One of the features of the M1 is that it is a RISC-based chip, designed using the ARM instruction set. This means that it has more in common with the chips commonly found in smartphones and tablets than those typically used in desktops or laptops. This already makes the M1 unusual, but it’s not unique. Microsoft Surface Pro X also uses a custom ARM chip, co-designed with Qualcomm, called SQ2. At first glance, these processors are similar: the SQ2 and M1 both use a 4 + 4 core design with a mix of high and low power cores, they both have 16 GB of RAM and they are designed as an SoC or a “system-on-a-chip,” which means that all of the components that you typically find on a computer are integrated into a single chip.
There, the similarities end. Not only is the M1 much faster than the SQ2, but Apple has pulled off a pretty amazing feat when it comes to emulation. Their Rosetta 2 emulator allows you to run pretty much any software that runs on an Intel mac, with a slight loss of performance. Windows also has an emulator, but in our experience it’s slow, buggy, and limited to 32-bit apps (at the moment).
Traditionally, there have been real hardware reasons why running Intel or AMD software on an ARM chip is slow, which makes Apple’s achievement all the more impressive. In this episode, we test the M1 against the SQ2 and an Intel Macbook Pro, and take a look at how Apple achieved such good emulator performance. In the next episode, we’ll get into the architecture itself to explain how the M1 is so fast.