All the great Apple Silicon M1 device reviews make me wish for Chromebooks with Google-made chips

In case you missed it today, reviews for the new Apple Mac Mini, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro were published. They’re nearly universal in their praise: The ARM-based Apple Silicon M1 chips compare favorably to the best that Intel and AMD have to offer in the x86 space. And now more than ever, I’m wishing Google could do the same for Chromebooks.

Before getting into that though, here are some selected quotes from reviewers using the ARM-based Mac products to set the scene.

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

I personally tested the 13” M1 MacBook Pro and after extensive testing, it’s clear that this machine eclipses some of the most powerful Mac portables ever made in performance while simultaneously delivering 2x-3x the battery life at a minimum. 

Andrei Frumasanu, AnandTech:

The performance of the new M1 in this “maximum performance” design with a small fan is outstandingly good. The M1 undisputedly outperforms the core performance of everything Intel has to offer, and battles it with AMD’s new Zen3, winning some, losing some.

Harry McCracken, Fast Company:

In this household, the old Macs include a 2016 MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i7 chip and a 2018 MacBook Air with a Core i5. Both have 16 GB of RAM, double the quantity in the new Air I’ve been trying. Using iMovie to save a 74-second 4K video took more than five minutes on the 2018 MacBook Air, and sent its cooling fan into a tizzy. It took two and a half minutes on the MacBook Pro. And on the new Air—which, with its efficient M1 chip, doesn’t need a fan—it took just 49 seconds.

I could go on and on but I’ll leave it to you to seek out and read the reviews if you want.

Long story short: Apple’s custom chip can not only keep with some of the fastest processors from Intel and AMD, it can beat them in some cases from a performance standpoint. And, more importantly, it does so using less power, which leads to big improvements in battery life.

So let’s get back to Chromebooks.

Pixelbook motherboard with Intel chipset

These days, most are powered by Intel’s lineup, ranging from the lowly Celeron all the way up to a Core i7. Much of a Chromebook’s price, performance and capabilities revolve around that choice of chip. Yes, there have been a few AMD-powered Chromebooks, which use the same architecture as Intel, but not many.

The rest are made up of ARM-based chipsets typically found in phones and have a similar instruction set to Apple’s M1 processor. But those, such as the superb Lenovo Chromebook Duet, usually offer entry-level to (at best) mid-range performance. None of them can compete with the new Mac products when it comes to performance.

That’s because the Qualcomm’s, MediaTek’s, Samsung’s and others who design ARM-based processors don’t deviate as much as Apple from the base ARM designs.

If you’re not familiar with ARM, they don’t make chips. Instead, they design the chip architecture and offer various licensing agreements to companies, depending on how much those companies want to tweak or change the design.

Apple has a full architecture license as do some of the other ARM-based chip designers I just mentioned. But nobody is advancing those designs like Apple. Nobody really has to since they’re all using the same software, be it Android or Chrome OS. So ARM-based Chromebooks are relegated to using more common, almost “off the shelf” processors.

Google could change that. Indeed, I suggested this back in June when Apple announced it would be moving from Intel x86 silicon to its own in-house ARM designs (emphasis mine):

“Google has to rely on mostly off-the-shelf processors that are commodities. It’s hard to optimize fully in that case. And Apple’s advantage here isn’t just a single CPU architecture, but soon a unified application ecosystem, something that Google doesn’t have. Closing the loop then, a customized ARM architecture processor combined with Chrome OS fully optimized for that custom processor is clearly lacking right now in the Chromebook space.”

Without designing a chip that’s fully integrated with Chrome OS, Google and its partners aren’t offering the best Chromebook experience that could be had.

Think of it this way: Why are Apple iOS devices generally rock solid and often better performing than the majority of Android devices even though the specs favor the latter?

It’s because of that tight hardware and software integration that’s optimized for the best experience. The chipsets are designed to make the software performance sing. That’s not how Chromebooks are made, unfortunately.

Here’s another thought experiment to highlight this point: If it was possible to install, optimize and run Chrome OS on a Mac laptop powered by the new M1 chip, how would you expect it to run? I think it would run circles around any Chromebook available today while also offering a massive battery life gain.

Obviously, this scenario is hypothetical and will never happen as I described it.

