Making a Mountain Out of Molehill-Sized M4 News

Here’s how I see the current state of Apple’s Macintosh hardware lineup, three-and-a-half years into the Apple silicon era and midway through the M3 generation. Apple is a company that in many ways is built around an annual schedule. WWDC comes every June. New iPhones (along with Watches) come every September. The new OS releases (which are announced and previewed at WWDC) ship later each year in the fall. Many Apple products are not on an annual schedule — such as the iPad, to name the most prominent example — but the OSes are, and the iPhones and Watches are. All things considered, I think Apple would like to have more of its products on an annual cycle. This predictable regularity is one of the hallmarks of Tim Cook’s era as CEO.

Launching a new PC architecture is difficult (to say the least). And the M1 launched at the end of 2020, the most tumultuous and disruptive year for the world since World War II. Then, M2 models seemed late — that’s the only logical explanation for the M2 MacBook Pros not shipping until January 2023, but their M3 successors shipping just 10 months later. Just last month Apple shipped the M3 MacBook Airs. It feels to me, as a longtime observer of the company, that with the M3 generation, Apple has started to hit its intended stride. The M1 and M2 generations were like an airplane taking off — a bit rocky and rough. Turbulence is to be expected. But with the M3, Apple silicon hit cruising altitude. The seatbelt light is now off, and new M-series chips are seemingly being developed on the same annual schedule as the iPhone’s A-series chips. (Note that the M3 family uses the same 3nm fabrication process as the A17 Pro.)

If Apple wants to refresh Macs with new generations of M-series chips annually — and I suspect they do — the schedule we’re seeing with the M3 generation makes sense: MacBook Pros in the fall, MacBooks Airs a few months later, pro desktops in the spring. Last year the M3 update to the iMac — a product that skipped the entire M2 generation — shipped alongside the MacBook Pros, but I could see that happening alongside the consumer MacBook Airs in future years. Because the iMacs skipped the M2 generation, they were overdue. That leaves the spring or even early summer for the high-performance Mac Studio and Mac Pro, and the surprisingly-pro-in-many-use-cases Mac Mini.

So I expect we’ll see M3-generation updates to the Mac Studio, Mac Pro, and Mac Mini either in May (alongside the universally-expected lineup of new iPads) or (more likely) at WWDC in June. And then, if all things go according to Apple’s plans, I expect to see M4-generation MacBook Pros in November, M4 MacBook Airs next February or March, and the desktop models just before or at WWDC 2025, 14 months from now. Lather, rinse, repeat, every 12 months for years to come.

And how do we expect the M4 chips to evolve? Everything tends to get incrementally faster between generations: CPU, GPU, I/O, Neural Engine. But it’s the GPU where Apple silicon lags Nvidia’s state-of-the-art in sheer performance, and it’s GPU performance that’s essential for AI model training (although serious training work takes place on server farms, not personal devices), so it’s natural to expect GPU improvements to be an area of focus. Intel-based Mac Pros were configurable with up to 1.5 TB of RAM, but the M2 Ultra Mac Pro maxes out at 192 GB of RAM. Increasing the maximum amount of RAM in high-end configurations is an obvious improvement that Apple’s chip designers should be focused on. So we’ll probably see incremental (15 percent-ish) gains in CPU performance, greater gains in GPU and Neural Engine performance, and perhaps higher capacity for RAM.

No need to follow the rumor mill or to hear any leaks from insiders in Cupertino. The above summary can all be gleaned just by paying attention to Apple’s patterns and industry-wide trends.

That brings us to a report by Mark Gurman at Bloomberg last week: “Apple Plans to Overhaul Entire Mac Line With AI-Focused M4 Chips”. Overhauled line-up! AI-focused chips! Big news!

The company, which released its first Macs with M3 chips five months ago, is already nearing production of the next generation — the M4 processor — according to people with knowledge of the matter. The new chip will come in at least three main varieties, and Apple is looking to update every Mac model with it, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans haven’t been announced.

The new Macs are underway at a critical time. After peaking in 2022, Mac sales fell 27% in the last fiscal year, which ended in September. In the holiday period, revenue from the computer line was flat. Apple attempted to breathe new life into the Mac business with an M3-focused launch event last October, but those chips didn’t bring major performance improvements over the M2 from the prior year.

