Apple is now actively developing its own custom ARM chips for use inside MacBooks and, make no mistake, this is a really, really big deal – and not just for Intel…
ARM-powered MacBooks are coming, according to a new report from Bloomberg. According to the sources, Apple is now actively developing an ARM-based SoC for its MacBooks (and potentially future desktop iMacs as well). And these new Mac processors will be based on Apple’s A14 SoC which is coming inside the iPhone 12 later this year.
The first of these processors to hit the market will be a 12-core CPU with eight high-performance “Firestorm” cores and at least four energy-efficient “Icestorm” cores which should translate into pretty solid performance across the board. And it’s likely we will see this new platform unveiled in either 2020 or 2021 – both Bloomberg’s sources and Ming-Chi Kuo are in agreement on this.
Is this move surprising? Not really, there has been talk of MacBooks running on ARM chips for the past 10 years or so. Things are a lot different now though; Apple is now one of the predominant chip-makers on the planet. It’s A-Series CPUs are market-leading in the mobile space, so it’s not a stretch to think it could create something equally impressive for its laptops.
As for technical details about Apple’s first ARM-based processor for Mac, Bloomberg’s sources outlined a bunch of interesting stuff which is broken down into bite-sized chunks below:
- There are currently three Mac System-on-Chip (SoC) designs on the go; the designs are based on Apple’s incoming A14 CPU and will be made by TSMC, taking advantage of its 5nm fabrication process.
- The first batch of Mac SoC designs will feature eight high-performance CPU cores and four to six energy-efficient cores, totaling around 12 cores per SoC.
- The SoC design will include both CPU and a GPU, though less is known about Apple’s plans for the GPU unit.
- Apple isn’t making another macOS for its ARM chips either; the ARM-powered MacBooks will run on the same software as Apples’ Intel-powered MacBooks and iMacs. How this will work remains to be seen, but we’re sure Apple’s got a workaround. This isn’t its first platform switcharoo, after all.
- The first ARM-powered MacBooks out of the blocks will likely be lower-end machines which means they could be priced and positioned way below what you’d normally expect to pay for a MacBook. The reason? Apple’s ARM chips won’t be as powerful as Intel’s, so it apparently wants to keep its ARM-powered Macs separate from its performance Macs.
Why ARM-Powered Macs Matter
Imagine if Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks all used the same chipsets. Now, imagine you’re an Apple developer. You can now deploy that application across three devices – the iPad, iPhone, and MacBook – thanks to the fact they all run on the same chipsets.
Sounds good, right? And in theory, it is. But the road to ARM-powered MacBooks is fraught with obstacles and stumbling blocks because Apple’s own ecosystem, on its computers, at least, is tied to Intel’s X86 architecture.
But you can’t just switch over and hope for the best, things have to be “made right” first and there will always be an inevitable transition phase, just like when Apple switched iPhone over to 64-bit.
As moves go, this kind of thing is about as risky as it gets.
But if anyone could pull it off, it is Apple – it has experience in doing just this both with Macs (PowerPC to Intel) and its iPhone platform (32-bit to 64-bit).
Just over five years ago, Apple did not have a dedicated chip-design division. In 2020, Apple is now one of the leading chip-designers in the mobile space; its ARM-based A13 CPU is monumentally powerful, easily comparable to Intel’s lower-spec laptop chips.
And Apple did this in the space of five years, so the idea of Apple switching its MacBooks over to custom ARM chips, while once considered heresy, is now – in a way – not so hard to imagine. Almost all tend to agree that this is more a case of when and not how.
Let’s examine all the PROS & CONS of Apple switching its MacBooks over to custom-built ARM chips in order to get a better idea of how things might play out.
ARM-Powered MacBooks PROS – The “Theoretical” Benefits
#1 – “Cheaper” MacBooks
In order to develop and make its MacBooks work, Apple has to source millions of CPUs from Intel every single quarter. This is expensive, as Intel is also in the business of making money. However, if you have the resources to develop your own chipsets, as Apple does, it’s actually cheaper and more efficient to build your own.
Apple already has a dedicated chip-design division. It also has mountains of cash. Literal mountains of the stuff. By making its own ARM-based chips for Mac, Apple is no longer restricted by Intel’s ups and downs with its own, often-turbulent chip fabrication. Apple can set the pace, control volume, and better plan for the years to come.
