First things first: Why the M1 starts at Apple’s low end

The era of Macs running Apple silicon has begun. Or at least, it will begin next week with the arrival of the new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini models running on Apple’s M1 chip.

It’s important to remember that Apple didn’t reveal its entire strategy durign its event on Tuesday. This is just the first step in a two-year transition for the entire Mac product line. And it started where you might expect: at the low end of the company’s product line.

More options, later

The M1 chip is, as the name implies, the first in what will be a series of Apple-designed Mac processors. In fact, I’d wager that 2021 will bring us at least one (and perhaps more) variations on the M1 processor that was announced. But you have to start somewhere, and just as the iPhone 12 and iPad Air run on the same A14 processor, the three Macs that will arrive next week all run on what is essentially the same M1 chip.

That has some interesting ramifications for the future of how we shop for Macs. The number of spec options hasn’t shrunk to iPhone levels, but it’s close. Not only can you not opt to spend a little more for a faster processor—Apple isn’t even disclosing the clock speed of the M1! It’s just not something Apple thinks is worth differentiating, as is the case with its A-series chips.

Obviously, in the long run Apple will want to sell Macs with a variety of power levels. That’s why we’ll almost certainly see M1 variants next year that offer more processor cores, GPU cores, Thunderbolt channels, and memory options, and maybe even support for discrete GPUs.

But this round of products is more specifically constrained: 8GB or 16GB of RAM, two Thunderbolt ports, four high-performance processor cores, four high-efficiency processor cores, and a seven- or eight-core GPU. That’s it. That’s the M1. Take it, or wait for 2021.

MacBook Air

Apple took a slightly different approach with each of the three products it introduced on Tuesday.

The MacBook Air is the easiest. This is Apple’s most popular Mac, but it’s also the low-end laptop—of course it’s going to benefit from transitioning to the M1 processor. While users can’t order a higher-end processor configuration (as they could with the previous model), the truth is that the MacBook Air was always constrained by its thermal characteristics. Even a high-speed Intel chip like the i7 option in prior models would eventually need to throttle itself in order to keep cool.