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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skipaq
Member
skipaq

I do believe your take on Macs with ARM processors is the future of Mac. Unlike what has been going on over the last few years with Intel; Apple’s incessant desire to control everything possible can be better realized in this way.

Member
quakerotis

I don’t think this will happen any time soon. ARM is great in single cores and multicores. It doesn’t have floating point, it doesn’t have multiple execution threads nor the thermal capacity to handle any of this.

Benchmarks don’t
tell the story. These are different tasks. Maybe someday, but not in the near future.

Member
quakerotis

Additionally, Bootcamp and virtualization are not ideas whose time has come and gone. That is naive. Virtualization will only become more critical in the future, not less. And you’re absolutely wrong if you think Apple will deliver a Mac Pro with ARM. The Mac Pro’s problems are with the nonsensical design and the garbage Video cards they come with.

Member
belmikey

Apple might do this–in fact, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they do this–but it would be foolish of them, and their sales would plummet as soon as people realized that nothing actually worked on them any more. Most games for the Mac, for example, are not ports–they run in an environment derived from WINE or its relations, and depend upon an x86 base. ARM CPUs are not yet nearly fast enough to provide decent performance doing instruction translation from x86 to ARM so that these capabilities would remain. Nothing would make me more likely to abandon the Mac platform.… Read more »

vpndev
Member
vpndev

This will happen but we should expect a lengthy transition. MacBook and MacBook Air are obvious candidates for starting the transition. This is almost in the “low hanging fruit” category. No huge need for big compute capacity or demanding video – so this would be easy. The Mac Pro is at the other end of the spectrum. It needs lots of crunch an that might be hard to do with ARM, especially given the tasks that these machines often do. I’d expect this one to be last in the line. belmikey: you’re right, but many games spend most of their… Read more »

Bregalad
Member
Bregalad

I believe Apple is certainly moving in the direction or A-series processors in Macs. They want to control the whole widget and likely see improved compatibility with iOS devices as more important than compatibility with Windows. At the same time Apple seems eager to make further inroads in enterprise environments and moving away from the processor architecture and instruction set used in the vast majority of corporate hardware could be a huge mistake. When Macs relied on emulation you hardly ever saw one in a business setting. Once virtualization was possible Macs flooded into fields where they’d never been seen… Read more »

Member
colinddarby

Makes absolute zero sense for a number of reasons, seems nonsensical, user-hostile and would actually make the Mac’s less attractive, have less software, more expensive and would drive pro-users like me, over to Windows.

However it will make them 0.3mm thinner because ARM series chips are slightly smaller than Intel ones, so I expect the transition to start in mid-October.

In five new sparkly colours, including jet black.

Member
Guy B Serle

The problem with most of the comments to this story is that you’re looking at it from your point of view and not Apple’s. Many of you have said that it seems like Apple no longer cares that much about the Pro market and this fits right in with a move like this. Other than FCP and Logic, what pro apps are left from Apple? How much money does Apple actually make from the pro market as compared to the consumer side? The answer is…not much. If they can keep 80-90% of their customer base after switching to ARM and… Read more »

Member
aka_JYeager

What will happen to hardware sales after someone figures out how to run that version of macOS on a Raspberry Pi (a $35 ARM based computer)?

brilor
Member
brilor

Evidence is mounting that Apple really will abandon Intel and take the Mac lineup to ARM. I see reasoned guesses, speculation and discussions portraying a parallel to Apple’s PPC to Intel transition but no actual evidence. First, there is no way an A10 can perform the sustained computing that is often done on a Mac. It is good for short ( few seconds ) bursts of intensive usage but more intensive tasks are beyond it right now. Sure, Apple might have longer-term plans to couple ARM and Macs but the A10 isn’t it. Yes, the future of the Mac Pro… Read more »

DudeMac
Member
DudeMac

I would have to see Macs with ARM inside 🙂

DudeMac
Member
DudeMac

I would love to see Macs with ARM inside 🙂

BradMacPro
Member
BradMacPro

Apple’s A series processors are approaching the performance of that which is used in the MacBook. So a future MacBook could use ARM, as Apple’s advances in performance are exceeding Intel’s jumps. It will be a few generations and years before we could see a Apple ARM derived design in a iMac and even longer before in a MacPro. All that being the case, more and more people are not seeking faster performance from their computers than what exists now, so Apple A series could catch up to that level. The switch from Intel based macOS based to Apple A… Read more »

geneking7320
Member
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?

brilor
Member
brilor

The switch from Intel based macOS based to Apple A series based Macs could be helped along with a system similar to the Rosetta system used up to Snow Leopard. It will probably easier than that and it’s easy to imagine such a translator won’t be required because Apple already provides several layers of abstraction for AppKit and Foundation frameworks. Plus iOS( ARM ), already uses AppKit/Foundation, so many apps will rebuild with minor Xcode changes unless the developer is writing low-level, non-standard framework code. Even though a Mac ARM strategy is certainly possible, it isn’t clear to me if… 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 »

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 »

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.