The October 2021 Apple Event

Published on Tuesday, October 19, 2021

One of the countless side effects of the pandemic has been on public events: inviting hundreds of journalists to a corporate PR event, much less thousands of developers to a conference, simply wasn't happening in 2020. And so exhibitors had to get creative, or, more typically, had to cancel such events altogether.

Traditionally1, Apple liked inviting folks and offering a controlled, rehearsed introduction of their product line-up. 2020 offered a challenge to that approach, but Apple has also seen it as an opportunity to replace it. It didn't hurt that they had a relatively recent campus to show off.

And so, starting with WWDC 2020 and continuing with three, roughly-one-hour-each event in the fall of 2020, they moved to a format where everyone — not just interested customers but also members of the media — watch a "live stream" that really isn't a live stream at all, but rather a bunch of pre-recorded, meticulously edited footage. They're clearly having a lot of fun working their sci-fi-looking campus into all kinds of greenscreen stages and transitions. At some point, that will get tiresome — but not yet, yesterday.

I think they mostly did well. A fair amount of different presenters, all of whom seemed excited to show off what their teams had been working on. There's always the risk of being a little too formulaic, too rehearsed, too inauthentic, and I feel yesterday's event mostly avoided those pitfalls.2 It's also always fun to watch their hands. If you've ever presented, you'll know the strange feeling of "wait, where do I put these?"

The Beginning And The End

Tim Cook, apparently preparing to launch CowPlay or Apple Lawnmower+, bookends the event as always. I don't have much to say about that other than… I'm not really sure why Tim is still a featured speaker at these events at all.


There were rumors that new AirPods might show up at the event, and they struck me as strange, as "we have new professional laptops, and also… headphones" seemed like an incoherent story to tell. And I was right on that: they had more to say about Music, though some of it felt like padding.

Their HomePods mini3 now come in colors that aren't light gray and dark gray. This was, best as I can tell, the only actual announcement in that demo. It's also yet another event (after April's iMac / iPad Pro one) where they emphasize colors in one product, only to utterly disregard that colors might be nice in the other product, too.

There's new AirPods. OK.

Apple Music now has a Voice subscription tier, and I'm still not entirely sure what it does and doesn't do. Some seem to say it flat-out features no GUI at, and that you have to use Siri to access songs. But when you go to comparing their plans, the table doesn't really suggest that to me. No lyrics, no advanced features like Dolby Atmos, no offline storage, but… I see nothing that screams "you can only browse via voice".

Whoever did their dollhouse-style demo of how a family household might use multiple HomePods mini clearly had a lot of fun. Last year's transition was even cooler, though.

The MacBook Pros

OK, but those announcements were just the appetizer.

The real stars of the show were the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, featuring the also-new M1 Pro and M1 Max4 SoCs. As the name suggests, they're variants of last year's M1, which in turn is a sibling of last year's A14. All of those feature Firestorm performance cores, and Icestorm efficiency cores.

The M1 was roughly what would have previously been called an "A14X": a system- on-chip similar to the A14, but with some specs boosted by virtue of having more thermal headroom. When previously this was used on iPads only5, this use has now expanded to the Mac. That's not to say the M1 is just a spec-boosted phone CPU, but, yes, it is. It just so happens that the phone CPU itself is already very impressive.

The M1 also adds a few features that aren't relevant on iPhone. The Pro and Max add a few more. Perhaps this table helps get a rough idea of how these four differ, and how they really don't:

  A14 M1 M1 Pro M1 Max
P-cores 2 4 6-8 8
E-cores 4 4 2 2
Clock speed 3 GHz 3.2 GHz 3.2 GHz? 3.2 GHz?
GPU cores 4 8 14-16 24-32
Memory 4-6 GiB 8-16 GiB 16-32 GiB 32-64 GiB
Memory bandwidth 42.7 GiB/s 68.25 GiB/s 200 GiB/s 400 GiB/s
Displays 1 2 3 5
More features - Thunderbolt ProRes -
TDP, roughly 5 W 18 W 35 W? 45 W?

Again, leaving aside additional features like the hardware-accelerated ProRes encoder/decoder on the M1 Pro and Max, you get the same CPU cores on an iPhone 12 mini as you do on a 16-inch MacBook Pro; you just get fewer of them, and at a slightly lower clock.