It is true that Mac sales were down considerably last year, but Gurman is painting that as the result of the M3 generation being a meh upgrade compared to M2. But (a) the M3 chips only started shipping in the most recently reported quarter; (b) they’re a fine generational upgrade compared to the M2 chips. The real problem is that laptop sales shot up considerably during COVID, with so many people working from home and kids “going to school” via Zoom from home. MacBook sales were pulled forward, so a dip seemed inevitable, no matter how good the M2 and M3 offerings were. And Apple silicon was so good right out of the gate that most people who own M1 Macs — any M1 Macs, including the base MacBook Air and Mac Mini — have little reason to consider upgrading yet.

Apple also is playing catch-up in AI, where it’s seen as a laggard to Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other tech peers. The new chips are part of a broader push to weave AI capabilities into all its products.

Back in 2007, Joe Biden dropped a zinger during a presidential primary debate: “Rudy Giuliani, there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” This year, product rumors need only three things: a noun, a verb, and “AI”.

Apple shares climbed 4.3% to $175.04 on Thursday in New York, the biggest single-day gain in 11 months. They had been down 13% this year through Wednesday’s close.

Bloomberg gonna Bloomberg.

Apple is aiming to release the updated computers beginning late this year and extending into early next year. There will be new iMacs, a low-end 14-inch MacBook Pro, high-end 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros, and Mac minis — all with M4 chips. But the company’s plans could change. An Apple spokesperson declined to comment. [...]

The move will mark a quick refresh schedule for the iMac and MacBook Pro, as both lines were just updated in October. The Mac mini was last upgraded in January 2023.

Apple is then planning to follow up with more M4 Macs throughout 2025. That includes updates to the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air by the spring, the Mac Studio around the middle of the year, and the Mac Pro later in 2025. The MacBook Air received the M3 chip last month, while the Mac Studio and Mac Pro were updated with M2 processors last year.

If all this pans out, it will indeed be news, but the news will be that Apple has successfully gotten the entire Mac hardware lineup onto an annual upgrade cycle. Whereas Gurman is framing the news as a reactionary response by Apple, “overhauling” the hardware lineup very shortly after a supposedly tepid reaction to the M3 generation of Macs that, at this writing, still hasn’t completed rolling out.

The M4 chip line includes an entry-level version dubbed Donan, more powerful models named Brava and a top-end processor codenamed Hidra. The company is planning to highlight the AI processing capabilities of the components and how they’ll integrate with the next version of macOS, which will be announced in June at Apple’s annual developer conference.

I’m sure Apple will have much to say about “AI” at WWDC this June, and that M4-based Macs will execute AI features faster and more efficiently than previous chips, but that’s what new chips do for everything. They’re faster.

That they will provide Apple with AI-related performance to brag about just means they’ll have faster GPUs and bigger Neural Engines, which is exactly how Apple silicon has been evolving year-over-year for 15 years, dating back to the original iPad in 2010 and its A4 SoC. No one is postulating that M4-based Macs will offer AI features that require M4 chips.

The Mac Pro remains the lower-selling model in the company’s computer lineup, but it has a vocal fan base. After some customers complained about the specifications of Apple’s in-house chips, the company is looking to beef up that machine next year. [...] As part of the upgrades, Apple is considering allowing its highest-end Mac desktops to support as much as a half-terabyte of memory. The current Mac Studio and Mac Pro top out at 192 gigabytes — far less capacity than on Apple’s previous Mac Pro, which used an Intel Corp. processor. The earlier machine worked with off-the-shelf memory that could be added later and handle as much as 1.5 terabytes. With Apple’s in-house chips, the memory is more deeply integrated into the main processor, making it harder to add more.

Raising the memory ceiling from 192 GB to 512 GB is also news, but surely is the natural progression of the platform, not a response to criticism of the M2 Mac Pro being little more than a Mac Studio with more options for I/O expansion. No one knows better than Apple that the first-generation Apple silicon Mac Pros are a bit of a disappointment. Raising the memory ceiling to 512 GB would be a significant improvement from the M2 Ultra, but would still offer just one-third the RAM ceiling of the 2019 Intel-based Mac Pro.

Anyway, “the entire Mac product line is set for annual speed-bump Apple silicon updates” is, as far as I can tell, the actual story. Not “Mac sales are in the tank and Apple is overhauling the whole product line to change its focus to AI.