New MacBook Pro M3 technologies deciphered

At first glance, the next-generation MacBook Pro doesn’t look like it’s getting a major update. Its new matte black finish catches the eye and its Liquid Retina display is brighter than before, but otherwise it would be hard to tell the 2023 14-inch MacBook Pro from the equivalent 2022 model. The interior, however, is a completely different story.

It contains several cutting-edge technologies that will leave a mark in the world of computing, virtual reality and video games. It doesn’t matter if you’re using Mac or Windows, many of these new features are worth exploring.

Engraving in three nanometers (3 nm)

The new MacBook Pros are indeed equipped with the M3 chip third generation computer chips developed by Apple after M1 and M2. The company that makes Apple-designed chips has perfected the manufacturing process to burn even more transistors onto the chip, making it more powerful while reducing its power consumption.

For the first time, the engraving on this central part of the computer is in three nanometers (3 nm), while the last ones were in 5 nm. To better understand the subtleties of this new process, Apple estimates that two million transistors could be etched at 3nm per hair cross-section.

The M3, M3 Pro and M3 Max chips (the one equipped with the device tested here) are, with the A17 chips of the new iPhone 15 Pro, the first with mass-produced 3nm engraving to arrive on the market. And they will probably be the only ones for a while. According to several specialized media, the Apple brand has reserved the entire first year of 3nm production from TSMC, the Taiwanese giant that dominates the global microprocessor market.

Qualcomm, which makes the chips for most Android phones and will launch a processor for Windows PCs in 2024, will instead use 4nm engraving for next year. Intel uses different nomenclature, but its equivalent chips, the Intel 3, are expected to hit the market in 2024, initially for data centers, not PCs.

The subtlety of the engraving is not everything. In practice, however, the M3 Max is currently the most powerful mobile chip on the market in terms of CPU performance (this is confirmed by several performance tests, especially with the Geekbench 6 software that evaluates processor performance). The switch to 3nm engraving increases the performance of the central processor core by approximately 10% to 20% compared to the last generation. Apple’s alleged monopoly on this new manufacturing process means that its lead will be hard to catch in the coming year.

Dynamic caching

The most original innovation of the 2023 MacBook Pros, and the one that has the biggest impact on their performance, concerns the new technology, “dynamic caching” (dynamic caching, in English). It would have a significant effect on the graphics performance (according to Apple, up to around 80%, but I could not verify this myself, not having a computer with an M2 Max chip at hand).

In short, this technology makes it possible to better allocate RAM during tasks that use graphics cores, such as video games, creating 3D models or rendering special effects. A bit like a marathon runner who collects small cups of water as they need them during the run instead of running with a large bottle filled from the start.

Again, this is a technology that allows Apple to increase the performance of its computer without increasing its power consumption. No graphics card manufacturer has yet announced a similar feature, but it’s probably only a matter of time before PCs can take advantage of it.

In my tests, the MacBook Pro with the M3 Max also offers excellent performance, better than the Mac Studio desktop and often almost comparable to the performance of my powerful video gaming desktop built two years ago (but in a laptop).

Mesh shader and ray tracing

Video game compatibility is still one of the Mac’s major Achilles’ heels. Their game-enhancing GPUs are less powerful than the best PC graphics cards, and far fewer titles are compatible with macOS than Windows.

Apple no longer takes gaming lightly, and this is especially evident with the latest MacBook Pros, whose two main new features are related to this software.

Network shader (mesh shader, in English) is a technology already available on PC that allows developers to create 3D environments with much more detail (by increasing the number of polygons that make up characters and objects). This technology is currently still underutilized.

Ray tracing (ray tracing, in English), more widespread, is an algorithm that makes it possible to better calculate the reflection of light in 3D scenes. This technology, now integrated into the M3 chips, greatly improves the realism of these scenes. Unfortunately, almost no Mac games have been updated to take advantage of this yet.

Adding these two technologies won’t turn the MacBook Pro into a gamer’s computer (because even though there are more, only a fraction of Windows games are released on the Mac). Still, it shows that Apple is taking gaming more and more seriously. And that is easily explained. In my tests, it’s hard to push the MacBook Pro with the M3 Max to its limits. To justify buying this computer, you need to run demanding applications, but also use it intensively (an architect who needs to consult, for example, 3D arena plans rather than house plans).

Video games are different because all players can take advantage of the extra power and features (and many are willing to pay for that power).

That’s not all. Apple’s Vision Pro virtual reality headset, expected next year, will also be able to benefit from all the video game features that Apple has added in recent years, just like the iPhone (a few comprehensive games have also been announced for the iPhone 15 Pro Max, like the new Assassin’s Creed Mirage from Ubisoft).

By expanding the pool of potential players, Apple is making the Mac an increasingly attractive platform for game developers, addressing one of its oldest shortcomings.

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