Apple’s M1 SOC is more than just a very efficient and fast CPU. It is putting an end to the second performance race.
The Gigahertz Race
CPU Manufacturers have already walked two paths of increasing performance of their processors. First we had the Gigahertz-Race, which came to a grinding halt between the a4 and 5 GHz marks. It was no longer feasible to squeeze more performance out of the silicon by just increasing the clock speed. An ever increasing power consumption and heat dissipation made going down this road an almost unmanageable task.
The Multi Core Race
Something had to be done. And the solution came in form of more cores. Instead of one CPU-core doing all the work, tasks were now scheduled and spread across multiple cores. While general architectural improvements also offered performance gains, the most economical route was to just add more cores. Resulting in up to 64 cores in end user computers. Given the right job their performance is pretty impressive.
But almost all scenarios where those benefits by adding more cores are making a difference are professional workloads. The consumer on the other hand usually does some productive office work, plays games or uses web based services. Adding more cores is not necessarily the way to go, as power consumption does outweigh performance gains.
Quite start to the third race
Through advancements in mobiles phones a third performance route has silently been opened. Custom functions have made their way into the hardware. At first this was done as the ARM architecture was not quite where it needs to be to outperform general purpose CPUs based on x86 architecture. So, mobile phone vendors moved to have certain functions hard wired into the silicon. Thus delivering the performance for the tasks where needed. People started working on their on a mobile taken photo on their computers. But the performance on those tasks was falling behind the same job on the mobile phone and given the form factor, the mobile phone is not a great tool for editing photos or videos – even at a consumer level.
Continuing the third Race – loudly
So something had to be done. Thus, Apple now has created the M1-SOC which just carries over this paradigm over to the end user computer. The picture processing is not done by the CPU cores, but through a dedicated ISP (Image Signal Processor). And since Apple has moved to also integrate all memory on the same package, the option to share all memory by all parts of the SOC meant, that copying data between different memories became an obsolete task. Why copy the data, when you already have it accessible. While all of these functions are not new, they now for the first time will become available on a personal computer. Apple Macs to be exact. The claimed performance gains will be hard to be measured for now. In the end though we will get comparability. Just wait for the devices to be out in the wild.
AMD and intel will have to follow through since adding custom hardwired functions to the CPU is just a logical replacement for the adding more general purpose processing cores.
Apple has just opened the door for a new performance race: custom functions in hardware.