Yes, and no.
There’s a rumour that Apple will announce a “move to ARM-based Macs” today that has tech nerds in a lather. For many, Apple’s move to Intel processors is synonymous with the rise of the Mac as a real choice in computing; despite the fact that Windows apps don’t run natively on Mac hardware (you either need to load Windows on with virtualization software like Parallels or reboot into a Windows installation with Apple’s Bootcamp option) a lot of “switchers” felt more comfortable knowing that Windows apps were only a click away.
But the Get-a-Mac campaign is over 13 years old, and Apple has found a comfortable space for many as their platform of choice–me included. So why, after all these year, would they abandon Intel and AMD–especially with some users begging Cupertino for an AMD-powered Mac?
To understand why let’s first take a quick look at the modern history of processing in the Mac.
Back in the early days of the iPod, when iMacs still had CRT monitors and coloured plastic cases, Apple computers were powered by PowerPC chips. PowerPC was a joint operation between Motorola and IBM, a Reduced Instruction Set Computing processor – or RISC chip. Back then, the speed and power of the PowerPC banked on it being able to get more done than the x86 chips from Intel and AMD, who at the time were making Complex Instruction Set Computer chips. While the PowerPC was able to pull ahead at times, the challenges that IBM and Motorola faced in keeping up with Intel in speed while also producing a processor that didn’t overheat were high… and the challenge of taking one of those chips and putting it in a laptop were insurmountable. There’s a legend that a G5 PowerBook exists somewhere in Apple’s vault, but it’s never been seen in public.
The news that Apple was switching from PowerPC to Intel was a shock to many Mac users, but for those close to Steve Jobs it wasn’t a surprise; after his experiences with NeXT Computer Steve seemed to have back up plans for back up plans. Word has it that they had been running OS X on Intel chips for several years before finally making the decision; Intel’s Core Duo processor was the speed, price, and power consumption they were looking for. Apple announced Rosetta, an elegant real-time translation emulator that took PowerPC code and turned it into Intel code in real time.
The road with Intel has been mostly smooth for Apple; for the most part the processors have arrived on time, integrated graphics chips from Intel have vastly improved, and it’s made it easy for Mac users to know what type of performance they’re going to get when they buy a Mac. There have been delays to eagerly anticipated updates to the Mac line-up as Intel has missed deadlines, and supply issues through the years, but overall it’s been a solid relationship. A qualified B+.
So why rock the boat? If it’s working, why change? Rosetta, while elegant, did come with a performance cost. Isn’t Intel good enough for Apple?
The answer is both yes and no. Apple’s Professional machines, the Mac Pro, the iMac Pro, and the MacBook Pro are all likely to stick with Intel for the foreseeable future; Intel’s work on the higher end is typically meeting their needs, and while the Core i series seems to have levelled out in performance gains over the past few years, the upper echelons of Intel’s range still pack a heavy punch. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tim, like Steve before him, had all of these machines running on AMD variants in the vault; AMD has been making huge strides over the past half decade–something that’s good for everyone who uses a computer.
But the rest of the line? The Mac mini, the iMac, and the MacBook Air are all ripe for an ARM-based variant. Why?
Because Apple’s A-series ARM processors are ready. We’ve already seen reports that the A12Z bionic chip in the iPad Pro is outperforming many of Intel’s chips in benchmarks–and while those bragging rights don’t always translate to real world performance, in this case they absolutely do. Intel is getting its lunch eaten by Tim Cook’s vertically integrated hardware behemoth.
The canary in the coal mine for Intel on the Mac, at least on the lower end, is the relatively painlessness of Catalyst apps; that’s the framework for running iOS / iPadOS apps on the Mac. News, Home, Stocks, and a few other apps showed the way; personally I’m using them every day.
It should come as no surprise, then, when Apple announces that Catalyst is going to be the core of x86 apps on ARM as a Rosetta-like solution for anything not written in Apple’s Swift programming language; that’s going to be apps like Adobe’s Creative Suite.
But for anyone writing in Swift? The change will be instant, and will most likely yield performance gains. As someone all-in on macOS and using their Pro Apps–Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro X–daily, it’s going to be interesting to see just how fast these apps can get when they’re ported to ARM-based Macs. There’s going to come a time–and I think it will be soon–where the crossover between ARM performance and Intel performance is going to make buying a MacBook Pro slightly uncomfortable and confusing, especially if Intel continues to only post modest performance gains from generation to generation.
The ARM-based future of Apple isn’t just about raw processor performance. That A12Z in the iPad Pro has far more going on for it: the graphics processor integrated into the processor die is massive, and has performance to match. It consumes so much less power than equivalent Intel chips, generating less heat (that means less power needed to cool the machine, longer lifespans, and longer battery life), and includes additional processing units for lower priority tasks. Adding in cellular capability–which will no doubt include 5G in the future–and you have a chip that is faster, lighter, more capable, and ticks so many more boxes for Apple, all in a supply line they control.
While Apple has had a favourable, even preferential relationship with Intel, nothing can match the efficiencies of bringing that relationship in-house. Apple has claimed its unique status in the general-purpose computing world through its software, macOS, iWork, and the Pro app family.
It’s almost scary to think where they could go with their own processor at the heart of their machines… and they won’t be taking Windows users with them. So how’s it going to go?
We’ll find out in a few hours.