This is just scraping the surface, but you get the idea: if you have the capital and resources, it is always better to create your own product. You have more control and, eventually, significantly lower costs as the margins are better on products produced in-house versus products sourced from elsewhere.
And, theoretically, this could result in cheaper MacBooks. If Apple’s costs are lower, which they would be, it could effectively make the same margin it always has done with a lower price point. The only issue here is whether Apple would pass these savings on to you, the customer? Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
#2 – The Beginnings of A Unified Platform
Unified computing platforms, whereby phones, tablets, and laptops and PCs, all work together seamlessly on the same code and the same chips are, for want of a better phrase, most tech companies wildest dream. Having the same chip architecture for your phones and laptops makes a lot of sense – and not just from a developer perspective.
Apple has been bringing macOS and iOS closer together for years. It does this because it wants iPhone users to buy Macs and Mac users to buy iPhones. But right now macOS and iOS run on completely different chipsets (ARM and Intel’s x86), so you can’t just make an app for iPhone and have it run on macOS machines.
Apple’s Catalyst goes some way to remedying this, but it is not a FIX ALL solution.
One FIX ALL solution, however, would be moving its MacBooks over to the same chip architecture used by iPhone and iPad. If this happened, Apple’s legion of developers code one application and deploy it across ALL platforms – phone, tablet, and laptop. It’d also make iPhones and MacBooks even better connected than they currently are which would be a huge USP for both casual and business users.
#3 – Different Macs, Different Chips
This is me spit-balling here but stay with me. Apple wouldn’t have to just make one ARM chip for its Macs, it could make all kinds of chips – one for lower-specced models and one for its Mac Pro system, for instance, as well as multiple additional options in between. It could basically develop whatever it wanted, once the “transition” from x86 to ARM was complete.
Alternatively, Apple could simply use its custom ARM chips on lower-cost MacBooks and keep its more premium machines on x86. The App Store could then be used to automatically filter and assign available content based on the machine that it is connected to, and while this isn’t as exciting as the first example, it could well be how Apple tests the water in 2020/21.
Through things like Xcode and SwiftUI, Apple is already making it simple for developers to move iOS apps to macOS. And unlike Microsoft’s ill-fated ARM platform, Windows RT, developers are actually using it – even Microsoft and Adobe, two of Apple’s biggest enemies.
“Catalyst is at least trying to drive developers to code in a certain way that means leveraging the work they’ve done for the ARM processors in iOS,” notes Apple Insider. “Developers for both Mac and iOS will continue to use Apple’s Xcode software to create their apps, but they won’t have to think about the different technologies as much.
It added: “Apple can make the key elements that we see in the new SwiftUI work on both platforms, and can forget the legacy code it had to support and developers needed to understand.”
#4 – Apple’s Already Kind of Doing It…
Did you know that most modern MacBooks already run ARM chips? They’re just not used as central processors. Instead, Apple uses these custom ARM processors (T1 and T2 chips) for secondary tasks like powering the TouchBar, encoding video, increased encryption, and powering TouchID.
And the T2 chip, for instance, is already VERY impressive. The T2 essentially sits between the Intel CPU and macOS, providing a secure layer that prevents any erroneous software or malware from getting on to your MacBook via its secure boot feature. If something looks dodgy, the T2 chip will block it and prevent it from entering macOS.
On top of this, Apple’s T2 chip also makes Siri faster and is said to improve the audio quality of Macs too. Basically, it’s a really cool feature that does a lot of work on your behalf – and it was 100% developed in-house by Apple. Now imagine what it could do with this if it had a custom ARM chip powering the actual machine?
#5 – Performance & Thermals
Intel’s current flagship processors (and AMD’s) are more powerful than any current ARM chip that is readily available. They’re also way more complex, featuring support for things like ECC memory addressing, hyper-threading, process execution security, multi-channel memory access, and AVX. And while Apple has lots of cash, developing a worthy competitor to Intel’s current-gen chips is no mean feat.
But that’s now. And I don’t think Apple is thinking about now; it’s thinking about 10-20 years into the future. In this far off land, no one really knows what will happen. But it stands to reason that mobile devices, wearables, and AI will play a much more significant role in society than what we know think of as laptops.
Does it make sense to unify under custom ARM chips now, so you’re ready for a future where more mobile devices and wearables are sold? Kind of. Will people still even use laptops in 2040? Or will we have something completely different? Whatever happens, one thing is certain: whatever products you’re selling, it will pay dividends, in the long run, to have them all running on the same code base.
