Apple's yearly spring product launch event was filled with Arm CPU-based system announcements, as well as plenty of other shiny, pretty things.
In a world rife with uncertainty and impermanence, there are at least a few things you can seemingly still depend on. One of them is that another spring means another Apple product launch event:
This year’s took place earlier this week and was notably bigger than COVID-constrained (I’m presuming) 2020’s. Watch the above video for the “full monty;” I’ll summarize the highlights (chronologically ordered as Tim Cook and team unveiled them) in the following paragraphs.
Just two weekends ago, ironically, I completed an upcoming teardown of the Tile Mate, a popular Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-based tracking device. In it, I wrote (bolded emphasis is mine):
Samsung’s newly announced Galaxy SmartTag+ trackers, for example (along with Apple’s long-rumored, perpetually supposedly-coming-soon AirTags), support both BLE and ultra-wideband (UWB), the latter enabling more precise locating (assuming the connected device also supports UWB, for example).
Clearly I’m going to need to tweak that particular prose before it is published. Apple’s $29 ($99 for a four-pack) UWB-based AirTags are indeed finally here, complete with gratis (albeit censored) free emoji engraving as showcased in the above image. Unsurprisingly, and to Tile’s claimed anticompetitive dismay, they’re fully integrated with Apple’s “Find My” ecosystem right out of the chute. And like Tile’s latest-generation competitive offerings, they even support user-replaceable CR2032 batteries.
One area where they notably differ from Tile’s counterparts, however, is in their dearth of built-in through-hole support for attachment to keychains and the like. For that, unsurprisingly for long-time Apple watchers, you’ll need to also purchase accessories from the company and its partners. No word yet on whether or not Apple will also be selling branded CR2032 batteries (I’m kidding on that last bit…I hope).
Apple’s TV+ subscription service is seemingly going great guns, although it’s unclear how many folks will pay up once their lengthy free trial periods end. And the company is continuing to invest in its accompanying set top box hardware, too (which predated Apple TV+, of course; you’ve long been able to use an Apple TV to watch shows and movies you acquire through the iTunes Store, for example, or access select third-party services). The latest iteration of the “4K” product variant upgrades the CPU inside, leading to advancements such as (quoting from the press release) “a significant boost in graphics performance, video decoding, and audio processing,” including “high frame rate HDR with Dolby Vision” and “innovative color balance technology.”
The new Apple TV also comes with an accompanying redesigned remote control, which also works with (and is available separately for) previous-generation hardware. Ironically, however, the remote control alone costs more than an entire ChromeCast with Google TV (which also tunes in the Apple TV+ service just fine). Oddly, it also doesn’t include Apple’s U1 UWB chip, so (unlike AirTags) you can’t easily find it if it gets stuck between the cushions of your couch. More generally, IMHO, Apple TV’s pricing (starting at $179 for the lowest-capacity 4K model and going up from there) is (like HomePod) way out of whack with what the competition offers and the market expects. It’s 3-4× the cost of a Roku alternative, which also supports the Apple TV+ service. And the legacy HD variant of the Apple TV, which remains stubbornly stuck at $149, is in no less dire straits. Clearly, the company is prioritizing the service over its hardware offerings.
Arm-based versions of battery-operated (MacBook/Pro/Air) and thin-and-compact (iMac, Mac mini) system variants are no-brainers, but will they end up obsoleting their x86 precursors, or (again as with the Microsoft Surface Pro X vs Surface Pro) will they coexist?
The battery-operated systems, along with the thin-and-compact Mac mini, all based on the A14-derived M1 SoC, initiated the transition later that same year. It seems to be going well so far, according to Apple, who just announced that Arm-based computer shipments are already exceeding those of x86-based models. And now, the other thin-and-compact member of Apple’s computer family, the resurrected 24” form factor variant of the iMac, has also entered the scene.
As you can see, Apple’s also resurrected the multi-color palate hearkening back to the original iMac G3 that announced Steve Jobs’ return to Apple and marked a notable initial step in the company’s resurrection.
The system is otherwise largely unremarkable save for its CPU architecture swap-out; interestingly the Intel-based 21” and 27” variants also remain (at least for now) in the product line. Why? Here’s my theory.
The revived 24” version neatly slots in-between the high-volume (21”) and high-profit-margin (27”) models; the recent discontinuation of the even higher-end iMac Pro gives further justification for the Intel-based 27” form factor’s continuation (at least until a higher-end “M2” SoC, or whatever Apple will call it, appears).
