Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • For the first time, Apple launched a new M-series chip with an iPad – the M4 Silicon.
  • Apple’s M4 ships with more processing cores than the M3 on a newer fabrication process, making it more powerful and efficient.
  • Since the M4 is only available on the 2024 iPad Pro, those looking for a good all-rounder in the MacBook for factor should purchase the M3 MacBook Air.

Apple’s M4 system-on-chip is the first M chip to launch outside of a MacBook, debuting in the 2024 iPad Pro. So how does it compare to its replacement, the M3?

Introducing Apple M4 Silicon

On the surface, the M4 is the fourth iteration of Apple’s M-branded system-on-a-chip (SoC) that houses a nine or 10-core CPU, a 10-core GPU, and a 16-core Neural Engine. Currently, it is only available in two configurations (where one variant has more processing cores than the other) on the 2024 iPad Pro. However, Apple could soon add more variants to the M4 lineup.

Apple's M4 Silicon mascot on a black background.

For now, we have the baseline M4 chip based on TSMC’s second-generation fabrication process, which makes it slightly more efficient than the M3 chips that came before it (more on that later). Apple M4’s transistor count has increased to 28 billion from 25 billion, while its memory bandwidth is 120 Gbps, 20 Gbps more than that of the M3 chip.

Further, the company also equips the new M4 chip with a dedicated display engine. For now, the display engine controls the iPad Pro’s Tandem OLED panel. For better graphics, the chip features hardware-accelerated ray tracing and mesh shading.

The M4 looks set to be a compelling upgrade over the previous generation of iPad Pro, which featured an M2 chip. But how does it compare to the M3 chip that never made it to an iPad? Although Apple has yet to directly compare the M4 with the M3, here’s an early comparison of the two chipsets based on their specifications.

M4 Gets More Efficiency Cores for Better Performance

Both the M4 and the M3 chip use a mix of performance cores (with higher clock speed) and efficiency cores (with lower clock speed). According to a Geekbench listing, Apple’s M4 offers a base frequency of 4.40GHz, higher than the 4.05GHz of the baseline M3 chip. When combined with a higher number of cores, this results in significantly better performance.

The new Apple M4 Silicon comes in two variants: one with a nine-core CPU with three performance and four efficiency cores, and another with a 10-core CPU with one additional performance core. Compared to the M4, the M3 only ships with eight cores, half of which tackle performance, while the other half looks after lighter tasks.

Apple M4 Silicon's representative image highlighting the number of performance and efficiency cores.

In its recent report, Tom’s Guide compares the Geekbench 6 scores of the 2024 iPad Pro with the M4 chip (with the 10-core CPU and 16GB of RAM) to the 13-inch MacBook Air with the M3 chip. Unsurprisingly, the iPad Pro scored 3692 points in the single-core test, which is about 21% higher than what M3 managed. Further, the M4 iPad Pro scores 14512 points in the multi-core test, about 20% higher than its predecessor.

Another Geekbench listing (spotted by MacRumors) reveals that the lower-specced M4 (with a nine-core CPU) is about 13% faster than the M3 chip in multi-core tasks. Even though the scores are from different devices, they give us a fair idea of M4’s peak performance, which should also reflect in day-to-day usage. Moreover, we’re looking at around 13 to 20% improvements, which might not sound incredible on paper but certainly aren’t worth overlooking either.

M4’s GPU Gets an Incremental Update

In the official press release, Apple mentions that the M4’s 10-core GPU “builds on the next-generation GPU architecture introduced in M3.” However, the two GPUs look quite similar on paper. Both the M4 and the M3 feature a 10-core GPU that supports advanced features like mesh shading and hardware-accelerated ray tracing. While these features are new to the iPad, they have been around on M3-powered MacBooks for a while. The new chip also features Dynamic Caching.

Representative image of the Apple M4 chip with 10-core GPU.

