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CAD programs whether 3D or 2D are not driven by CPU alone. The GPU plays a major role in any system. Apple’s M1 is a unified SoC (system on chip) including CPU, GPU, centralized memory, and many other features like the Neural Engine. Its GPU is strong but it is far from being able to rival the top GPUs out in the market. The good news is it is quite strong enough for many modern CAD and 3D workflows. The primary issue is one of tapping out on the memory limitation inherent with Apple’s unified chip approach.
Apple’s new 24-inch iMacs can be fashioned with up to 16GB of unified memory. Our M1-based Mac mini also had 16GB of unified memory. We highly recommend 16GB for anyone considering professional CAD or 3D work on the new M1-based iMacs.
Back to our GPU performance testing in our M1 Mac mini feature articles, the M1 in our tests showed performance marks better than the Radeon Pro Vega 56 in our 2017 iMac Pro, a machine I use every day for professional CAD and 3D tasks on applications like SketchUp and Twinmotion to name a few. In real-world tests—and these we had to tap the Rosetta 2 translation layer—I was impressed at how well large SketchUp models with loads of textures ran on the M1-based Mac mini. And the one thing that is clear by looking at the GFXbench GPU test benchmarks they share online is that OpenGL gets crushed when going up against Microsoft DirectX and Apple’s Metal APIs. That is generally the case. So applications written for the M1 will be extra speedy due to not just the M1 but Apple’s Metal API which marries ideally with the silicon architecture on the M1.
If you were to ask this author if he would buy a new 24-inch iMac for professional CAD or 3D work, I would say it depends. If your work needs to load massive amounts of data (like texture data) onto the GPU, then the new M1-based Macs are not ideally suited for you. For all those not impacted by that limit, then the answer is yes particularly if you find a 24-inch monitor your sweet spot or want to pair a second 24-inch monitor to the iMac.
As for me?
I prefer 27-inch format screens and honestly am too curious about the M1X or whatever Apple will call the “bigger M1” they are currently working on for larger pro models. Given that Apple put the M1 inside the smaller iMac—which is honestly something I didn’t think they would do—it is clear now that Apple intends to run lean on the total number of processors they intend to develop. The fact that they put the M1 inside the new iPad Pro furthers that point.
Future M chips
Apple said when they announced Apple Silicon they would take advantage of machine TDPs (thermals). This implied chips unique to each form factor’s thermal potentials. But it seems the new M1 iMac is thin because of the M1’s TDP rather than creating a chip for the true TDP of a newer iMac form-factor. In other words, “form follows chip” seems to be the design mantra for this new 24-inch iMac.
This suggests that Apple’s next chip may scale up TDP only to a point that allows the future Apple Silicon 27-inch iMac and future large MacBook Pro to hit design goal targets that incorporate a higher TDP (thermal design power) limits.
As for what happens with a future iMac Pro, the two new Mac Pro towers of different size is anybody’s guess. With the iPhone, the chips have led to ever smaller enclosures while chips still get faster. Same with iPad. While this now dictate what happens with Macs too? The new super-thin iMac seems to suggest so.