But it could be real in the sense that Google, who has designed some ML and other chips, create processors meant to run Chrome OS. I don’t mean to partner with a Samsung or a Qualcomm. I mean get the best and brightest chip designers available that Apple hasn’t already snatched up and create a Chrome OS-specific system-on-a-chip.

Google’s hardware partners could still use the traditional x86 and ARM processors they use today if they wanted to. I can’t see them being upset by that if they’re competing with Microsoft in the same PC spaces with that company’s Surface line.

It’s time for Google to take Chromebooks to the next level and provide its “modern OS” with a modern chipset that’s custom made for it.

16 thoughts on “All the great Apple Silicon M1 device reviews make me wish for Chromebooks with Google-made chips

  • November 17, 2020 at 4:26 pm
    Permalink

    Because of how Chrome OS is designed to work with Web apps, most people using Chromebooks don’t really care that much about raw CPU performance. Rather, they care intensely about incremental cost of performance. From what I’ve seen, a large proportion of Apple devotees don’t really care about price. If Apple makes it, they find a way to buy it, and then they flaunt it until Apple sells them the next upgrade. Google doesn’t seem to cater to that type of clientele. On the other hand, Google could figure out an technology to give Chrome OS users an economical boost in Web app performance. Then, of course, they’d be called monopolistic.

    Reply
    • November 22, 2020 at 9:04 pm
      Permalink

      Well…obviously Google no longer shares your opinion.

      You can run PWAs in Chrome
      You can run Android apps
      You can run Linux apps ( experimental but soon to be a supported feature )
      You can run Windows apps using the VM Parallels and a copy of Windows to run in the VM. However, it would be no stretch soon to run Windows Apps or even Windows itself as there is a version of Windows for ARM in their Surface product. Even Apple engineers have admitted in interviews that Windows RT could run natively on the new Apple Silicon M1 equipped MacBook if Microsoft so chose to do so. There is nothing standing in their way except for licensing issues. There own words.

      What you thought was a Chromebook and what you though Google had in mind for Chromebooks has steadily and radically changed.

      Reply
  • November 18, 2020 at 1:02 am
    Permalink

    Thanks Kevin.
    Good article and I fully agree.

    Reply
    • November 18, 2020 at 4:11 pm
      Permalink

      Kevin has raised very valid points. In fact Google has been playing second fiddle to Apple for years now. As a consumer of Google services and products, I don’t want or wish to be part of a company that plays second fiddle and is not enticing in its research capabilities. Hope Google would shake this off and deliver class leading performance to it’s consumers because as consumers of Android and Chrome OS, we certainly need the best and if Google is not capable, then I can envision many jumping the ship!

      Reply
  • November 18, 2020 at 4:08 am
    Permalink

    You are clearly missing that MediaTek just announced two new processors exclusively designed for Chromebooks

    Reply
    • November 22, 2020 at 9:12 pm
      Permalink

      The Age of ARM is coming for Chromebooks in 2021. Along with Chromebooks already using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 7c SoC, Mediatek is about to blow open the x86 hegemony in Chromebooks and usher in the Age of ARM just like Apple has for their computers.

      From chromeunboxed…

      ” MediaTek has continued to push forward in the Chrome OS space with its latest octa-core processor that powers the Lenovo Chromebook Duet and other devices. The MT8183 has proven to be a capable CPU for budget-friendly Chromebooks but MediaTek is now looking to crack the premium market with its latest chipsets.

      Chromebooks are seeing an unprecedented surge in popularity as more people work remotely and take online classes. MediaTek already powers some of the most popular Chromebooks on the market, and
      will continue to improve and drive user experiences forward with our new chipsets. The MT8192 and MT8195 give brands more features to
      design powerful Chromebooks with innovative form factors that can flip, fold or detach, are slim and lightweight, and have great battery life. ”

      https://chromeunboxed.com/mediatek- unveils-6nm-cpu-designed-just-for-chromebooks/

      Reply
  • November 18, 2020 at 10:51 am
    Permalink

    Please. While the mainstream media with their degrees in comparative social justice studies have an interest in repeating corporate propaganda from a massive global corporation whose products they love because they spare them the burden of thinking for anything beyond point-and-click and pinch-to-zoom, a writer on a tech blog should know better.

