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The differences coming when Macs change from x86 to ARM


In 2005 Apple shocked the Mac community when it announced that Macs would be moving from IBM PowerPC CPUs to Intel processors. In retrospect, it was the only way to keep Macs relevant in a red-hot PC market, even given the substantial teething troubles. Now it seems Apple may be making another shift, but when it comes to considering ARM vs Intel CPUs, what are the key differences on the horizon for Apple users?

There’s an argument to be made that Apple’s Mac and MacBook products have been in trouble for years. Desktop Apple computers have lengthy update cycles, with Macs currently on sale generations behind their PC equivalents. MacBooks have also suffered from heat and performance issues for a long time. The latest 16-inch MacBook Pro goes a long way to reversing this trend, but Apple seems to be having most of its successes making iPhones and iPads.

Which is probably not unrelated to the looming move from Intel-based to ARM-based Macs. These are the same chips you’ll find at the heart of the latest iPad or iPhone. Apple has dominated mobile CPU performance and looking at their performance numbers, it seems the time is right to bring that technology to their traditional computer form factors.

ARM vs Intel CPUs

Why make this move? There are some key advantages to using Apple’s own ARM-based A-series chips over X86 Intel processors. With “X86” and “ARM” referring to the “instruction set architecture” — that is, the low-level design of the CPU.

Setting performance comparisons aside, the most prominent advantage that ARM CPUs have over X86 CPUs is power efficiency — which also means they don’t run as hot. This is part of why ARM CPUs are the technology of choice for passively-cooled, battery-powered mobile devices.

Modern ARM CPUs are the culmination of a laser-focus on efficiency. They have far less “baggage” than X86 processors, which have picked up various quirks along the way from the original 8086 Intel CPU released in the late 70s!

In terms of performance, X86 processors have had the edge for a long time. Since they aren’t designed to care much about power efficiency (relative to ARM) they tended to be comparative performance monsters. However, ARM chips have been catching up, which is why you’ll hear some smartphones touting “desktop class” performance. It essentially means that many smartphones now pack as much computing power as a subset of desktop and laptop machines.

In Apple’s quest for thinner, lighter, and quieter computers, ARM seems like a good solution. However, there’s a little more to this story.

Full Apple silicon

Since the Apple A4 ARM system-on-a-chip, the company has essentially designed its own custom processors for iOS devices. Apple has managed to create some of the most powerful ARM CPUs in any mobile device, by making them physically larger and having total control over both the hardware and operating system. Which provides opportunities for efficiencies and performance tweaks you won’t get in a device that is put together from disparate elements.

Should Macs and MacBooks switch to ARM, it would give Apple a similar level of control. They would no longer be chained to Intel’s release schedule or design goals. The latest iPad Pros are already competitive in terms of performance with several MacBook models. Unfettered from tablet thermal and design constraints, imagine what would be possible in an ARM Mac.

Software unification

If iPhone, iPads, and Macs all use the same CPU architecture, then there’s no reason they can’t also run the same software code. Clearly Apple needs to port macOS to ARM and software vendors need to do the same. In the interim, we can expect compatibility solutions that may eat into performance, but at the end of the process, all Apple devices would be running the same code.

Does this mean a unification of macOS and iOS? That remains to be seen, but the porting of Adobe Photoshop to iOS may be one of many such projects on the horizon. Having only one architecture to design for across the whole Apple hardware ecosystem clearly has benefits.

Radical new designs

With the hot and hungry Intel CPUs gone, we may see desktop Macs that make the Mac mini look like, well, a Mac maxi. MacBook thermal throttling will probably be a thing of the past and battery life is likely to improve substantially. Thinner laptops are a given and we may even see Apple play around with their existing form factors. A razor-thin iMac? Why not?

ARM vs Intel CPUs: It’s not going to happen overnight

Bloomberg reported in April of 2018 that Apple’s rumored ARM switch would begin in 2020, but most recently pushed that date back to 2021. That doesn’t mean the change will happen overnight. It’s also an open question whether any of Apple’s future ARM CPU designs can match the performance requirements of Mac and MacBook Pro users in the near term. We have yet to see what a scaled-up, actively cooled Apple ARM CPU can do. Especially one that can pull as much power as it wants from a wall socket.

The biggest aspect of this news is, however, the fact that ARM Macs would once again make Mac computers fundamentally different to PCs. The shift to Intel essentially made the real choice between Windows and macOS. If Apple goes ahead with this move, the past would become the future.

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