I’ve seen the future and there are basically no wires in sight. We live in a world of mobile tech untethered to anything. Heck, we even carry extra electricity around in the form of power banks now. So why hook yourself up to your iPad with a wire?
ARM processor technology can be found in just about all Apple devices sold today. Apple TV, iPhones, iPods, and iPads all sport system-on-a-chip designs that use the ARM processor standard. The only exception are Apple’s MacBooks and desktop computers. These computers run the x86-based Intel CPUs. Right now, Intel is the most dominant CPU maker in the world, although that might be set to change with challenges from its rival AMD. So it makes sense that products like the MacBook Pro should be equipped with these powerhouse processors. However, Apple is now looking at moving their entire product line over to ARM. This is a big deal for Apple Mac users and I want to explore what this means for you as a Mac user going ahead.
De Ja Vu
If you’ve been a Mac aficionado for a long time, you’ll recall a time before Apple Macs had Intel CPUs inside of them. Yes, Apple has never really rolled with the mainstream, so when they went with Intel it was surprising. It did make perfect sense at the time, which I will explain in a moment. But before Intel, Apple was using PowerPC processors.
These were actually some of the top performing processors in the world, even compared to Intel; this is why Macs developed a reputation as being professional powerhouses at the time. The problem is that IBM, which made PowerPC CPUs, started running into roadblocks. Their CPUs were getting hotter and hotter and needed too much power, and the performance gap was shrinking.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Apple made the pivot to Intel. It kept their computers competitive, but it wasn’t long before problems started cropping up.
The Problem with Intel
There are more than a few issues that arose from the Intel move. While it did indeed make Macs competitive with Windows machines again, it also took away the hardware advantage. Internally, Intel Macs are no different than Intel Windows computers. This meant that Apple’s only differentiators were design and software. Now it became apparent that you can get a Windows computer with the same specifications as a given Mac for substantially less money. Not only this, but Apple’s designs often sacrifice thermal headroom for aesthetics, which means the hardware has to downclock. So you don’t even get the performance the components should provide. On the software side, MacOS isn’t really any better than Windows 10. In fact, I really think that Microsoft has the advantage here, since they have decades of experience working with Intel hardware.
Possibly the most painful aspect of going Intel for Apple must have been how it allows people to step out of their control. First, you can run Windows on an Intel Mac. Yes, this is officially supported through Bootcamp, but even without that, the community would have figured it out. So it’s more a form of damage control. Even worse, Windows often performed better with some apps than MacOS on the same hardware.
The second pain point comes from so-called “hackintoshes” – non-Apple computers running MacOS. So people get access to the Apple software experience without forking out for the hardware. There are plenty more reasons, such as getting complete control of their hardware supply chain, but I think these are two major factors.
Apple’s Wonderful Chips
One of the big reasons that Apple wants to move to ARM is because it has become one of the best ARM chip makers in the world. The chips you’ll find in modern iPhones and iPads are, quite frankly, amazing. When you combine this with the highly optimized iOS system, you’ll be surprised how well something like an iPad Pro can work as a main computer.
Now imagine that technology in a Mac form factor. You no longer have the power and thermal constraints of a mobile device. Now Apple will be in complete control of both the operating system and the actual hardware design. It’s going to be a new frontier in capability and a true alternative to the Wintel domination of today.
The first big change is going to be software compatibility. We already had to go through this with the original shift to Intel and now it’s set to happen again. Basically, ARM CPUs and Intel CPUs don’t speak the same language, which means that you have to rewrite the software for the other processor language. As you can imagine, not all software developers are going to do this or do it quickly. Even within the same processor family there can be issues. MacOS Catalina dropped support for 32-bit applications. Even some major app creators did not update their software in time for this change, leaving plenty of professional users in the lurch just because they updated to the latest OS.
There is an alternative, which was also the solution in the early part of the Intel shift. It’s possible to write a piece of software that translates from one CPU language to the other. This works, but it comes with a performance penalty. Nonetheless, this is probably going to be part of the strategy Apple uses to assure the software that worked on Intel Macs.
It’s not all bad, however. Since so many applications have been at least partially ported to ARM for us in iOS, the amount of work needed to bring the desktop versions of those apps to ARM Macs might not be as much as we think.
The Big One: A Unified Ecosystem
Apple already has a big ARM CPU business. In fact, iOS dwarfs Mac significantly. It’s almost more accurate to say that Apple is an ARM computer maker that dabbles a little in making Intel-based computers. From this point of view it makes way more sense to put all its energy into just making ARM computers. This wasn’t possible before, when they first made processors for their early mobile devices, but the latest Apple Bionic chips rival laptops when it comes to performance.
This means there’s a good chance that iOS and MacOS will merge. Applications will be written from the start to run on all Apple ARM devices. It’s a nice dream! So this ARM shift is going to be rocky, but in the end it could be the best thing Apple has ever done.