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Apple’s MacBook Pro is a GPU-shaped warning to Nvidia and AMD

Apple hit Intel hard with its first M1 chips, offering a rare step-change improvement in performance with its 2020 MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. Less than a year later, it’s already starting to compete with the best GPUs from AMD and Nvidia as well. The new MacBook Pros with M1 Pro and M1 Max offer a first glimpse at how well Apple’s M1 chips can scale to provide raw performance that rivals the discrete graphics cards we typically find inside Windows-powered laptops.

Nvidia has been trying to woo many of Apple’s professional and creative customers with its Studio laptops, but Apple has not only managed to fix the mistakes it made with its MacBook port selection and keyboard, but it’s also scaled up its M1 chips to meet the performance expectations of 14- and 16-inch laptops, too. The result has creative professionals excited, and it’s easy to see why.

While Windows laptops had looked increasingly tempting to the Mac crowd over the past five years, Apple’s new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips shift the balance, particularly in the GPU realm. They look like early warning shots at the AMD- and Nvidia-powered competition. Apple seems confident it can deliver the same performance as a top discrete graphics card while consuming a lot less power. This is all part of Apple’s ambitious plan to transition its Mac lineup fully to Apple Silicon by the end of 2022 and just a glimpse at what the company must have coming to its most powerful Mac, the towering Mac Pro.

Apple has compared its M1 Max to two RTX 3080 laptops.
Image: Apple

Apple proudly compared its new M1 Max chip to two high-end Windows laptops last week, claiming the M1 Max is able to use 100W less power and offer the same relative performance at close to or above Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 mobile chip. While the M1 Max might be Apple’s largest chip it has ever made, it’s still integrating the graphics into a system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture, compared to the dedicated and separate RTX 3080 cards.

While there are caveats, it wasn’t just talk: early reviews seem to back up some of Apple’s claims. Anandtech found that both the M1 Pro and M1 Max perform well on productivity-focused loads, with a GFXBench test even putting it close to beating an RTX 3080 laptop equipped with Intel’s Core i9-11980HK flagship notebook processor. These are the types of loads you’d expect the M1 Max to perform well in, especially given Apple’s work on improving its chips for productivity tasks.

YouTuber Dave2D found the M1 Max was slightly slower than a comparable RTX 3080 system for Adobe Premiere Pro tasks and that M1 Max performance depends on the work involved. While an Adobe Premiere Pro render took 10 minutes and 17 seconds in Dave2D’s testing, an identical render took just 4 minutes and 16 seconds using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software.

Where the M1 Max and M1 Pro really fall down is in gaming. The M1 Max performs similarly to an RTX 3060 system in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While midrange gaming might be impressive for an SoC, it’s disappointing compared to Apple’s claims because an RTX 3060 is a notable step down from an RTX 3070, let alone an RTX 3080. Anandtech’s tests also show the flagship M1 Max offering less than half the performance of an RTX 3080 laptop in Borderlands 3. We’re still reviewing Apple’s latest MacBook Pros, but we’ve also found the M1 Max is mostly comparable to an RTX 3060 notebook for gaming.

Apple’s new MacBook Pros include some impressive GPU performance.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Given most macOS cross-platform games are still x86 and the fact macOS has never really been a platform for gaming, it’s no surprise to see the M1 Max struggling here. So another way to think about it is that Apple’s already matching the RTX 3060 without the benefit of game developers optimizing for its M1 chips. That’s an impressive start for Apple, even if there’s no indication yet that the Mac will attract optimized games in the future.

It’s also impressive when you consider the power draw and thermal headroom involved. We’ve already seen the difference a fan can make on the MacBook Pro 13-inch model compared to the fanless MacBook Air. Now, we’re seeing what it can do with a 140W power adapter and a larger 14- or 16-inch chassis to dissipate the heat. What could Apple do in an iMac or Mac Pro, with plenty of time and plenty of room to build an even bigger and better GPU with fewer thermal and power constraints?

“It’s clear that Apple’s ongoing experience with GPUs has paid off with the development of their A-series chips, and now their M1 family of SoCs,” writes Anandtech’s Andrei Frumusanu. “Put succinctly, the new M1 SoCs prove that Apple can build the kind of big and powerful GPUs that they need for their high-end machines. AMD and NVIDIA need not apply.”

Bloomberg reporter Mark Gurman says those bigger chips are already coming, with Apple designing two variations for the next desktop Mac Pro that offer “2x and 4x the number of CPU and GPU cores as the M1 Max.” That will result in up to 40 CPU cores and up to 128 GPU cores on the very high-end Mac Pro models, and it will be the real test of Apple’s ability to scale its M1 advantage.

AMD currently supplies Radeon Pro GPUs inside Apple’s existing Mac Pro models, and if Apple’s core count and performance can scale well on the GPU side, then it’s easy to see how Apple’s own GPUs could blow past AMD’s Radeon PRO W6000X cards. Apple is already close to the RTX 3080 in some tasks with the M1 Max — we’re looking forward to seeing what it will do when Apple’s chip designers can focus less on mobility and more on cooling its hardware for maximum performance.

If more software and even games become optimized to take advantage of the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, and Apple’s desktop chips deliver the performance improvements we’ve seen so far with M1, Apple could be on course to redefine the performance expectations of desktop PCs, just like it redefined the expectations around laptop chips late last year.


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