    First, the performance of Apple M1 chips don’t have a thing to do with Apple custom-designing it to fit their operating systems and products. Instead, it is all about two things.

    1. With respect to Intel, you have Apple’s 8 core chip competing with the 2 core Intel Core i3, the 4 core Intel Core i5 and the 6 core Intel Core i7. Match an octacore Intel chip with the M1 and what do you get? The media reporting is this a bunch of Apple fans so they aren’t pointing this out. Yes, Intel is currently incapable of making 8 core chips with significant power and heat issues, but that is because they are on a 14nm process. Intel could hire Qualcomm and Samsung to manufacture their octacore 7nm designs tomorrow. In addition, AMD will have octacore 5nm CPUs out a year from now.

    2. As for why Apple’s design beats the ARM Holdings one it is simple: Apple uses much larger cores.

    https://www.anandtech.com/show/16226/apple-silicon-m1-a14-deep-dive/2

    Why didn’t ARM Holdings compete? The main reason is that ARM Holdings made the mistake of attempting to surpass Apple’s large cores by scaling small ones. Before you claim that it was a ridiculous approach, realize that ARM servers and workstations by Ampere, Caldexit and similar have CPUs that scale 128 small cores. ARM Holdings felt they could do the same, but ran into power/heat issues when they surpassed 8 cores. At the time, since they were performing roughly the same as Apple’s dual core design they thought they were fine and focused on getting as much out of the small octacore design as possible. But then Apple shocked them by going from 2 cores in 2015 to 6 cores in 2017, crushing the competition in the process! So Samsung and ARM Holdings co-designed their own large core: the Cortex X1. Again, Anandtech has details – https://www.anandtech.com/show/15813/arm-cortex-a78-cortex-x1-cpu-ip-diverging/3 – that shows why they are a much better source for tech news than articles written by people who are just biding their time until they can write about politics for the New York Times.

    Now the Cortex X1 screams “first generation design rushed out the door as fast as possible” and as a result has power/heat issues that mean that only a single core can be used at a time, and there are also instruction size limitations. Future generations will be able to handle larger instructions and resolve the power/heat problems enough to permit 4 Cortex 1 performance cores and 4 small efficiency cores, and ultimately come up with Cortex 1 efficiency cores as well, allowing for ARM, Qualcomm, Samsung, MediaTek etc. to match Apple’s 8 big core design. In addition, using 5nm and 3nm processes would even allow surpassing the 8 core upper limit, especially in tablets and Chromebooks. Apple has been experimenting with the more forgiving heat and power environments in iPads to experiment with SOCs with more cores for years. Why Qualcomm hasn’t done the same with their “for laptops only” 8CX designs need to be explained. MediaTek should do the same by reviving their failed 10 core Helio X30 design, except with 1 Cortex X1 super core, 5 Cortex A8 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores.

    Ultimately, ARM vendors haven’t taken performance in Chromebooks seriously. But you can’t blame them. Until this year, Google didn’t put in the code for Chromebooks to support virtualization. Multiple external monitor support is another relatively recent innovation, and Chromebooks still can’t support discrete graphics or the full Thunderbolt standard. Putting all that power in a device where it isn’t supported by the OS would have been wasted: increasing its cost to no real effect. Now that Google appears to be trying to swipe some enterprise market share from MacBooks by enabling Windows virtualization via Parallels maybe they are going to fix some of this. But they have shut down ChromeOS development for the year following the most recent release – which doesn’t address any of those issues – meaning that it will be awhile before ChromeOS is a platform that even merits a competitor to the M1 chip.

    But even those issues have nothing to do with “Apple designing the CPU to fit the OS” nonsense. An “off-the-shelf” octacore big core CPU from Intel, AMD, Samsung or wherever would run ChromeOS faster than macOS. The problem is that the reason that it would be faster is because ChromeOS is much less capable than macOS at this time and THAT is what Google needs to work on while they leave the hardware stuff to companies like Samsung, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Nvidia, Intel and AMD that have proven that – unlike Google – they are actually good at it.

    Reply
    • November 19, 2020 at 4:21 am
      Permalink

      I what way is Chrome OS less capable then macOS?

