If Apple starts making processors for the Mac, what does that mean for users


For years there have been whispers which have indicated that Apple will eventually start making its own custom processors replacing the current crop of Intel processors that power its Mac computers based on macOS. More recently, a report from Bloomberg claims that this transition is happening very soon; as soon as next year. The report claims that Apple will be making a 12-core processor which will be based on technology that it has developed for the A14 processor that’s going to be in the iPhone 12. The iPhone 12 is scheduled to be launched later this year on a brand new 5nm manufacturing process. These processors are based on an architecture designed by ARM technologies, commonplace in mobile devices, instead of the x86 architecture which was developed by Intel in the 1960s. So what does this mean for most users? Will these new Mac products be better, which is what logic would dictate. Should you even care about this change and hold of your next purchase? 

Hardware-wise Macs will be better

The ARM architecture allows for numerous advantages for a better product on a fundamental level, especially for the lower-end models. On top of that, Apple’s expertise in making ARM chips purpose-built in a vertically integrated environment for its macOS operating system will differentiate these products compared to ChromeOS or Windows. 

  • In the last decade, Apple has built one of the most sophisticated in-house silicon technologies teams in the world. In 2008, Apple’s late former CEO Steve Jobs acquired a company called PA Semi which laid the foundation for the custom processor’s across Apple’s product line — the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, HomePod, and AirPods. Apple’s team is led by Johny Srouji who is considered to be one of the best in the business. He was also considered to be in the running for the position of Intel’s CEO in 2019. Apple is perhaps the only platform company that has such a sophisticated silicon operation in-house. Samsung and Huawei may make their own chips, but they neither make Android or Windows. While Google and Microsoft have just started a journey towards making custom silicon for their products. Apple has been doing this for a while and is well-positioned to do this. 
  • As good as Apple’s silicon teams are, this transition perhaps isn’t even a choice. The primary reason for Apple to do this would be the fact that Intel has been floundering with its leadership in having the best processor node in the last decade. For all intents and purposes, it has fallen behind ARM in terms of performance per watt. Intel has floundered so much that it has impacted Apple’s ability to innovate on the Mac – especially on the notebook side of the business. This is also compounded by the fact that Intel’s chips are also very expensive. Intel has fallen so far behind that it can be argued that it isn’t even the leader in making x86 based processors as AMD’s Ryzen processors have taken the fight to Intel. Apple has been pushed into a corner to take a drastic step as a change from x86 to ARM would be a big one for developers.
  • While Apple already uses AMD discrete GPUs coupled with Intel’s integrated graphics on its notebooks and even desktop solutions, the bigger problem is now ARM is the leading processor architecture because of their ubiquitous use in mobile phones. Apple also happens to be the best exponent of making ARM chips with its A-series of processors for the iPhone and iPad being significantly faster than rival Qualcomm Snapdragon processors and even outdoing Intel processors that go in notebooks being faster, smaller, thermally efficient and frugal in battery consumption. For example, a 4K video stream can be easily edited on the iPad Pro which doesn’t break a sweat while a 13-inch MacBook Pro will struggle to do the same thing. Apple has also now made its own GPU stack based on ARM which is proving to be very fast which would obviously give the company confidence to make its own silicon for its notebooks, to begin with. 
  • Apple’s new A12Z bionic chip can run JavaScript faster than Intel’s Core i9 processor on the MacBook Pro 16-inch. Yes, on one side there is a chip which is running in a super slim tablet without any thermal assists like fans delivering upwards of 10 hours of battery and staying very cool, there is a stark contrast of the Intel chip needing dedicated thermal cooling and only managing around 8-9 hours of battery life. The A13 Bionic chip on the iPhone 11 and even the new affordable iPhone SE is also able to rival the performance to Intel’s Core i7 processors. Imagine, these are 6-core and 8-core processor designs on the current generation 7nm node. When this is evolved with what’s in the works for the A14 on a new node, with more cores and a device that doesn’t have the thermal constraints of a phone or a tablet, Apple could make incredible leaps. It’s important to understand, Intel’s lower end, low-power CPUs for notebooks which like the discontinued Apple MacBook with Retina Display were atrocious. Apple will make an order of magnitude performance leap if it can make macOS run well on its chips. 
  • A lot of the capability of the current generation Macs isn’t coming from the CPU. Apple has been offloading work-loads with some custom-designed co-processors. The Touch Bar is powered by an ARM chip, similar to the one that’s there on the iPhone. Apple preloads its T2 security chip which handles Touch ID apart from also offloading video encoding and processing which isn’t exactly the cup of tea of the Intel chip, especially on the MacBook Air. For the last couple of years, Apple has been augmenting the Macs with its own custom hardware. Apart from some redundancies and inefficiencies in having co-processors, this would also be vastly more expensive to execute and complex to integrate for developers. 

