Evidence is Mounting: Apple Will Convert the Macs to ARM CPUs

5 minute read
| Particle Debris

The time since most of the Macs have been updated can now be described as geologic. Is that because Apple doesn’t care about the Macs? Time Cook says “I Love the Mac.” Or, more likely, could we be in for another major architectural change? Evidence is mounting that Apple really will abandon Intel and take the Mac lineup to ARM. Here’s the assessment.

RIP Intel Inside

First, let’s look at the latest evidence from iDownloadBlog.

macOS Sierra code suggests Apple could replace Intel in Macs with custom ARM chips

That article nicely recounts the history of this notion, including this important section.

And in 2014, former head of the Macintosh division Jean-Louis Gassée hinted that the first ARM-based Macs could appear in 2017.

Gassée explained:

If we follow this line of reasoning, the advantages of ARM-based processors vs. x86 devices become even more compelling: lower cost, better power dissipation, natural integration with the rest of the machine. For years, Intel has argued that its superior semiconductor design and manufacturing technology would eventually overcome the complexity downsides of the x86 architecture.

But that ‘eventually’ is getting a bit stale. Other than a few showcase design wins that have never amounted to much in the real world, x86 devices continue to lose to ARM-derived SoC (System On a Chip) designs.

The Key Issues

In addition to what Jean-Louis Gassée explained abive, there are some other nuances to explore.

  1. Intel releases its new CPUs on its own timetable that doesn’t rigorously take into account Apple’s technical needs and product development cycle.
  2. All iOS devices use ARM. This change will make Xcode and development in general more coherent across platforms. It could lead to better synergies between iOS and macOS.
  3. The ARM processors in the latest iOS devices are 64-bit and more than competitive with CPUs from Intel in performance.
  4. Apple is the acknowledged expert in taking millions of customers though a major architecture change. The company did it first from Motorola 68K to PowerPC in 1998 and then PowerPC to Intel in 2005.
  5. The very long time since we’ve had updates to the Mac Pro, Mac mini, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro suggests (but doesn’t guarantee) that this architecture change has been in the works. Apple is taking its sweet time to do it right. That would include, perhaps, a Rosetta-like mechanism that allows current Intel-based Mac apps to run on the new Macs.
  6. Apple’s technical roadmap may well be diverging from Intel’s, one that has to take into account the needs of PC makers, not Apple. Perhaps Apple is done with this. Also, the nicety of installing Windows natively on a Mac with Boot Camp is a notion whose time has come and gone.
  7. Virtual Machine hardware in the ARM CPUs and an instruction translator would still allow Mac users to run VMs with Intel-based OSes like Windows and Linux. From what we’ve seen, modern ARM CPUs have the horsepower to do that.
2013 Mac Pro

A new ARM-based MacPro? Perhaps not the droid we were looking for. Image credit: Apple

That said, I strongly suspect that the MacBook Pros, rumored to be announced in October will be the last Macs with an Intel CPU, the Skylake series.

The question now is, will Apple simply release the new MacBook Pros without mentioning the transition? This is important because if Apple tips its hand at an October event, too many customers might decide to wait until 2017 to upgrade their MBP.

On the other, had, it could make sense to introduce an ARM-based Mac Pro or 5K iMac and suggest that the MacBook Pros will be the last Macs to make the transition in 2017/8. Mac customers would collectively breathe a sigh of relief to finally see what Apple is up to.

And if you need a new MBP, buy it now (in October). It will be viable for years. Meanwhile, Apple will deliver a multi-CPU workhorse ARM-based Mac Pro/iMac for developers to get the ball rolling.

This is a delicate maneuver for Apple because customers are hungry for new Macs, and the company would have to both plan for and announce these new Macs in the right sequence with the right messaging.

Now we wait.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of September 26th. The new Apple Echo chamber.

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aardmanMacseebrilorAndrushOld UNIX Guy Recent comment authors

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aardman
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aardman

Oh, it’s an old, old thread. Never mind.

Macsee
Member
Macsee

iOS is a jailed limited toy. Mac is a full computer. Intel x86 compatibility is a must. Or else, switch to Windows. A shame for all.

brilor
Member
brilor

@Old UNIX Guy: Agreed.
Andrush: True but Apple is about high profit margins which means squeezing standard vendors ( Intel, TSMC, AMD etc. ) for major price concessions. To secure price concessions, Apple avoids vendors selling items they won’t discount because they aren’t made is mass quantities. Virtually all knowledgeable folks agree it’s technically possible but a lot of factors suggest it won’t happen anytime soon ( read prior posts for some ideas ). Brian

Andrush
Member
Andrush

Hey Guys,: Heavy duty hardware vendors are already building devices to put ARM chips into Data Centres:
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/10/04/kaleao_kmax_armbased_server/

It’s only a matter of time. How much time? Who knows? Perhaps Apple?

Old UNIX Guy
Member
Old UNIX Guy

It doesn’t matter what CPU Apple puts in future Macs if they don’t reverse the downhill slide they’re on with the quality of their software. If it’s not iOS or watchOS they clearly don’t care. Switching to ARM CPUs isn’t going to help that. Dumping Craig Federighi and bringing back Betrand Serlet might (along with letting Jony Ive be the CDO for stores, $10K watches, and $100K cars ONLY)…

iVoid
Member
iVoid

If they get an ARM processor to be anywhere close to the performance of a decent Intel processor (i.e. not the processors in Airs or the MacBook Retina), then I might care.