      Reply
      • November 19, 2020 at 10:46 am
        Permalink

        The whole premise for this article and these comments about raw power has to do with running Windows and Linux applications versus Mac OS applications. In that sense, Chrome OS is less capable. Personally, I don’t think that it’s an appropriate premise. Chrome OS is primarily about Web apps.

        Reply
        • November 20, 2020 at 7:16 am
          Permalink

          Thanks for the clarification.

          Reply
    • November 22, 2020 at 9:16 pm
      Permalink

      From Fast Company. Real world, reviewer confirmed benchmark for the M1

      ” Of course if you already have a Mac, the performance difference that matters is the one between your old machine and the new one you might buy.

      In this household, the old Macs include a 2016 MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i7 chip and a 2018 MacBook Air with a Core i5.

      Both have 16 GB of RAM, double the quantity in the new Air I’ve been trying.

      Using iMovie to save a 74-second 4K video took more than five minutes on the 2018 MacBook Air, and sent its cooling fan into a tizzy.

      It took two and a half minutes on the MacBook Pro.

      And on the new Air—which, with its efficient M1 chip, doesn’t need a fan—it took just 49 seconds.

      https://www.fastcompany.com/90576013/apple-macbook-air-review-m1-apple-silicon-2020

      Reply
  • November 18, 2020 at 1:11 pm
    Permalink

    “they have shut down ChromeOS development for the year following the most recent release”

    Do you have a source?

    Reply
  • November 19, 2020 at 7:05 am
    Permalink

    Apple’s desire to control hardware, software, and the user is what kept me from going with Apple in 1980. If competing with Apple means becoming like Apple I don’t think it would be a wise choice. If I wanted to play in the Apple Orchard I’d buy Apple products.

    If Google made a Google chip that they limited to their Google Pixelbook products I would buy as many of those as I have in the past.

    If anyone was to build a chip specifically for Chrome OS I would probably enjoy the experience. Right now I have an Acer 713 and a Lenovo Duet. The reason I have both is that I had the Spin 713 and bought a couple of Duets for children in school and was delighted with the Duet and they are both relatively inexpensive.

    Reply
  • November 19, 2020 at 7:36 am
    Permalink

    I’m going to be keeping an eye on uptake by ios developers making their products available to MacOS. Watching early reviews of these first systems it’s evident that many are not ready on day one. Then again all failed attempts I saw – not finding the app available – were for games.
    I have been singularly and massively unimpressed with Chrome OS capabilities with Android apps. To be more clear it isn’t really about ‘capabilities’ so much as Android developers simply not making their software available for Chrome OS users.
    I’m not talking about games though. I’m talking about apps to deal with smart devices such as light bulbs or cameras. (I’m talking about you Wyze – as well as many others).
    Unfortunately Google itself is guilty as it often has been historically of not caring at all about it’s own products working well together. At least the last time I checked, which has been a while, the Home app was available but was an older version without a lot of capabilities. And even the basics didn’t work. I waited watching the wheel spin trying to just install a Google Mini smart speaker. Finally it crapped out and I had to go dig out an old table and charge it to just get that simple task done.
    I hit similar walls looking for Android printer software that worked on Chrome OS.
    If I were a betting man my dollar would say that ios developers embrace Mac silicone pretty quickly and across a wide swath of app types.
    If I was buying a new computer right now, Mac Mini M1 would almost certainly be my pony after watching early reviews.

    Reply
    • November 19, 2020 at 7:39 am
      Permalink

      *tablet

      – The Mac Mini M1 would be my first Mac if I were to buy one.

      Reply
  • November 21, 2020 at 1:03 am
    Permalink

    “Chrome OS is primarily about Web apps.”

    Yes. And this is what I believe is it’s strength. I hope that more and more traditional apps migrate to the cloud over time. As yet there hasn’t been a flood of PWA’s.

    But right now enterprise users still rely on a number of Windows and Linux applications and for this reason it would be great to see Google develop their own chip to help run Parrallels and Crostini etc. Having said that the remaining non-enterprise CrOS users are not going to benefit so much which significantly changes the ROI to Google.

    In summary, as much as I would like to see it there probably isn’t good enough reason for Google to create a new processor.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.