Apple Debuts M4 Chip a Year Earlier Than Expected. The Culprit Is, Of Course, AI

  • The company unveiled a new M4 chip for the 2024 version of the iPad Pro.

  • The main difference between the M4 and the M3 is the neural engine, which is twice as powerful as the one in its predecessor.

New Apple’s M4 Chip
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Last October, Apple introduced the new M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max, the newest models in the Apple Silicon family. This announcement made a lot of sense, given that the company hadn’t updated the chips for almost a year and a half. That was about the same amount of time we had to wait for the evolution of the M1 and M2 chips, which took a little longer to arrive. 

On Tuesday, just months after releasing its M3 chips, Apple refreshed its line of Silicon chips once more. The lightning-fast turnaround begs the question: How could Apple possibly have a new M4 chip already?

Apple unveiled the M4 as the protagonist of the new iPad Pro, something that had been rumored for weeks before the company made it official. However, the arrival of the M4 is surprising precisely because of how fast Apple presented it. A glance at the previous launch dates for Apple Silicon underscores the company's feat:

  • From M1 to M2: 574 days (18 months, 28 days)
  • M2 to M3: 511 days (16 months, 24 days)
  • From M3 to M4: 189 days (6 months, 7 days)

The data is unequivocal: Apple has developed its new M4 chip in just a third of the time it took to develop the M2 and M3. If the company had followed the same cycles as previous releases, these chips should have appeared about a year from now, not this week.

So, what happened?

Only Apple knows, but there are two possible explanations. Company executives hinted at one reason during the presentation of the iPad Pro: They needed more power to work with the device's new OLED screens.

The second explanation is also linked to something Apple mentioned in its presentation, which may be the real reason. Apple's new products required more power in their neural engine for AI, which is known as the neural processing unit (NPU).

At the keynote for its "Let Loose" event, company executives mentioned that this new processing unit could deliver a performance of 38 trillion operations per second, or TOPS. The remarkable stats are in line with Intel's Meteor Lake processor (which achieved 34 TOPS in the most ambitious models), the Ryzen PRO 8040 (39 TOPS), and the Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite (45 TOPS).

It looks like this processing power is a fundamental requirement for the AI features that Apple is expected to present for iOS, iPadOS, and (we hope) macOS at its WWDC conference in about a month. The data suggests that Apple will have AI models that need more power for seamless use.

That’s the most plausible explanation for Apple’s surprising rush to launch these chips quickly. It's not clear yet whether there are differences in performance between the M4 and the M3. However, the photolithography process in the M4 features a slight improvement over the previous generation, which will undoubtedly differentiate it from the M3.

The new M4 has four performance cores and six efficiency cores. In comparison, the M3 has four performance cores and six efficiency cores. At its event, Apple compared the M4 to the M2, stating that its new chips are 50% more powerful in CPU performance and four times more effective in GPU when rendering. While these numbers help us understand how the M4 chip compares to the M2, it's not clear how the new chip compares to the M3. We'll have to wait for independent tests to truly understand how the M4 stacks up against its predecessor.

What we do know is that the M3's neural engine unit of offers a performance of 18 TOPS, meaning that the new M4 practically increases performance two-fold. This is clearly the M4's distinguishing feature. There's no doubt that the M4 will soon be accompanied by the Pro and Max versions, which will be even more powerful across the board.

Despite the improvements in performance, not everything from Apple's event is good news. In particular, the users who purchased gadgets with Apple's M3 chip just months ago now have "old" devices.

If you do have devices with an M3 chip, don't despair. M3 chips are still a good, though not exceptional, option. We also don't know how long Apple will wait until it updates its portfolio of laptops and desktops to the new M4. Until it does, the iPad Pro is the only device with an M4 processor.

Related | iPad Pro 2024 (M4): Apple Unveils the First iPad With an OLED Display and Other Standout Features

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