With respect to volume, foundry partner TSMC’s capacity constraints can’t be ignored. The M1 leverages TSMC’s latest-generation 5 nm process version, which to the best of my knowledge only has one other current public customer (Huawei), and Apple’s (at least for now) supposedly contracted for a significant percentage of 5 nm capacity (most of the overall capacity, along with the demand, for TSMC’s services is at 7 nm and above). But given that 5 nm is TSMC’s latest-and-greatest process, yields probably also aren’t the greatest, at least at this early stage, and the peak wafer-output capacity (even with stellar yields) isn’t yet the equivalent of more mature sibling processes, either. The company is also facing lithography-independent constraints in the form of Taiwan’s chronic water shortage.
And although Intel arguably isn’t making the best processors in the world right now, it still knows how to make a lot of them courtesy of its multi-fab network. So, although I don’t doubt that Apple’s aspiration to migrate everything to Arm remains the long-term plan, x86 coexistence may remain intact longer than originally forecast, no matter how appealing the M1-centric simplicity may be to the masses.
Last October, I was admittedly somewhat snarky about the modest A12X-to-A12Z transition that accompanied the year-ago iPad Pro evolution:
Two things particularly surprised me about this particular announcement. The first was that the tablet was based on the A12Z Bionic SoC, versus a variant of the A13 Bionic. The original A12 dates from September 2018, more than two years ago (a lifetime in tech). The “X” version of the A12, with three more GPU cores (an enhancement half-step which Apple had previously done with the A10-to-A10X, for example), followed one month later (two weeks shy of two years ago, as I write these words). And the A12Z, nearly 1.5 years after that? The exact same chip design, layout, and fabrication process as the A12X, but with all eight GPU cores on the die now functional. The A13 Bionic arrived in September 2019, but Apple chose not to do an “X” spin of it this time, perhaps because the A14 was arriving later in the year (keep reading) and/or perhaps because the company was busy designing its first generation of Arm-based PC processors instead? I’m betting more the latter.
Well, turns out I was right (but then again what else is new 😉 ). The new iPad Pro also harnesses the A14-derived M1 SoC, in the process further blurring the lines between Apple’s tablets and portable computers. Along with the M1 “heart” comes a connectivity upgrade (leveraging the same physical connector, of course) from USB-C to Thunderbolt 4. Apple also upgraded the display from LED-backlit LCD to microLED (I’ll refer you to my two-years-ago coverage for the nitty gritty details on the differences). And the new model also upgrades the (optional) cellular connectivity from LTE to 5G. All of this comes with the tradeoff of a slightly-higher weight, a slightly-larger thickness, and a notable uptick in the price (some of which the cellular carriers are trying to help absorb).
Is Apple striving, with the repricing, to cover a potential higher bill-of-materials cost? Perhaps. And to extract more money from consumers’ wallets, reflective of enhanced perceived value? Also likely. But again, to my earlier point on foundry capacity, other iPad family members leverage CPUs fabricated on more mature processes. Apple may very well be striving to proactively use price to modulate M1 demand, thereby calibrating it more closely to the available 5 nm supply.
The best of the rest
Apple unveiled other less-notable offerings, of course, and exposed even more things to the light of day without mentioning them at all at the event. The Apple (credit) Card has gained a “Family” tier, for example, and the company announced a coming-soon subscription spin on its podcast service (from which it will of course extract its 30% “pound of flesh” cut). And then there’s the new Barney-reminiscent color scheme option for the iPhone 12 and 12 mini my further commentary on which is perhaps better left unsaid (save for apologies to fans of the color purple/violet/lavender, whom I’m sure I’ve already deeply offended):
There’s also a 10 Gbit Ethernet option for the M1-based Mac mini! And a Touch ID keyboard option for the color-matched new iMac, a keyboard that is also available standalone and works with other M1-based computers (but not the M1-based iPad Pro; and in fairness I feel compelled to note that biometric fingerprint-based login support has already been available on Windows-based computers for many years)! And MacOS and iOS (and iOS-derived) operating system updates are coming next week! For more on these (and more), visit this page.
EDN would really like to get this published by the end of the week, and I’ve just crossed through 1,500 words, so I’ll close for now and as-always invite your feedback in the comments!
This article was originally published on EDN.
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.