Examples of Intel’s deficiencies pulling Apple back 

Apart from not having the best processors around for a while, Intel’s problems have made Apple look foolish and invariably made it release products that it would probably have to compromise because of focus on design and engineering. 

  • The MacBook with Retina Display was an embarrassing product for Apple. It has now been silently discontinued. Till recently, it was powered by Intel’s Kaby Lake Core M CPUs which weren’t very powerful. While the design of this notebook has served to be the basis behind the design of the current generation of MacBook Pro and Air models, its performance was so lacking that it felt obsolete compared to both the iPad and MacBook Air. Most probably, Apple will bring back this notebook with an ARM chip. 
  • The MacBook Pro 15 in 2018 served as a big reminder that Apple’s design principles and the core technology available for high-end workstation notebooks were at loggerheads. Apple’s top of the line Intel Core i9 was throttling thanks to the poor thermal design that Apple had adopted for the CPU. Apple would probably argue that it usually was making the most extreme workstations designed for extreme mobility to which Intel’s chips weren’t able to rise to the occasion. 
  • Apple’s laptops have also started to lack the differentiation they used to have compared to Windows-based notebooks in the past which were based on the same Intel chips. Back in 2008, Apple collaborated with Intel to launch the MacBook Air. Intel designed a CPU with special packaging for Apple. Then in the early 2010s, Intel went ahead and collaborated with Microsoft for Ultrabook which basically strived to democratise what Apple was doing with the MacBook Air. With its own custom processors, it would be very hard to do an Apples to apple comparison with a Windows PC running the same CPU, just the way it is hard to compare an Android smartphone with an iPhone. 

All applications may not be there at launch but there is hope 

The biggest headache with such a transition is compatibility for applications on the new hardware. Microsoft’s troubles with transitioning Windows win32 applications to Qualcomm and Nvidia’s ARM-based CPUs has proved that this transition could be a very hard one. Apple will likely do much better — the question is how much better? 

  • Apple already launched a project catalyst which has enabled developers to port their iOS apps to run on macOS. Some of the new core macOS apps like Apple Music, Apple News and Stocks have been built using this technology. But Apple hasn’t proved the way for developers to do something the other way round. That would make more sense as iPad and iPhone use ARM-based processors which is what is coming towards the Mac. 
  • But there are already rumours from reliable Apple watchers that Apple is turning up the lever. For instance, Jon Prosser claims that Apple is recompiling its pro applications like XCode for the iPad which could mean that there could be a version that’s in play for the MacBook on ARM. They could also in time be working on versions of Final Cut Pro and Logic. 
  • History dictates that Apple is likely to handle this transition better. When Apple transitioned from the PowerPC architecture to Intel, it did a couple of things. In its XCode software which allows developers to compile binaries, it had a checkbox allowing developers to choose between the two architectures and compile a unified binary. It also had a project which was similar to emulation called “Rosetta” allowing users to run apps compiled for the PowerPC on Intel chips with minimal performance issues. Apple will likely have similar tricks up its sleeve. Chances are that most iOS apps will be compatible out of the gate as Apple will use the same processor technology like the iPad and iPhone which will resolve an initial “chicken and egg” problem for Apple. 
  • Apple will likely announce transition plans this WWDC if it has a product launch next year. It will likely have some developer preview hardware as well. Expect Apple to start slowly and expand its Mac lineup to its own CPUs once it scales users on some of the more affordable MacBooks which likely wouldn’t need some of the more complex pro-level apps as most users will be using the device as a general-purpose computing tool. 

What does this mean for the user

  • Entry-level MacBooks will be faster than ever. On a base level, they will be as fast as the iPad Pro. 
  • They will likely have better battery life, sleeker designs while being more affordable. 
  • There is likely to be wide support for applications as there will be likely some level of emulation coupled with support for iPad apps. 
  • Pro-level applications will be absent in the first few months. The older the app, the longer the time its transition to ARM will take. Apps like Photoshop and Office could take time, but the good news is that they already have rudimentary versions for the iPad which will likely run.