Apple M4 vs M3: A Detailed Comparison

Apple announced its first generation of the M series chip on November 10th, 2020. It was first used in the M1 MacBook Air and received immediate appreciation. Before the M series processors, Apple used Intel for their MacBooks. Although most laptop brands used Intel, it was quite inefficient.

However, when the M1 MacBook Air was launched, it drastically improved the MacBook as an overall product. First and foremost, the machine had no physical fans to keep it cool, which showed us how efficient the processor is. It also had fantastic performance while charging and on battery, which Intel processors failed to do.

Fast forward to 2024, we have received multiple generations of the M series processors. The latest is the M4. However, there’s a twist: the M4 was first used in the latest iPad Pro, launched on May 7th, 2024. This is surprising as the M series processors were first used in Macs, followed by iPad Pros, as we saw with the M1 and M2 iPad Pro. Not only that, but the iPad Pro jumped directly from the M2 to M4.

The M4 is Apple’s first major architecture update in a very long time. The M4 chipset brings an entirely new SOC design that we have actually not seen before. The M2 was a last-minute minor clock speed bump. The M2 also has a slightly better GPU. However, the upgrades were not very noticeable against the M1. The two also had the same 5nm TSMC fabrication.

The M3 finally moves to 3nm TSMC fabrication, but the performance differences were again minor. It did not include many architectural changes and was mostly just a swap in fabrication.

Finally, with the M4, there’s a noticeable boost to the NPU, which results in much better performance for all AI tasks and all the machine learning operations within iPadOS. Soon, we can expect a similar architecture and better NPU for Apple’s upcoming A18 chipset.

Regardless of which device gets it first, this article will compare the M4 with its predecessor, the M3. We expect the MacBook Air to get the M4 chip at the end of this year or early next year. The Pro MacBooks might also get a refresh around the end of the year.

Apple M4 vs M3 Specs Compared

Regarding architecture, both are based on TSMC’s 3nm nodes. Both chips also use a similar mix of performance and efficiency cores. Coming to the features, both support hardware-accelerated ray tracing, mesh shading, and Apple’s dynamic cache technology.

However, the M4 uses a more recent version of the TSMC 3nm fabrication. The M3 and Apple A17 Pro, as per popular speculation, use the TSMC N3B fabrication. This is not as good as the TSMC N3E node. The B node doesn’t particularly have anything worth mentioning.

The N3E node is the best at efficiency, while the N3P node strives for the best performance. The N3B node is a balance, and it’s mostly what was in the M3 chipset.

Since Apple mentioned that the M4 uses a second-generation 3nm fabrication, we can assume it’s the N3E. It’s better than the N3B fabrication and brings a much-needed efficiency boost.

iPad Pros generally have low battery life compared to the Air and base models. This might bring it up. It doesn’t make much sense for Apple to use the N3P node for the M4 chip since that’s performance-only, and the iPad has to focus on efficiency first. We may see the N3P node on future Pro MacBook models.

Processor Cores

The Apple M3 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air have four performance cores paired with four efficiency cores. However, the M4 in the iPad Pro comes with three and four-core versions for performance and has six for efficiency, bumping the total number to 9 or 10 cores.

Apple M3 Chipset Apple M4 Chipset
Total Cores 8 9 (or) 10
Performance Cores 4 3 (or) 4
Efficiency Cores 4 6
GPU Cores 8 (or) 10 10
Neural Engine Cores 16 16
Transistors 25 Billion 28 Billion
Memory Capacity 8GB/ 16GB/ 24GB 16GB
Memory Bandwidth 100 GBPS 120 GBPS
Lithography First-Gen 3nm Fabrication Second-Gen 3nm Fabrication

 

The M4 chipset currently has three performance cores for the iPad Pro 2024. However, we can expect Apple to use a version with four performance cores on the M4 MacBooks. There’s debate on whether dropping one performance core is actually useful or not.

On one hand, dropping one performance core means that the other three cores must work overtime to deliver the same performance. This would mean Apple dropped one of the cores for cost-cutting. On the other side, four performance cores might mean that each core’s effort is now reduced, and it’ll perform better. However, this year’s iPad Pros are extremely thin, which might also negatively affect their thermal performance. Either way, it remains a major step up from M3. It’s also a significant bump in performance from the previous-gen M2 iPad Pros.

Processor Cores

Differences in performance and efficiency cores

The M4 chipset boosts the number of efficiency cores to 6 cores. Depending on the configuration, you’ll get a 9- or 10-core CPU cluster. The M3 was an 8-core CPU. This delivers a notable performance boost, also thanks to the new fabrication.

However, this is still short of the M3 Pro. The M3 Pro is currently the best available balance between performance and efficiency on an Apple Silicon chipset. The M3 Pro has six performance and six efficiency cores for 12 CPU cores.

The M4 carries the same integrated GPU as the M3 chipset. Disappointingly, it carries no GPU boosts. This is a glaring issue for a desktop chip since there are better GPUs. It’s the same GPU as the old M2! However, it’s still the best one for a tablet.

It has the same hardware acceleration, ray tracing, and mesh trading. This year’s efforts went into the NPU since it has many AI applications in the Adobe suite and Apple’s first-party apps like Garageband and Final Cut for iPad.

m4 gpu

Display Engine

The Display Engine is a massive step up from the M3. It has to handle Tandem OLED, two OLED panels working together for the best total brightness. It also has to handle LTPO 120Hz. The new Display Engine is handy to handle 1500 Nits of peak brightness.

Future high-end MacBooks might end up using Tandem OLED, too. If Apple could do it on a 13″ iPad, they can very easily implement it on a 14″ MacBook Pro.

m4 display engine

Conclusion

The M4 has a much better NPU, a newer generation fabrication, and a higher focus on efficiency. Unfortunately, there are no GPU improvements on the M4. However, the M3 Pro remains a better chip than the M4. Compared to a device like the M3 MacBook Air, will the iPad Pro M4 perform better?

We’re not sure about this since thermals are a major part of the performance. The M4 iPad Pro has copper in the Apple logo and an internal cooling solution. However, given their thinness, it’s also difficult for them to sustain their performance.

The thermal headroom is very thin because of the extremely slim chassis. As a result, the M3 MacBook might still perform better in terms of sustained performance.

Yahya Hasan is a tech writer at DealNTech covering the latest mobile news and guides. He enjoys testing new devices and operating systems to deliver insightful content to readers. As a writer for DealNTech, Yahya focuses on mobile technology, staying up-to-date on the newest devices and software releases. Email: [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram

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