Earlier this month, Apple finally announced its new M1 chip, and gave us some mind-blowing numbers to demonstrate how fast its three new Macs really are. Naturally, we were excited to get our hands on a new machine to test these performance claims for ourselves — and see just how Sketch would run on this new hardware.
Measuring performance objectively across machines in an application as interactive as Sketch isn’t easy. Recording side-by-side operations produced some notable differences — browsing through complicated Sketch documents was at least 40% faster in our measurements, for example — and in an unscientific way everything felt faster. But we could never be sure whether other factors were at play.
But then we realized that we had another way to put the new Macs through their paces — a more objective, measurable way.
A Mac mini server farm
At Sketch, the Mac mini holds a special place in our heart. We operate a server farm of 19 Mac minis. Together, they process over 60,000 Sketch documents every day — for developer handoff, asset exporting, web previews, and our upcoming live collaboration feature. And as you can imagine, speed and performance make a huge difference here.
We wanted to know if the M1 chip would speed up our operations and ultimately make the experience of using Sketch even better as a result. To help us figure that out, we conducted three separate tests.
Measuring overall performance
First, let’s set the scene. For this test, we ordered the entry-level 2020 Mac mini, featuring an Apple M1 Chip with 8GB of RAM. Its purchase price is $699.
We’re comparing this machine with those that are currently running our render farm; the 2018 Mac mini, with 3.2 GHz Intel Core i7 processors and 32GB RAM. You can still buy this model today, starting at $1,299 for the same processor and 8GB RAM1.
To test performance, we took a number of complex Sketch documents, loaded them up, then exported a few hundred images out of each document2. This gives us a nice variety of ‘disk’ activity, memory usage, CPU usage and GPU usage to help us compare the machines.
And how did they compare?
The results were impressive and confirmed our less scientific observations from earlier. The Mac minis currently running our render farm are the top-of-the-line model from 2018, and they were consistently outperformed by 30-40% in our first test compared to the base-line model of the new Mac mini. That’s 30-40% more performance for almost half the price!
It’s worth noting that these tests don’t accurately reflect interactive real-life Sketch use (due to all the disk writing, for example), nor are they designed to test one isolated unit on the chip — like the CPU.
Measuring raw CPU
With that in mind, we decided to run another set of tests to get a better idea of how these two pieces of hardware perform from a raw CPU perspective. In this case we compared the results of a detach operation — we took those same large and complex Sketch files and recursively detached every Symbol instance in each.
Performing this task gave us a better idea of how these two machines compare based almost solely on CPU. And what did we find?
Here, the results are almost identical with the lofty numbers we got from Apple. The new M1 Mac mini was almost twice as fast as our 2018 machine.
Comparing Apples to Apples
In the November event, Apple’s Laura Metz, Mac Product Line Manager, said that the MacBook Air is the world’s best-selling 13-inch notebook, and the company’s best-selling model. So we decided to test against an early 2020 Intel MacBook Air as well (1.1 GHz Intel Core i5 with 8 GB RAM). The Mac mini we’re testing here shares the same M1 chip as the newly released MacBook Air, so although it’s not a perfect comparison, it should be a decent indicator of the performance jump you can expect from the new Air compared to the older model.
And, just for good measure, we decided to throw in a 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro (2.3 GHz Intel Core i9 with 32GB RAM) as well. Because, why not?3
Again, the results are staggering. The 2019 MacBook Pro, as could be expected, easily outpaces the MacBook Air. But then our new Mac mini goes a step further, blowing both of them out of the water. The new Mac mini consistently completed these tasks three times faster than the early 2020 MacBook Air, and twice as fast as the 2019 MacBook Pro.
What it all means
There’s no doubt about it — these M1 chips are truly amazing. It’s hard to put into words just how much more performance you get from this new generation of Macs compared to even their recent predecessors. Though, these numbers sure help quantify it.
For now, we’re eagerly waiting for Apple to have enough M1 Mac minis available for us to upgrade our server rendering operations. These new machines will help us process documents faster, run Cloud more efficiently, and make our exciting upcoming features better than ever.
The best news is that, as a Sketch user, you don’t have to buy a new Mac to feel the benefits of Apple’s M1 chip. We can deliver those improvements by upgrading our servers. And of course, if you are lucky enough to have a new M1 machine, we’ve made sure our Mac app can take advantage of these big performance improvements — so you can create amazing work, faster than ever.
This $1,299 model only includes 8GB of RAM — to upgrade to the 32GB RAM model we use in our server farms would cost $1,899. But the tests we’re carrying out here don’t get close to using that much RAM, so we didn’t think it was fair to compare those machines (and prices) specifically. ↩
When using Sketch in real-life, we try to utilize all cores efficiently. In this setup, the workflow is deliberately single-threaded so we can run a lot of these processes together efficiently. Remember, this is not a typical workflow for users — but it is a good reflection of the work we need to do on the server. ↩
The Mac mini we tested has the same chip and speed as the latest M1 MacBook Air — the mini simply has a fan to help heat dissipation. However, these tests wouldn’t cause CPU throttling to kick in had we measured this on an Air. ↩