Apple says the M4’s GPU is four times faster (in rendering) than the M2. On the other hand, an old infographic mentions that the M3 chip is about 1.8x faster than the M2. The math shows that the M4’s GPU is approximately two times faster than the M3. However, early Metal benchmarks (via 9To5Mac) showcased a mere 13% improvement in the GPU scores, which, contrary to what the math suggests, indicates an incremental upgrade at best.

On the brighter side, the M4’s media engine now supports hardware-accelerated 8K H.264, HEVC, ProRes, and ProRes RAW formats, a clear upgrade over 2023’s M3 chip.

What About the M4’s Neural Engine?

With generative AI features right around the corner, Apple is focusing heavily on the M4’s Neural Engine. The new 16-core Neural Engine can perform up to 38 trillion operations per second (TOPS), compared to 18 TOPS for the 16-core Neural Engine on the M3 Silicon. Apple claims that the new Neural Engine is “faster than the neural processing unit of any AI PC today.”

Image of the Apple M4 Silicon's 16-core Neural Engine.

However, a report by Tom’s Hardware highlights how the M3 and M4 Silicon are rated using different computing standards. While Apple rated the M3 using FP16 (half-precision floating-point), the M4 is rated with INT8 (Integer 8-bit). Equalizing both chips’ to INT8 precision, the publication concludes that the Neural Engine on the M4 is about 5% more powerful than the M3 (in terms of TOPS).

Another report by MacWorld claims that the new chip scores about 12% more points in the Geekbench ML test than the baseline M3. However, since the variant listed on Geekbench features 16GB of RAM, the one with 8GB of RAM won’t perform as well. To sum up, the Neural Engine on the M4 Silicon is more powerful than the one on the M3, but not by a significant margin.

Is M4 More Efficient Than M3?

Since M4 is based on the second generation of TSMC’s 3nm fabrication process, it should be more efficient than M3. However, that is the extent of information about the chip’s efficiency. Apple does mention that “M4 can deliver the same performance as M2 using just half the power, but it doesn’t compare the M4 directly to the M3. Further, the company says its latest chip can deliver the same performance as the newest PC chip in a thin, light laptop using just a fourth of the power.

Screenshot of Apple M2 Silicon's features and specifications.

Nonetheless, the M4 iPad Pro has become the longest-lasting iPad in Tom’s Guide tests, indicating that the chipset is indeed more efficient.

M4 on MacBooks? It Might Happen Soon

As noted, this is the first time Apple has debuted a new M-series chip in an iPad. Usually, new Apple Silicon chips debut in MacBooks, but that didn’t happen this year. However, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, the first MacBooks to receive the M4 chip should arrive by the end of this year. These will include the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models and the Mac mini.

Then, in mid-2025, Apple could refresh the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air lineup with the M4 chips. Other devices like the iMac, Mac Studio, and Mac Pro will also feature the M4 chip (and its variants) by 2025. Although Apple hasn’t confirmed this, it comes from one of the most reliable industry sources. Hence, you’ll see M4-powered MacBooks by the end of this year, which brings us to another very important question: should you wait for the M4 chip or get a suitable model of the M3 MacBook Air?

Apple's M3 Max MacBook Pro in Space Black

If you want an entry-level MacBook Air powered by the baseline M3 chip, go for it. Given that it has been a few good months since the launch, there’s a chance that you may find the notebook at a discounted price. Further, it offers excellent performance, a day’s worth of battery life, and several years of operating system updates.

On the other hand, if you’re a power user and wish to get the most powerful MacBook on the market, you should consider waiting until the end of the year when the M4 comes to the MacBook Pro lineup. In addition, the M4 chip, as and when it arrives on a MacBook, should perform better than it does on the iPad Pro due to more space and better heat management.

In the MacBook space, expect Apple to launch new variations with more processing and graphical prowess. Even though these MacBooks will cost more, they’ll provide the latest greatest features and likely even better performance in machine learning and AI tasks. For now, check out our favorite MacBook models.

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By John P.

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