Apple’s rumoured transition to ARM chips will make the MacBook easier to repair


Apple’s been often accused of making its MacBook line of notebooks harder to repair in the wake of numerous instances of hardware failure for the last 5 years. These issues have propped up ever since Apple adopted the new anodised unibody designs which also included the much-maligned butterfly keyboard. But the reality is slightly different. Apple did a couple of things to enhance security and performance which has been the root cause of these issues. For the last couple of months, there has been chatter that starting in 2021, Apple will move to a custom design processor architecture similar to the ARM-based CPUs that power its iPhone and iPad — and when the transition to these chips is complete, then MacBooks will again become easier to repair. This has been crystallised quite succinctly in a Reddit post by known Apple insider Fudge. So what’s happening? 

Intel processors have been holding the Mac back  

Apple has been wanting to get away from the Intel x86 processor architecture for almost half a decade. To augment some of the deficiencies of the x86 architecture, Apple has equipped modern Macs with a custom ARM chip which uses the same technology as its iPhone, iPad and even the Apple Watch. The first chip of this kind was Apple’s T1 chip which was more of an offshoot of the S2 processor that was there on the second-generation Apple Watch. The first time the T1 chip landed on the MacBook Pro, it landed specifically to add Touch ID as it included the secure enclave. These processors have also replaced the system management controller. These chips also powered the BridgeOS which was a watered-down version of the watchOS for the TouchBar. 

In recent years, Apple has added the T2 chip which is an A10 processor which Apple first used in 2016 on the iPhone 7. The core operating system is handled by the T2 chip on modern Macs, especially for things like I/O, security, audio subsystem, management of the bootup sequence, Hey Siri and thermals. 

Apple has also been dissatisfied with the performance levels and the thermal requirements for Intel’s recent CPUs as they have not been in tune with its design philosophy. More so, Intel’s roadmap for chips has also not kept up with its claims, apart from having a myriad of security and performance issues. 

The T2 co-processor and the T1 before it helped Apple overcome some of these issues and provide a point of differentiation against a sea of Windows-based notebooks. But the shared load also created more complexity. The T2 chip is so secure that it locks down the system on an operating system which makes repair complicated if not impossible especially when used in tandem with a third-party processor like the Intel ones, Apple’s computers have used for almost 15 years. 

An ARM-based MacBook will probably be easier to repair 

Apple is reportedly developing a 12-core A-series chip which could be an offshoot of the A14 processor that’s being developed for the iPhone 12. This processor is reportedly being deployed on a 5nm manufacturing process by TSMC. 

The problem in recent times has been related to the T2 chip removing the LifeBoat connector which allowed a certified technician to plug in a device called the Customer Data Migration tool to recover data. The T2 also tied a lot of the components of the Mac to the chip just the way it has been on the iPhone. The failure of the T2 chip has caused catastrophic failures as Apple has never provided a data recovery service and hardware failures have also resulted in people having to replace either the entire logic board or the notebook itself. 

Right now the situation is complex because these Macs are on a hybrid system that is part ARM-based using the T2 chip and part Intel-based. 

A full transition to ARM would mean that Apple would be using a logic board similar to the one on the iPhone and iPad. This would make it easier for iPhone technicians to fix Macs. Apple will likely be able to avoid some of these hardware failures according to fudge as it wouldn’t be based on hybrid design. Apple could also provide some elements of data recovery and generally, it will be a more secure product which will appeal to privacy czars and enterprise customers. 

Why current MacBooks are hard to repair 

The core of the problem is twofold — Apple’s lockdown approach over-indexing towards privacy and security and this hybrid Mac setup which is based on this cocktail of an outgoing Intel architecture and in-bound ARM architecture. There are insane levels of complexity in the system which causes a lot of these problems. But for Apple, the creation of this hybrid architecture was a necessary evil for the future of the platform. 

With the transition to ARM, Apple can potentially provide massive gains in performance as witnessed on the iPhone and iPad. At the same time, it can provide thermally efficient designs that are crammed into ultra-slim profiles which can make its products uber chic. This way Apple’s products will also not be directly compared to Windows-based alternatives as they will be unique from both a software and hardware perspective. Apple specialises in this kind of vertical integration with products like the iPad and iPhone.

Intel’s recent failings with security also provide a potentially more secure platform. But most of all, ARM chips which are designed in-house will be more affordable for Apple to deploy. These chips will also integrate wireless technologies like 5G modems, something Apple acquired from Intel which will make these devices even more attractive and dynamic. 

In the meanwhile, this is mostly speculation as to what Apple will do, though it is expected to announce its massive transition to ARM at WWDC next week.