This means that (until Intel and AMD catch up), you’ll have to buy a Mac to obtain that impressive combination of performance and energy efficiency. Apple could do either that or make a profit selling these new processors to other computer manufacturers.

Considering all of these details, it follows that Apple will offer scaled up processors based on the M1’s architecture because the high performance-to-cost ratio and high performance-to-energy ratio make that a feasible (and tempting) option — even in a space-constrained device such as a laptop. It’s possible that Apple may release this new processor at their next event.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they will wipe out the entire PC industry, as the starting price of M1 MacBooks is $999 and the Mac Mini starts at $699. The irreplaceable SSD and RAM are also factors to consider.