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The Future of Macs: Driving Away from Intel?

Written by Priyanshu Rastogi

Remember the WorldWide Developer Conference (WWDC)? That online Apple event focused solely on new software releases that happened back in June? So yes, Apple did announce a lot of software that day, iOS 14, iPadOS, WatchOS 7, etc etc, but Apple also dropped a hardware bombshell that day in terms of their Mac lineup. At the very end, Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) came onto the stage in the(unfortunately) empty Steve Jobs Theater in Apple Park, and said exactly this-“...today is going to be a truly historic day for the Mac” (well he did say some stuff before that but we don't care about that). Why was it going to be a historic day for Macs? Let's find out.


Power moves.


Back in 2005, Steve Jobs, then CEO of the company ditched IBMs processors for Intel ones. The company was moving away from IBMs PowerPC chips for their computer line-up (then called PowerBooks) to Intel x86 processors. A move well thought out, considering that Intel was making massive gains in their processors, and Apple understandably wanted them on their side. Everything was well and fine, until a couple of years ago when Intel started to slack off. Being the dominant force in the processor market for years, the company no longer felt the need to innovate new technologies to increase the power of their chips. Some tech enthusiasts may have heard about the AMD-Intel rivalry, where AMD was (and still is) rapidly improving their processor technology to compete with Intel. Today as it stands AMD has covered a lot of ground with Intel, although adoption for their chips in computers is still low for AMD, it certainly has increased in the last few years thanks to Intel’s ignorance. Anyway, Apple saw this, and being the type of company that it is ( providing consumers with the best and the most powerful) was like “yeah okay Intel we’re out, we don't want your chips anymore”. And that is what Tim announced that faithful day of 23rd June. Apple will be moving to Apple-made custom chips for its Macs based on ARM architecture. Gradually in the next 2 years, all the Macs will be moved to Apple’s in-house ARM chips.


Self-sufficiency is key.


Apple had been making their own chips for quite some time now. It is highly probable that the iPhone you're using right now has Apple’s in-house SoC (System on a chip), that is unless you're using something older than iPhone 4, and if you're using an iPad you're definitely using an Apple chip. So considering Apple already had a lot of experience in making chips, both low end (for iPhones) and high end (for iPads), Apple did not feel the need to keep using Intel and paying them huge chunks of money for doing so. Not to mention Apple chips are very...VERY powerful, both the phone and tablet ones. Just to put it in perspective, recent benchmarks showed up for the Developer Tool Kit( a computer given to developers by Apple so they can develop apps beforehand for the system before it comes out for consumers), a Mac Mini running A12Z(same chip as iPad Pro) with 16 Gigabytes of RAM. The Mac mini scored 1098 ( sing-core score) which is equivalent to a Macbook Pro 13-inch with Intel Core-i5 8 Gigabytes of RAM. Now consider that the iPad is an $800 tablet, whereas the Macbook Pro is an $1800 laptop, supposedly for the ‘Pros’ of the community. Now also consider that if Apple’s tablet chip can compete with a laptop chip, what would happen if Apple made a laptop chip. The performance gains could be(and are expected to be) phenomenal!


Not all sunshine and rainbows.


There are certain complications to this Intel to Apple chip transition. You see the Intel chips have an x86 architecture and Apple chips have ARM-based architecture. What this means is that the programs that run on Intel chips won't just natively run on Apple chips just like that. They would have to be coded again to run on these ARM-based chips. This is the reason why we don't usually see laptops applications(Xcode, Final Cut Pro, Autodesk Maya, etc) make their way to the App Store or Google Play Store for that matter, it's too much work for the developers. Besides, developers wouldn't want to put in the effort to code apps for ARM when they know no one uses such complicated software on their phones. So to summarize, many professional work tools used on laptops with Intel chips have to get reprogrammed by the developers to run on ARM chips. Getting the developers to do that is the toughest part because up until now no laptop in the world ever ran such powerful ARM-based chips(even the processors not developed by Intel, such as AMD processors, had x86 architecture) so developers never needed to code the heavy applications for it.


Side note: Most of the world's laptops have chips with x86 architecture, or at least the powerful one because ARM architecture was not meant for laptops and higher-end products, it was meant for phones and lower-end products. Those Qualcomm chips in Android phones, that's also ARM architecture. As the phones have gotten more and more powerful, the performance gap between ARM and x86 has shrunken. Hence we now see Apple trying to make the shift.


The solution.


Apart from Apple encouraging (slash begging) developers to re-code their apps. There is also other stuff it's doing to make it easier for developers to do so.

Here you need to know about two things - Rosetta 2 and Catalyst. We’ll start with Rosetta.


Rosetta 2


You must be wondering why it's called Rosetta ‘2’ rather than, well...Rosetta 1 or something. That's cause this is version two of a technology Apple released back in 2005 during the PowerPC to Intel transition I mentioned. Basically, what Rosetta 2 does is that it emulates the x86 version of an app to make it work on ARM chips. Now obviously, emulated apps will be performing worse than natively running apps, but the goal is to make it not-so-easy for the consumer to tell the difference between an emulated app and a non-emulated one. Rosetta 2 is built into MacOS’s next release Big Sur and will be operational on the Apple silicon Macs. Also, I should mention this is just a temporary solution to give developers time to recode their apps, the end goal is still to get them to recode the apps.