A few things of note here:

  • the "TDP" numbers are given to give you a rough idea of what Intel and AMD CPUs you might compare these to. They're not numbers Apple has claimed, and they're only a ballpark.
  • you can tell efficiency is more of a focus on the iPhone and on the M1. The Pro and Max only offer 2 such cores. In practice, this shouldn't make too much of a difference, but odds are the many, many background tasks a modern OS runs will sip a little bit more battery on an M1 Pro/Max machine.
  • the M1 slightly bumps the CPU, yielding a ~7% increase in per-core performance. This explains why an iPad Pro with M1 is slightly faster than an iPhone 12.
  • however, the M1 Pro and Max do not further bump the clock speed. And indeed, early benchmark results yield virtually identical single-threaded speed.
  • instead, where the Pro and Max shine is in two things: one, they significantly boost the count of performance cores and especially GPU cores. And two, they allow far more RAM.

You'll also notice the vastly increased memory bandwidth. This is for the same reason: an M1 Pro is basically an M1 with thrice the memory chips attached to the package. An M1 Max furthre doubles that, hence six times the memory bandwidth. This is also why you cannot configure an M1 Pro with 64 GiB, nor can you, vice versa, configure an M1 Max with just 16: Apple doesn't actually source that many different variants of Hynix memory ICs. You get (I'm guessing) 4x4 GiB or 4x8 GiB on the Pro, or 8x4 GiB or 8x8 GiB on the Max, and that's it.

Apple seems to be sticking, so far, to their intent of relying entirely on unified memory: the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine, and other chips on the SoC all use a shared pool. This has massive latency benefits where, say, a process that fills memory from the CPU can then simply point the GPU to the very same range of memory with no transfer at all, but it does raise the question of how far they're able to scale this. The current Mac Pro doesn't go to 64 GiB of RAM, nor twice that; it goes to 24 times that at 1.5 TiB of RAM. Perhaps there is another shoe yet to drop, where the M1 Edition6 doesn't use unified memory. Another benefit that they've hammered home a few times in the presentation: if the CPU doesn't need that much RAM, the GPU suddenly gets a ton. For example, if your processes only need about 16 GiB, and you have a 64 GiB model? That's suddenly a GPU with 48 GiB RAM.

All of which is to say: the M1 Pro addresses some of the limitations of the M1, such as only supporting one external display, and only up to 16 GiB RAM. It also, while probably drawing a fair bit more power, promises much more multi-core performance (albeit unchanged single-core performance).

The M1 Max, which you probably don't need, but is nice to have as an option, goes a few steps further.

I'm bummed we didn't see use of the Avalanche/Blizzard cores in the A15. There may be a number of factors here: for one, rumor has it these laptops are actually about half a year late, so those cores wouldn't have been ready. It's also possible they were busy enough getting these first versions out at all; bumping their cores to newer revisions wasn't as high a priority. Lastly, Avalance/Blizzard don't offer that much improvement over Firestorm/Icestorm anyway. The process is refined, but still 5nmm, and actual performance results from the iPhone 13 suggest no statistically significant change in single- threaded performance at all.7

It is my expectation that we'll see an M2 early next year, and perhaps an M2 Pro and M2 Max in late 2022. As time goes on, they may coordinate these generational leaps a little more.

Srouji was giddy to tell us all about these, and he deserves it. I was mildly annoyed last year by the Bezos charts where, without an actually defined y axis, they plot performance against power draw and really don't say much other than "our product is better".

This year, they did it again, and my criticism stands: the chart is really just a visualization of assertions such as "our product is just as fast as the other guys, but draws less power" or "our product is much faster, while drawing the same amount of power". Yeah, OK, so it's more efficient.

I don't doubt that at all, but show, don't tell. Actual numbers would've been nice.

Really, Now, The MacBook Pros

So this sets us up with very impressive CPUs. What else does a MacBook Pro need?

A lot of goodwill, for one. The last time Apple made a significant change to their flagship mobile workstation, they gave the impression that they really didn't understand its purpose at all. The MacBook Pro is not a vanity project, and it's not the right tier for experiments.

