The Apple M2 won't be as powerful as the M1 Pro or M1 Max, but that's OK

The Apple M2 logo ringed by a semi-rainbow dropshadow against a off-white background
(Image credit: Apple)

Now that the Apple M2 is official and on its way to power the new MacBook Air (2022) and MacBook Pro 13-inch (2022) starting in July 2022, naturally people are going to ask questions about the potential of the the M2 relative to the M1 Pro and M1 Max that power the larget MacBook Pro models released in 2021.

When Apple revealed its new in-house silicon with the Apple M1 chip back in late 2020, the Cupertino tech goliath put to rest any doubts about the quality of the newest generation of ARM-based chips. When it followed up a year later with the M1 Pro and M1 Max silicon in the 14-inch MacBook Pro (2021) and 16-inch MacBook Pro (2021), we were even more impressed with how Apple improved on an already great system-on-a-chip (SoC).

So understandably, we and a lot of other people are pretty psyched to get their hands on the new Apple M2 (believe me, I'm one of them). However, some people might be surprised or even disappointed that the M2 might only be marginally more powerful than the M1, and will definitely fall short of the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, even though those are 'last-gen' chips.

That's why it's important to set expectations about what the M2 is, rather than fixate on the fact that 2 is a larger number than 1. In this case, it's what comes after the number that matters more than anything. 

The M2 won't be the fastest or most powerful chip Apple has produced

While the Apple M2 does represent the first chip in the next-generation of Apple silicon, it's important to remember who the M2 is meant to satisfy, and why it shouldn't be compared against the M1 Pro and M1 Max.

When Apple released its M1 chip, it's notable that it launched in the MacBook Air, the smallest of the three MacBook Pro models, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini

These are all targeted at the general computing audience and those professionals who need something more portable than powerful. This is even more apparent with the introduction of the 24-inch iMac last year, while the M1 Pro and M1 Max came to the high-end MacBooks which are much more targeted at creative pros who need beefier hardware.

That laptop hardware is barely a year old and remains a seriously powerful bit of kit, and the M2 chip is not going to outperform it – nor should it. The M2 chip is meant to be the successor of the M1, not the M1 Pro or M1 Max – just as an Intel Core i5 processor isn't meant to outperform the previous generation's Core i7 or Core i9 processors – and the M2 will be designed accordingly.

The M2 chip needs to be compared to other chips in its class

Just like Intel or AMD chips, the M2 belongs to a specific class of silicon, namely the general purpose computing market, while the Pro and Max chips cater to serious and hardcore professionals, respectively. 

Sometimes a chip in one class seriously punches above its weight, and can outperform the best processor of the previous generation in the next-highest class, but that isn't the goal and is fairly rare.

Apple claims that the Apple M2 is 18% faster than the M1, which would definitely be expected for a gen-on-gen increase without major hardware architecture changes like we saw with Intel Alder Lake. 

If the M2 turns out to be the kind of processor Apple is claiming it is, it could very well beat out the M1 Pro in some categories or use cases, but not in heavy duty applications like video editing or applying several filters to an image in Adobe Photoshop

There's no universe though where an M2 will be able to compete with an M1 Max, much less the M1 Ultra. Doing so would require a revolution in the processor design to unlike that kind of performance games.

The Core i5-12600K is a great example of this kind of jump in action, in that it even outperforms the previous generation's Core i9-11900K across a host of benchmarks, but it's very unlikely that we'd see some thing similar with Intel Raptor Lake, which is iterating on what Alder Lake has already accomplished.

For Apple, the move from Intel to its own silicon was that revolutionary transformation, and now its job is to continue to deliver better Apple processors. The fair apples-to-apples comparison here is to compare the Apple M2 against the previous-gen Apple M1 chip, and according to Apple, the performance increase gen-on-gen is about 18% which is what we would expect. We'll have to wait until we get one of these devices in ourselves for testing before judging the validity of that claim, of course, .

The Apple M2 could show us what is in store for the M2 Pro and M2 Max

One thing that the Apple M2 chip does show us is the kind of generational improvement we can expect out of Apple's next-gen silicon.

While it's impossible to say that a roughly 20% boost in performance from the M1 to the M2 will translate into the same kind of jump from M1 Pro to M2 Pro, or M1 Max to M2 Max, it's a pretty good signal for how well Apple's silicon is iterating from generation to generation.

Even that is tough to predict though, since one generation of improvement doesn't mean that the same kind of improvement can be taken for granted – just ask Intel pre-Alder Lake.

Still, a major performance boost for the M2 is a good sign of things to come from Cupertino across its silicon portfolio, so it's still something that we're going to be looking at closely once we get one of these chips in house to test ourselves.

  • Editor's Note: this story has been updated to reflect the announcement of the M2 chip and several performance claims made by Apple during WWDC 2022. Initially some of these figures were incorrectly reported, particularly that the Apple M2 saw a 40% performance increase over the M1 Pro and that the M2 was three times faster than the M1. The M2, as reported by Apple, is 18% faster than the M1, and no comparison between the M2 and the M1 Pro was claimed. The Neural Engine in the M2 is claimed to be 40% faster than that found in the M1, and the GPU in M2 in the MacBook Pro 13-inch 2022 is claimed to be up to 3.3 times faster than a non-Apple silicon-powered MacBook Pro 13-inch. We regret the error.
John Loeffler
Components Editor

John (He/Him) is the Components Editor here at TechRadar and he is also a programmer, gamer, activist, and Brooklyn College alum currently living in Brooklyn, NY. 

Named by the CTA as a CES 2020 Media Trailblazer for his science and technology reporting, John specializes in all areas of computer science, including industry news, hardware reviews, PC gaming, as well as general science writing and the social impact of the tech industry.

You can find him online on Threads @johnloeffler.

Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 (just like everyone else).