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Definition: Apple M series

A family of 64-bit ARM-based system-on-chips (SoCs) from Apple. In late 2020, Apple began switching its MacBook line from Intel x86 CPUs to the M1, the first chip in Apple's M series (see MacBook). In the following year, an M1-based iMac debuted, and a new top-end desktop computer was engineered around the M1 (see Mac Studio). In 2021, iPads began switching from Apple A chips to M. See SoC.

The ARM-based M series is a RISC design rather than Intel's x86 CISC architecture. RISC circuits use less complex instructions, run cooler and thus save battery, which is why an ARM chip is used in every smartphone as well as all Apple and Android tablets. Since day one, iPhones and iPads have been ARM based (see Apple A series).

In 2021, starting with the iPad Pro, Apple began the migration from its A series to the M series (RISC to RISC). Future iPhones are likely to use the M chips as well. See RISC, CISC and Intel Mac.

An Intel Emulation Layer
M-based Macs contain an emulation layer that runs Intel-based Mac applications faster than Intel CPUs (see Rosetta). When the M1 debuted, The New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo said "Apple's big innovation was to build the Tesla of computer chips." Like electric vehicles, the M1 is faster and uses less energy.

Lots of Cores
M-series chips contain at least eight CPU cores for program execution, multiple GPU cores for graphics rendering and a 16-core neural engine for AI processing (see below).

Apple M2 and M3
Debuting in mid-2022 with more CPU and GPU cores, the M2 is approximately 15 to 20% faster than the M1 without using more power. The MacBook Air and 13" MacBook Pro were the first Macs with the M2 chips.

In 2023, the M3 chip debuted in the iMac and MacBook Pro models reducing feature size from 5 to 3-nanometers (see process technology). M3 processors feature "dynamic caching," which allocates memory as needed rather than defining a fixed amount. For gamers, the M3 series added "ray tracing" and "mesh shading" for more realistic and smoother video. See performance core and Apple A series.


   Cores: P = performance  E = efficiency

            Max Cores   Max GPU
   Chip        P/E       Cores

   M3 Max     12/4        40
   M3 Pro      6/6        18
   M3          4/4        10

   M2 Max      8/4        38
   M2 Pro      6/6        19
   M2          4/4        10

   M1 Ultra** 16/4        48
   M1 Max      8/2        32
   M1 Pro      8/2        16
   M1          4/4         8

  ** = two M1 Max on same chip


   2023    Apple M3
   2022    Apple M2
   2020    Apple M1  (see ARM)
   2006    Intel x86 (see Intel Mac)
   1994    PowerPC   (see PowerPC)
   1984    Motorola  (see 68000)


   2021    Apple M1
   2020    Apple A12Z

Comparing Chip Sizes
Apple's M chips are marvels of modern technology. The bare die of the M1 Max contains 57 billion transistors within 432 square millimeters (less than one square inch), which is approximately 132 million transistors per square millimeter! (Image courtesy of Apple Inc.)

Transition Messages
Whenever a computer company switches its CPU hardware, there is a transition period that users have to deal with, witness this message from Microsoft regarding its Edge browser.