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Apple Silicon: What does it mean for your existing Mac - and your next one?

Pocket-lint logo Pocket-lint 14/09/2020
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(Pocket-lint) - Apple is moving the Mac lineup to its own-designed processors, the third time it has ushered the Mac towards a new processor line after Motorola, PowerPC and Intel. And it seems likely we'll see the first Apple Silicon-based Mac launch soon. 

These new Apple Silicon Macs will use Apple chips similar to the designs we've seen in the iPhone and iPad.

As well as processing cores these also include other technologies such as a graphics processor (GPU), neural processor (NPU) and memory in one package. It will enable other technologies we've seen on the iPad and iPhone to come to the Mac, including Face ID. 

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Like other phone and tablet chips, these are based on the core designs of ARM (which we've now found out is being bought by Nvidia) and are mobile processors designed with power efficiency in mind. They'll use the ARM64 architecture instead of Intel's x86/64. Apple has been beefing up its in-house silicon design teams in recent years, not least in the UK. 

While the performance of mobile processors like Apple's A Series yields good performance for mobile devices powering devices like the iPad Pro, the jury is out on whether they really can power performance-orientated desktops and laptops. 

Coincidentally, Apple is unlikely to be fazed by Nvidia's acquisition of ARM since Nvdia is a long term Apple partner. Apple also reportedly turned down the chance to buy ARM itself because ARM's open licensing model doesn't fit with Apple's business plan. 

What's Apple's reasoning for the move?

Apple CEO Tim Cook said during the June live stream to announce the Apple Silicon initiative that "when we make bold changes, it's for one simple reason - so we can make better products". 

He's certainly right that it's a bold change. 

"From the beginning, the Mac has always embraced big changes to stay at the forefront of personal computing," said Cook. "With its powerful features and industry-leading performance, Apple silicon will make the Mac stronger and more capable than ever. I've never been more excited about the future of the Mac."

As CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber says "Its motivations for doing so include reducing its dependence on Intel, maximising its silicon investment, boosting performance, and giving itself more flexibility and agility when it comes to future products."

How long will the transition take and what does it mean for Intel on the Mac? 

The transition will take two years, says Apple. But crucially, Tim Cook said at the time of the announcement in June 2020 that there were new Intel Macs in the pipeline. And, indeed, we've now seen the first of these launch with the refreshed iMac. 

In its press release about the transition, Apple says: "Apple will continue to support and release new versions of macOS for Intel-based Macs for years to come and has exciting new Intel-based Macs in development. The transition to Apple silicon represents the biggest leap ever for the Mac."

We expect any further Intel Macs to be at the performance end - such as the Mac Pro and iMac Pro or the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Even though the Apple-designed SoC (System on Chip) would have graphics on board, it's not likely to match the graphics capabilities of dedicated graphics processors from Nvidia and AMD in the short term. 

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Since there's a demand from video editors, photographers and other creatives for systems that have high-performance alongside dedicated Nvidia or AMD graphics, we think it's likely they would stick with Intel - at least in the short to medium term. 

macOS Big Sur - coming later in the year - has support for Apple Silicon Arm-based Macs as well as Intel ones. Apple says Big Sur is macOS 11 due to the design changes and Arm support; its Mac operating system has been stuck on version 10 (or X) since 2001. 

Interesting it seems Apple will still support Thunderbolt on Apple Silicon Macs - Thunderbolt is a technology Apple-designed with Intel. Thunderbolt 3 is actually part of the incoming USB 4.0 standard that we're set to see introduced later in 2020. 

However, Thunderbolt 4 has now been announced by Intel, which would presumably require some extra hardware to be implemented in an Apple Silicon Mac, though it'll be natively supported by Intel's 11th generation Core processors

So what types of Macs are likely to be Arm-based in the near future?

Apple Silicon chief Johny Srouji suggested that the latest iPad Pro shows "how well this architecture scales to the Mac". And although developers will test on Mac Minis running the A12Z Bionic from the iPad Pro, the new chips are likely to have a different name. 

We think the first Mac to be based on Apple's own chips will be in the MacBook Air class and that it could be with us very soon. Some reports have pegged the 13-inch MacBook Pro as a likely candidate, but we think Apple would have to continue to offer an Intel option there.

After all, it could be that Apple will offer Intel and Apple Silicon options alongside each other, though this would be confusing for consumers and Apple would have to market it well. Microsoft has previously failed in that regard with Windows RT (Windows for Arm). 

Apple suggested that Apple Silicon Macs will enable you to install apps outside of the Mac App Store just as you can with an Intel Mac. With the iPad Pro and Mac coming ever closer together it seems like the ability to install your own apps could become the key difference between the two platforms in future. 

What benefits will it bring? 

Since the A Series chips are, essentially, mobile processors, your next Mac could work more like your iPad does. It's always on, so ready when you need it. We think it will also have eSIM on board so you can add a cellular plan so it's always connected. 5G will surely come to the next iPad Pro, possibly in early 2021. There's no reason why Macs can't be 5G-connected, too. 

Apple also claims it'll mean "industry-leading performance per watt" which is promising as well as higher performance GPUs - but that's probably higher performance versus Intel's base level graphics offering. As we mentioned above, it's still likely pro users will demand other graphics options. 

"The advantages of cost, flexibility and power consumption are clear," suggests Blamber. "Embracing Arm and making hardware more consistent across the iPhone, iPad and Mac ranges is a strategic necessity." Apple will be able to add the capabilities of extra hardware - like its T2 security chip - directly onto the SoC. 

The key thing from a developer point of view is that there will be a common architecture across iOS, macOS and iPadOS making it easier to write and optimise software for the entire Apple ecosystem.

Developers will be able to make iOS and iPadOS apps available on the Mac easily. A new type - Universal 2 - of app binary will mean that apps can work across all of these as well as Intel Macs. Many apps - including all of Apple's own - will work across Arm and Intel platforms from the start. 

What are the potential pitfalls? 

The main pitfall is in terms of performance. Qualcomm has been producing Snapdragon chips (also based on Arm designs) for PCs for a couple of years now. While the performance of its new-generation Snapdragon 8cx platform has been shown to be decent, real-world tests of previous generation Snapdragon hardware running Windows have shown up performance deficiencies. 

We don't yet know whether it will be possible to run Windows on Apple Silicon Macs. Because of the work Microsoft and Qualcomm have done it should be possible, but we don't know how available it will be. Apple has demonstrated that virtualisation means you will be able to run Linux.

"Microsoft's experience with Windows is the blueprint for the potential and the pitfalls of introducing Arm chips to PCs," continues Blaber. "But the practical reality of recompiling apps as a stepping stone will take time. Apple can make Final Cut Pro and iWork run seamlessly, but guaranteeing that a myriad of plug-ins behave is another matter."

"Microsoft tried to force a similar move prematurely with Windows RT, although its tight collaboration with Qualcomm is now bearing fruit. Apple's vertical integration should make this an easier undertaking despite inevitable bumps along the road."

Apple is depending on its own translation technology (Rosetta 2), so you can run existing Mac apps that have not yet been updated on Arm-based Mac systems. Apple says this includes those with plug-ins

What will it mean for Macs on the market already?

Intel-based Macs will continue to work and be developed for - after all, Apple launched the expensive Mac Pro at the end of last year and has already refreshed the 13-inch MacBook Pro and 27-inch iMac in 2020. 

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