If Apple moves to ARM without getting their ARM processor performance drastically better, it’s not a viable option for me.

geoduck
Member
geoduck

geneking7320
How about the Macintosh retain Intel chips (until they are not profitable) and Apple introduces a new line of computers with ARM chips named after a different apple?

Hmmm…I can imagine the commercial:
Hi there, I’m a Granny Smith…and I’m a PC
Or I’m a Honeycrisp…and I’m a PC
I’m a Fuji…and I’m a PC.
I’m a Haralson…and I’m a PC

Not seeing a lot of other Apples that would sound as good.

Hi there, I’m a Braeburn…and I’m a PC

Albatrossflyer
Member
Albatrossflyer

let’s see…. a MacBook with an ARM processor makes it an iPad with a keyboard, which makes its a MS Surface.

brilor
Member
brilor

John M in #7 wrote:

Virtual Machine hardware in the ARM CPUs and an instruction translator would still allow Mac users to run VMs with Intel-based OSes like Windows and Linux.

The likelihood Apple has written ( if they didn’t start it years ago it won’t be ready anytime soon ) and will embed it in an ARM CPU is very unlikely, both technically and at a business level, IMO and there is certainly no evidence to support such an endeavor. Nice fantasy though.

John C. Welch
Member
John C. Welch

Virtual Machine hardware in the ARM CPUs and an instruction translator would still allow Mac users to run VMs with Intel-based OSes like Windows and Linux. From what we’ve seen, modern ARM CPUs have the horsepower to do that.

Well then, you should be able to provide a fine list of real world devices that folks here can buy to test this out for themselves. You know, a nice laptop or desktop.

archimedes
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archimedes

That being said, Apple could surprise us all with an A12 processor that had … x86 compatibility. I think it would be a mess, but it would be an interesting one.

archimedes
Member
archimedes

p.s. I note that Microsoft has dabbled in other architectures such as MIPS, itanium, and ARM, but they never abandoned x86 the way Apple abandoned 68K and PPC.

archimedes
Member
archimedes

“Apple is the acknowledged expert in taking millions of customers though a major architecture change.”

Not again! 🙁

As nice as ARM may be, it’s really convenient to be able to run Windows for games and apps that need it.

One great thing about Windows is that customers haven’t had to go through these architectural switches, which are painful. As much as I prefer the Mac, I have to say that Windows definitely has better backward compatibility in terms of both software and hardware.

JustCause
Member
JustCause

Those of us that work in corporate jobs that require access to Windows running well (without a crappy Wintel PC) think this is a really, really bad idea.

JustCause
Member
JustCause

John M. wrote: I’m thinking about 8 or 16 modified A10s (16 or 32 high performance ARM cores)

Apple doesn’t need to switch to ARM to do this, they can simply add ARM chips in addition to the Intel chips. The software to support different processing units is already in the OS.

brilor
Member
brilor

Scott B wrote: … the only community that would care are those with heavy computing needs, like the creative community There are lots of folks who purchased a Mac because they can run Windows applications natively ( i.e. without a VM ). They are just normal users and not necessarily the creative community. Apple would potentially lose these customers by switching to ARM. John M. wrote: I’m thinking about 8 or 16 modified A10s (16 or 32 high performance ARM cores) Good point but this would require major software changes( and many developers might be either reluctant or not skilled… Read more »

Wulfkind
Member
Wulfkind

I think this line of thinking that Apple is eventually going to go ARM over Intel has further credence when one realizes that Intel announced this year they are getting out of the phone and tablet CPU business. Their ATOM line of CPU’s were cut down iCoresomething CPUs originally made for desktops and laptops and these CPU’s were being marketed and sold to device manufacturers from NAS designers to phone and table manufacturers. Particularly with the phone manufacturers Intel literally spent BILLIONS of dollars in rebates and cross-marketing in order to entice phone ODMs to start using Intel ATOM CPUs… Read more »

GraphicMac
Member
GraphicMac

All the numbered points (save for #1 and #2) made by the author shows a misunderstanding of the subject matter in some cases, assumes a whole lot incorrectly, are wildly speculative or are completely wrong.

Scott B in DC
Member
Scott B in DC

To the vast majority, nobody cares what the hardware looks like inside the box. Only the geeks care. Most users only care that their computers work, that I can run their software, and that they won’t get any viruses. Other then the kicks the only community that would care are those with heavy computing needs, like the creative community. However, their needs are being satisfied with multicore high performance graphics cards. If most of the graphics and floating point computations are being handed off to these graphics subsystems, and what difference does it make if an ARM chip has flooding… Read more »

Paul Goodwin
Member
Paul Goodwin

Not sure moving to ARM processors in Macs would be any less of a mistake than it was for Apple to move to the PowerPC. In the beginning there were all sorts of charts showing how technically the PPC chip development would far outstrip the Intel ones in speed and functionality. It never happened, and eventually the market was industrial embedded processing and about 1% of the computers sold as the Mac’s market share dwindled because of compatibility issues with the x86 world and limited software choices. There were some great PPC Macs, but eventually it proved to be a… Read more »