This is the #1 reason why Microsoft and Apple are both looking at ARM chips. Another reason is that ARM chips are more efficient and run cooler. This means they can run longer and harder at lower temperatures without the need for throttling. And remember: when it comes to performance, as any custom PC builder will tell you, heat is your #1 enemy.
#6 – It’s Good For Developers
Developers would no longer have to think either/or – you can make an app and it’ll run on Apple’s core products: the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook. This means more money in your pocket, potentially, and fewer R&D costs when building-out applications.
But it’s also great for customers too. How? Simple: by bridging the gap – the chipset – between Apple’s mobile offerings (iPhone and iPad) and its computers (in this context, the MacBook), you get closer integration between those devices. Apps for your iPhone will work on your MacBook and iPad, and vice versa.
ARM-Powered MacBooks CONS – The Scary Stuff…
#1 – The Transition
The #1 thing that might stop Apple from pulling the trigger on the switch from x86 to ARM is the painful transition phase that it would have to go through. I know Apple has already done this a couple of times, but the case for switching to ARM – or the wider vision for why it makes sense – would have to be truly compelling for Apple to take on this challenge again.
If we do see ARM MacBooks, it will be for a very good reason: Apple is looking to the future of its MacBooks and where it wants to position itself against the wider market in years to come. Shaking things up for the sake of it is not something Apple would do; not when the #1 reason people use Macs is that they’re simple and stable.
Thousands of hours of work would go into making a decision like this, fuelled by some of the cleverest minds in the world. And the ONLY reason it would be allowed to happen is if Apple was 100% confident that it would somehow benefit its business in the medium to long term. If you can establish a clear case for that, a bit of short-term pain isn’t something you worry about.
#2 – Bottle-Necking
Apple uses Intel chips at present for its Macs and MacBooks. But what happens if something happens to Intel? What happens if Intel delays the launch of its new chipset (an all-too-common occurrence these days)? Apple is screwed. That’s what happens. And not just Apple, any PC-maker that placed an order is forced back to the drawing board. This bottleneck effect is one of the #1 reasons why Apple might switch to making its own SoCs.
But on the flip side, it is also one of the biggest risks associated with it too. For instance, what happens if Intel or AMD suddenly makes huge, unprecedented strides forwards with their fabrication process and Apple cannot keep up? Again, you get a bottleneck that would have far-reaching implications for Apple’s theoretical ARM-based chip business. The media would attack, claiming Apple’s chips can’t keep up, and this would hurt its sales.
As with most major decisions like this, you’re dealing with a double-edged sword. And sometimes it really is a case of better the devil you know…
#3 – Intel Hook-Ups
When you work with Intel, you don’t just get processors – it hooks you up with all kinds of additional features, ports, and connectivity solutions. Things like Thunderbolt 3, for instance. And you’d definitely need that on a Mac, especially one designed for work – as all Macs are.
But if Apple ditched Intel and started making its own ARM chips, would Intel even let it use Thunderbolt 3? Even if it did, it’d come with a charge. And to make matters worse, it’s not just Thunderbolt 3; there are plenty of additional extras that Intel provides that would need to either be sourced from elsewhere or licensed.
Basically, it’s not just as simple as switching chips and telling Intel to do one…
#4 – Windows Emulation
This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a Mac feature that a lot of users like. Because the Mac runs on x86 chips, you can dual-boot Windows on any MacBook, iMac, or Mac Pro machine. It’s a handy feature that, while not a deal-breaker, would certainly irk a fair few Mac users if it were suddenly taken away.
#5 – It Might Not Be Worth It…
Apple’s Mac – or, its computer business, in general – only accounts for about 15% of its revenue. The rest is made up of iPhone (the lion’s share), its software (iTunes and The App Store), and newer product lines like its AirPods and Apple Watch. Basically, Mac now accounts for a very small slither of Apple’s core business.
Which begs the question: is switching over to ARM even worth it? To make the switch would require a monumental amount of resources, resources that could be used elsewhere in more lucrative areas of its business, and this, I think, is one of the main reasons why Apple might not do this…
Why would it move from a position of stability to one of instability and uncertainty? And make no mistake, the transition – even if it went smoothly – would not be pleasant. You’re talking about 12+ months of confusion and instability, endless stories about what a massive mistake Apple is making, and potentially a negative impact on sales until the dust settles…
Given ALL of the above, the only thing that I am 100% certain about is that I am glad it is not me that has to make this decision!
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