Apple Silicon, SoC, Rosetta 2, M1, M2, M3, Pro, Max, and Ultra… If you’re interested in Macs, you’ve probably heard one or more of these terms. But unless you’ve been closely following Apple’s technical progress, it might not be clear what they all mean and why they matter to your future buying decisions.
In this article, I answer a relatively common reader question: What does it all mean?
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Understanding the CPU
A computer — whether Mac, PC, Linux machine, Raspberry Pi, or even the embedded brain in your microwave — consists of a set of components. Some manage input, getting data into the machine. Some manage output, presenting that information to you or doing a task (such as popping popcorn or displaying lifelike pictures in your video game). Some components store information, either temporarily or permanently. Some manage connections to one or more networks (Ethernet, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi).
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The processor — the central processing unit (or CPU) — orchestrates all of these elements. The CPU processes sequences of instructions, performs calculations, makes decisions, and tells data to move. In practice, modern computers have many processors, but some are used for special-purpose calculations (like your GPU for graphics). But basically, at the center of it all is the CPU.
Generally speaking, the faster the CPU, the faster the machine. That’s a wild over-simplification because even though a super-fast CPU might process instructions and calculations at warp speed, if it takes the system bus forever to move data around, it doesn’t matter. It’s like driving a Koenigsegg Agera RS in rush hour. The car may be one of the world’s fastest cars, but if the road is bottlenecked, it’s not going anywhere.
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In reality, balance is important. If you’ve ever built a PC, you probably know that it doesn’t make sense to pair a high-end GPU with a mediocre CPU because the CPU will bog down the graphics. It doesn’t make sense to pair a super-fast CPU with generic, middle-of-the-road memory because the memory bus won’t be able to handle what the CPU throws at it.
This balance issue is, in fact, part of what has made Apple devices so successful. Because…