Catalyst


Catalyst or Mac Catalyst was released last year in WWDC 2019 alongside MacOS Catalina. Essentially, with Catalyst Apple wants to give developers new tools to enable them to make apps that would run both on iOS and MacOS. Previously, these platforms had different methods and tools to create the same app, but with Catalyst, they would be able to make apps for both iOS and MacOS simultaneously. Thus, in turn, reducing the intensive labor of remaking the app for the other operating system. Some apps that were made using catalysts include Apple Music, Podcasts, Twitter, Voice Memos, etc.


The current affair.


Till now we’ve talked about what the transition is, why it's happening, and how it's going to take place. Now let's talk about when it's going to happen and why should you care.


Before that though, let's address the rumors first. Back in June, notable leaker, Ming-Chi Kuo stated that Apple will be releasing a Macbook Pro 13-in with Apple's new chips in the Quarter - 4 of 2020, possibly alongside the new iPhones. This rumor does seem to hold some ground, because Apple very recently updated their top tier Macbook Pro 13-in models with new Intel 10th generation chips, but left out the baseline models. MacBook Air also got an update this year. So it makes for Apple to finally upgrade the two Macbook Pros they didn't update this year with the new chips.


Recently Apple leaker, Komiya suggested that an ARM Macbook priced at around $800 along with an ARM Macbook Pro 13-in priced around $1100 was going to launch in October. This report seems a bit less likely to me(at least the $800 part), but does hold some ground because of the next rumor.


Even more recently, Apple chipmaker TSMC declared that a 12-in Macbook is in works which will supposedly have Apple’s A14X chip, and also that this Macbook will weigh less than a kilogram, and will have 15 to 20 hours of battery life.


The release time seems to be accurate for the laptops as Apple did say they plan to release at least one ARM, Mac, by the end of 2020. So October seems probable for the new device/devices.

So there you go, all the significant rumors about the upcoming Macs, but I suggest you to not take these too seriously, cause at the end of the day a rumor is a rumor, dates can change, a model can change, anything can happen.


So what advantages would you get after the whole transition is over? Firstly, as I stated previously, performance on these Macs is going to be AMAZING. These new laptops will have Apple’s yet to be announced A14 chips(the name is only a placeholder, we don't know what Apple chooses to call it). Battery life is also going to improve drastically because of the efficiency cores Apple uses in its chips. That 15 to 20 hours battery life rumor might actually be true due to this fact. As for weight, Apple laptops are already pretty thin and light, so I don't think anyone cares about the weight anymore. Also, since Apple releases one chip every year, Mac releases would become more predictable, since Apple won't have to update their laptops according to Intel’s release cycles, they can do it for all their laptops at once. Software support wise, Apple laptops already stay supported for a good 6 to 7 years, therefore I don't expect anything to change in that regard. Pricing...is a bit dicey. You see Apple will indeed save a significant amount of money by making their chips in-house, but whether they choose to pass on the savings to the consumers is up to them. I personally do not believe pricing is going to change, but if it does here's what I think is likely:


MacBook Air 13-in OR Macbook 12-in: $900 with A14X and 8 gigabytes of RAM


MacBook Pro 13-in: $1100 with A14X(with all cores unlocked) and 8 gigabytes of RAM


MacBook Pro 16-in: $2200 with A14Z(the most powerful version of A14)


iMac 21.5-in: $1100 with A14X(with all cores unlocked) and 8 gigabytes of RAM


iMac 27-in: $1600 with A14X(with all cores unlocked) and 16 gigabytes of RAM


Mac Mini: $800 with A14X and 8 gigabytes of RAM


Mac Pro: $6000 with A14Z(the most powerful version of A14) and 64 gigabytes of RAM


*these are all baseline model predictions


Buy or hold?


Maybe you're in the market for a new Apple computer right now, so what should you do, wait for these new generation Macs, or buy an Intel one? I would say....it really just depends. If you absolutely need a laptop right now and you know you can't wait any longer, just go ahead and buy whatever Apple laptop pleases you. If you can wait, wait...and I mean wait for quite some time, at least a year or six months. The reason I say this is because this is going to be the first generation of ARM Macs that will be released, they might have some issues(heating, throttling, keyboard, etc), and even if they don’t, lack of app compatibility in the initial months can lead to some apps not working properly or just straight up not working on the new Macs. Besides, Apple does say it is going to give support(software updates, that is) to its Intel Macs for years to come. How true that statement is, one can’t say, but I do believe any Mac not more than 3 years old, will probably get at the very least 3 more years of official support - 2 years of the transition period from Intel to ARM and 1 plus year of support, to give the Intel Macs a respectable usage time.


So there you go, everything you needed to know about the Mac revolution. The future seems exciting for the Mac world, and even the computer world in general. Who knows other developers(Google, Microsoft, Samsung) may follow suit and start ditching Intel chips for their in-house chips. Even if not their in-house chips but ARM chips in general, it would allow a lot of application portability between android-iOS apps and computer apps. Nevertheless, Apple has taken a bold step towards the future, now all that is left to see is how well they handle the switch.

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