Why an Apple ‘M1X’ MacBook processor would be a billion dollar mistake

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Why an ‘M1X’ processor would be a billion dollar mistake
Releasing MacBooks running an M1X processor this autumn would cost Apple so much money.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Rumors point to Apple releasing redesigned MacBooks later this year running an improved version of the M1 processor dubbed the M1X. I don’t believe it.

I completely agree that new MacBooks are on the way. But I don’t see these running an M1X processor. This chip will be called the M2.

M2: It’s about marketing

To understand why I believe this, you have to look back over Apple’s decade plus of releasing processors for iPhone.

Every year like clockwork the company introduces a new processor for the iPhone. It’s never launched a new flagship handset with a slightly tweaked version of last year’s chip.

Take 2020 as an example. Part of the marketing for the iPhone 12 is that it runs the A14 Bionic processor, “the fastest chip ever in a smartphone.” That claim doesn’t work nearly as well if the device ran something called the A13X, because that name strongly implies it’s only a slightly better version of the previous year’s processor. And something you should probably skip.

Of course, Apple has used an “X” in the past when making an iPhone processor into an iPad one. But those enhanced iPad processors all came out within months of the iPhone versions, not a year later. The problem isn’t making an M1X — the mistake would be releasing top-tier MacBooks with an M1X a full year after the M1 debuted.

In a worst-case scenario, even if the chip going into the upcoming 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models really is just a modestly updated version of last year’s M1 processor, it’ll almost certainly be called the M2 rather than the M1X. These are just marketing terms that Apple can apply to anything it wants.

But it’s also about technology

That said, it’s very unlikely Apple finds itself without a genuinely improved Mac processor. We know it has a next-generation iPhone processor — the A15 — and that’s the basis for the upcoming M-series chip too.

What’s going on isn’t technical but I don’t think everyone gets it. To explain, let’s look back to 2020. The M1 Mac chip is an A14 iPhone chip with more processor cores and other other add-ons like Thunderbolt. There’s really not any more difference than that. Which means the M2 is going to be the A15 from the iPhone 13 just with more processor cores.

Apple has the A15 already in production to launch in September. So it should also have the M2 ready to go in the new MacBooks. Again, one is just an upscaled version of the other.

M1X: The Intel effect

It’s possible people are quick to believe that we’ll have to suffer through the M1X while we wait for a real replacement for the M1 because Macs have been hobbled by Intel processors for so long.

Intel struggled to bring real improvements to its chips for too many years. While this has been going on, perhaps people have just gotten used to the idea that it takes 18 months to 2 years to make a better processor.

But it turns out that’s just Intel’s problem. Working with TSMC, Apple has consistently been able to bring real improvements its chips year after year.

And so, as the M1 came out in 2020 you should expect an M2 in 2021, an M3 next year, and so forth. Each better than the last.

M1X would mean Apple utterly mucked up the 2021 MacBook

Apple’s demonstrated ability to reliably improve its processors every year means that the only way Apple could release MacBooks running an ‘M1X’ processor this autumn is if it made a billion dollar mistake this spring.

There have been reports that Apple had intended to introduce the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models months ago. If that really was the plan, the company could have had the M1X processor produced by TSMC in last winter. These chips might have been waiting all these months to go into the macOS laptops this autumn.

If this is true — and I don’t think it is — it would be an enormous error by Apple. It would mean releasing new flagship MacBooks that are obsolete on day one. They’d debut with what’s essentially 2020’s chip in late 2021.

Should Apple make this mistake, you absolutely should not buy these computers. Because Apple will almost certainly add the M2 processor to the same MacBooks in early 2022 so that can stop being obsolete. And these will sell at the same price as the M1X versions.

I can see millions of people waiting for the M2 version, leaving Apple with inventory it must steeply discount in order to get it to sell. With numbers like that, the loss could easily cross the $1 billion mark.

But really, expect the Apple M2 processor before the end of 2021. The alternative — the M1X — is simply too huge a mistake for Apple to make.