"What if we made a laptop that's all USB-C?", "what if our keyboard were flatter through a non-scissor mechanism?" and "what if we replaced those 1970s- era function keys with a long, horizontal touch display with gesture support?" are very interesting question to ponder indeed. Getting those questions answered by making those scenarios the only choices for customers for years, though, is a stupid idea. For years, you could either buy the MacBook Air, or the MacBook Air but it's called "Pro". They weren't just optimistic about the uptake of USB-C; they were hubristic about many of these choices.

Over time, they backtracked on a few of them here and there; the previous revision from late 2019 brought back a more popular keyboard, for one. But many problems remained.

Not any more.

The 2021 model fixes almost everything we've criticized in the past half-decade. On top of that, it adds modern features to make the product innovative again: a mini-LED screen, 120 Hz, a yet-again-improved sound system, and more.

Fixes include:

  • There's an HDMI port again. In turn, we've lost the fourth USB-C/Thunderbolt port on the side. Now, you may not need an HDMI port, but many do, and I would argue the embarassment of being at a client's, wanting to present by connecting to a TV or projector, and realizing you don't have the right dongle with you, outweighs the minor benefits of having a fourth port. We still get at least one port on each side8, which I would argue is plenty.
  • There's also an SD card slot. I never find myself using that, but markets like photography and audio exist where those continue to be widespread. Plus, it does make for a neat way you can expand your internal storage.
  • Magnetic charging is back. And it's better than before: the other end is just a standard USB-C plug, rather than being hardwired to the power adapter.
  • The Touch Bar is gone. This isn't necessarily a net win, and I wish I could've played with one (but not enough to spend four figures), but overall, the concept seems like a miss.

Now, these also feature a "notch". I can see a scenario, particularly in Light Mode, where having a rather major dark rectangle in the center of the menu bar is distracting. In practice, I haven't found this to be the case at all on my iPhone, so I'm not sure I will on a Mac. Time will tell.

So why do a notch? I'm not sure this needs much explanation at all. They (finally) gave the camera a much-improved sensor. That takes some room. At the same time, it is fashionable these days to minimize the bezel, and maximize the screen estate. They could have left a fat top bezel just so the camera becomes flush with the top margin. Instead, they gave us even more screen area, by moving the menu bar next to the camera. I don't think that's a PR euphemism at all; it's literally what they did. Does it look a little weird? Sure. Does it give users a significant increase in space on the screen, while also leaving the camera at reasonably high quality?9 Yep.

The Price

As I watched the keynote, I was wondering: what's the catch?

The specs are great, most complaints10 have been addressed, sometimes with surprising honesty (they came just short of admitting that the Touch Bar was unpopular), and they've added some fancy new stuff like 120 Hz.

The price, of course, is the catch. The previous $1799/$2399 pricing was already a tough pill to swallow; they've now gone further up to $1999/$2499.

Which is not to say that I find these overpriced. Rather, in a way that actually makes me happy, they've gone back to their old ways: make an ambitious high-end product that they're proud of and that I fully expect will be a delight to use, and then charge a lot of money for it.

Feels like my wallet getting lighter is a question of when, not if.

  1. As established in the Steve-Jobs-as-CEO era in the late 1990s

  2. As a counterexample from last year, consider their Apple One introduction. (Their own Apple Events website doesn't seem to allow timestamped video links.) No offense to Lori, but it just has vibes of generic, corporate, uninspiring.

  3. Pay no attention to the fact that the "mini" is the only type of HomePod you can get.

  4. Not a fan of these names.

  5. First, with some regular iPads like the iPad 3 and iPad Air 2, but then later only for the iPads Pro.

  6. What will they call the Mac Pro's chip, if this one is already "max"?

  7. For example, this result of 1725 is within 1% of the iPad Pro on M1, while running at the same clock speed. The clock speed change compared to the A14 seems to explain almost all of the improvement.

  8. This was one of the few things that were good about the 2016 design: charge from either side, if you wish!

  9. I've seen suggestions that they could've placed the camera behind the screen. Such tricks exist, but they always and inevitably come with quality loss, and why introduce a better camera, only to then hurt its performance by placing a 'filter' on top?

  10. The Apple logo on the back still isn't lit.