Apple’s got something for us on October 30, but will it be a trick or a treat? If you had asked me a couple of days ago, I would’ve guessed that we’d be seeing a fairly boring set of late-cycle Mac updates announced via press release. But when Apple sent out announcements for a live video event with the phrase “Scary fast,” my expectations changed in a heartbeat.
It’s hard to interpret Apple’s words (both of them) as meaning anything but the introduction of an impressive new generation of Apple chips. This year’s treat is apparently the M3 processor.
How’d we get here?
It’s been an exhilarating few weeks for those of us who follow Apple closely, as many of the usual sources have provided conflicting reports about exactly what Apple is going to do. I admit it: I kind of enjoy being surprised by an Apple announcement–and we are so rarely surprised these days.
That lack of surprise is, in large part, because Apple’s a huge company with an enormous supply chain (largely in Asia) that has to feed specific parts into a factory that then has to tool up to produce complete products. It’s a process that involves thousands of people, and it’s unsurprising that it’s where most Apple product leaks come from.
However, the supply chain has its weaknesses: If, say, an M2 MacBook Pro looks identical to an M3 MacBook Pro, with only the smallest internal changes in order to upgrade the chip, would a supply chain source notice? That’s how updates can slip by some of the usual suspects.
It’s hard to imagine that Apple would preannounce a video event for the last M2 stragglers, like an M2 iMac and maybe an updated design for that weird 13-inch MacBook Pro. No, when Apple trucks in the hoopla, it’s doing it because it wants the world to notice. In this case, “scary fast” seems to indicate that what we’re about to witness is the coming out party for the M3 series of processors.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
This is a change from the first two go-rounds of Apple silicon when Apple initially introduced the generation’s base chip and then came back later with another update for the high-end Pro and Max variations. But if the MacBook Pro is really due to be updated–and given that new models are hard to come by in Apple Stores, it’s likely–they must be featuring the M3 Pro and Max chips.
Introducing the entire M3 family is a heck of a power move. Rather than introducing the new generation with your slowest, weakest chip, you can go straight to the high end and boast about the 16 CPU cores and 40 GPU cores in the new M3 Max. (The M3 Ultra, which presumably fuses two M3 Max chips, will presumably come next year in an update to the Mac Studio and Mac Pro.)
It’s an interesting moment for Apple silicon because Qualcomm just announced its new wave of PC chips that are (like the M series) based on ARM designs. (Qualcomm’s chip designs also integrate work from Nuvia, a startup from former Apple chip designers.) The game is on, and it’s not surprising that Monday’s video event might have been calculated as a response to Qualcomm’s announcements this week.
What to expect
The star of the show next week must be the MacBook Pro. Most of the Macs sold are laptops, and that means that most of the M3 Pro and M3 Max chips ever sold will be in those MacBook Pro models.
If the M3 is based on the A17 Pro chip released with the iPhone 15, we can assume that each individual CPU and GPU core on the M3 Max will be a bit faster than on the M2 Max. The big changes will come with scale: If Gurman’s reports are correct, The M3 Max will feature 12 high-performance CPU cores and 40 GPU cores, up from 8 and 38 in the M2 version. (And it’s possible that the stats Gurman’s source saw weren’t from the highest-core-count version of the M3.)
Apple chip generations aren’t just about core count, though. Frequently, Apple will add other features to its high-end chips to speed up performance in targeted areas. The M2 Pro and Max chips feature a 16-core Neural Engine, but it’s possible Apple could boost that. The maximum amount of memory, currently at 96GB, could be boosted further. Apple has in the past included some custom chips that target key features such as video encoding and decoding, so you never know what it might do on the periphery to accelerate functions that professional users need.
Beyond the chips, though, I have my doubts that the MacBook Pro will change much. The 14- and 16-inch models received a very nice hardware redesign relatively recently, so they seem good to go for a while.
I do wonder what will happen to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which feels like the duck-billed platypus of the Mac line, with its lack of MagSafe, its Touch Bar, and its 2018-era stylings. The answer may be nothing… or at least nothing to be announced on Monday. But I’m holding out hope that Apple might bring it into the M3 generation by giving it a new design that’s more akin to the M2 MacBook Air introduced last summer.
And then there’s the iMac. Again, this is a hardware design that’s practically brand new. The M1 iMac was among the first Apple silicon Macs released, and it’s been untouched since then, so it’s ripe for a processor boost–but not a rethink. I hope the fun colors remain more or less intact, and I expect the 24-inch 4.5K display will similarly remain as is.
However, I do have one wish list item for the new iMac: It would sure be nice if it was offered not just in a base-level M3 configuration but (like its cousin, the Mac mini) was also available with an M3 Pro chip. As someone who used super-powered iMacs for many years, I think there’s a place for an iMac with a little more pick-me-up than the base chip can provide.
The rest will follow
If Apple does unveil the M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chips on Monday, it’s also previewing the next generation of all Mac hardware. If the Apple Silicon era has taught us anything, it’s that a chip is a chip is a chip. In other words, if there’s an iMac with an M3 chip in it, you can bet that the M3 MacBook Air and M3 Mac mini will perform more or less identically. If there’s a MacBook Pro with an M3 Pro chip in it, you can bet that the M3 Pro Mac mini will match it.
In the Apple silicon era, Apple didn’t design a bunch of different chip variations around each of its computers. Instead, it designs a base set of chips and then creates Macs to fit around them. The shapes and forms change, but the chips tell the story. For example, if the M3 iMac supports two external displays, the M3 MacBook Air probably will too. (And if it doesn’t, then that’s pretty much it for your hopes for that feature on the MacBook Air.)
What will the next generation of Mac hardware bring? I can’t wait to find out. The good news is, I won’t have to. Looks like we’re all going to find out next Monday evening.