Farewell Intel: Apple’s Mac Processor Swap Defined

At its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced that it would ship Macs with its own Apple Silicon processors instead of Intel chips. These are based on ARM designs that Apple already uses in its iPhones and iPads.

Why is it making this change? And what can you expect from a new ARM Mac? Here we have the answers to your questions.

Why is Apple moving away from Intel?

According to Apple, moving away from Intel is about strengthening design for the next era of products. Apple claims that its iPad and iPhone chips have developed over the years the world's most energy-efficient chips that use less power and at the same time offer better performance. This efficiency, along with the other advanced features, is to be applied to a new “family of Mac SoCs” (system on a chip) in these new products.

Beyond what was shared at WWDC, we suspect that one of the main reasons for Apple's processor supplier change is dissatisfaction with Intel. The rate of innovation and improvement at Intel appears to have slowed in recent years, which may have prompted Apple to look for a solution elsewhere. This idea was underpinned by former Intel engineer François Piednoël, who claimed that the quality assurance of the company's Skylake chips was "unusually bad," which was a turning point that convinced Apple to end its partnership with Intel.

The second important contribution is control. Apple could have simply switched to AMD for its processors (and this has been rumored in the past), but this would still pose the problem of relying on a third-party vendor whose goals may not match Apple's. By integrating processor designs internally, Apple can coordinate its hardware and software teams and ensure that both use each other's capabilities.

What is ARM?

Macbook Air (2018) reviewRiley Young / Digital Trends

All Apple chips use the ARM architecture (Advanced RISC Machine) developed by Arm Holdings. The designs are licensed to other companies, such as Apple, who can then use these designs in their own processors. Apple has used ARM designs extensively – for example, every iPhone and iPad that has ever been released has used an ARM-based processor.

ARM chips are known for their low power consumption and are therefore ideal for phones, tablets and smart home devices. This efficiency also makes ARM processors attractive to companies like Apple because they can build thinner and lighter devices without sacrificing performance.

These are the same types of chips that Microsoft tried to use in some of its Windows on ARM devices or the newer Surface Pro X.

When will the first Apple Silicon Macs appear?

Apple announced that the first Apple Silicon Mac will be launched in late 2020. The company didn't disclose what the product was, but rumors suggest either a redesigned iMac or a new MacBook Pro.

Apple won't make the transition across all Mac product lines overnight. The company anticipates that it will take around two years to switch the entire Mac product range to Apple Silicon. It was even stated that future Intel products are still planned in the future. So don't expect everyone to be using Apple Mac in the near future.

The first development kits are a Mac mini with the A12Z Bionic processor and 16 GB RAM.

Will Apple Silicon Chips Be As Powerful As Intel Processors?

This question is difficult to answer, especially because few consumer companies have released ARM-enabled computers. An exception is Microsoft, which brought out the Surface Pro X with an ARM chip and claimed that it offers three times the performance per watt of the Intel-based Surface Pro 6. The processors in Apple's iPhones and iPads are also based on ARM and the competition one step to be ahead. While this isn't a direct comparison to Mac processors, it's still encouraging.

Add to that reporting from Bloomberg, who claims that Apple's internal tests have shown that the upcoming Apple silicon chips will outperform Intel equivalents, particularly in terms of graphics and artificial intelligence, and use less power. This was confirmed by Apple at WWDC, where it was announced that its new chips are aimed at combining top performance with minimal power consumption. Exactly what Apple claimed was the motivation behind the move.

However, since this is still a relatively unknown area, we have to reserve a judgment until we can review an Apple Silicon-based Mac. Apple has demonstrated some of the performance of these chips on a Mac running an A12Z Bionic processor, which was also used for the current iPad Pro. In Final Cut Pro, the Mac was able to play 4K video clips with live effects and three streams with 4K ProRes footage.

Will my apps be compatible?

In a word, yes. Microsoft had to warn customers that some of their apps may not be compatible with Surface Pro X. However, Apple seems confident that it won't suffer the same fate. It is said that many apps – such as Microsoft Office apps and pro-level apps from Adobe – are ready for use from day one, as well as in-house apps from Notes to Final Cut Pro.

There are a number of tools that Apple uses to persuade developers to switch native apps to Apple Silicon. According to Apple, developers with a new version of Xcode can deploy Intel applications in just a few days using a new application binary called Universal 2, which is suitable for both Intel and Apple systems.

For apps that don't make the transition, Apple updates Rosetta (the framework that developers can use to switch their apps when switching from PowerPC to Intel). It is now called Rosetta 2 and can translate apps during installation so that they can start immediately. This means that apps whose developers have not released Apple Silicon versions should work seamlessly on the new architecture.

Finally, Apple also enables virtualization for developers who want to run Linux.

Should I buy the first Apple Silicon Mac?

It is often advisable to pass on the first generation technology so that it can be developed and perfected later (as recently demonstrated by the Samsung Galaxy Fold). This should be the case with such a monumental step as the switch to Apple silicon processors.

The news of Apple's internal tests is encouraging. Apple usually waits for it to feel it can make the best product in its class before releasing anything, rather than rushing to market with an inferior product just so it can claim to be the first. If Apple believes its ARM processors can outperform their Intel counterparts, it suggests that the first Apple Silicon Mac could perform excellently.

The first generation Apple Silicon Mac may require sacrifice. Does your favorite app work on the start day or do you have to wait for it to finish? And if it works, does it work without compromise or will it be a shadow of its former self? Do your peripherals work with your new Mac or do you have to wait for manufacturers to update their software?

Apple has tried to reassure users with things like Rosetta 2 and ensure that many top-level apps are already running on the new system. But these are still questions that we have no answers to yet. Because of this uncertainty, it may be best to wait for reviews and compatibility confirmations before taking the plunge.

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