Within two years, new Mac computers sold by Apple will feature “Apple Silicon” inside in place of the ubiquitous Intel CPUs at the heart of most personal computers. Anticipated for several years, this transition to Apple-designed chips represents a unification of its hardware platforms. Apple chips will be at the core of all Apple computing devices.
Apple’s 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC20) keynote on June 22 featured demonstrations of Apple, Adobe and Microsoft applications running on Apple’s new processors. Developers can buy a Mac mini with the Apple A12Z system-on-a-chip (SoC) and the new macOS 11 Big Sur operating system installed. Yes, Apple is retiring the OS X and macOS X operating system branding, emphasizing this moment of change.
With the transition happening soon, should you buy a new Apple computer? Will some Apple users switch to Windows or Linux instead?
If you are locked into Apple products for work, as I am, then switching isn’t possible. Many schools use Final Cut Pro and Logic for media production, and those are Apple-only applications. The latest MacBook Pro models will be supported for five years, time for Apple to refine an ARM-based replacement.
However, I’m waiting until fall before replacing the Mac mini that our daughters use. By the end of this year, I expect three new Macs with Apple Silicon: the Mac mini, an iMac and a MacBook laptop. With major software titles already running on the new hardware, I’m eager to try a new Mac.
Developers should be excited by the new direction at Apple. New Mac computers will run iPhone and iPad software natively, for the first time. The Mac lines will remain unique, with more computing power than smaller devices.
The A12Z powers the iPad Pro, leading some reviewers to question if the A12-series SoCs can power desktop computers. The answer lies in the chip’s lineage. Apple’s SoC designs rely on the same architecture as some of the world’s most powerful workstations and supercomputers.
Apple has hinted at supercomputer-like workstations in the future for the Mac Pro line. For a long time, media creators famously loyal to Apple have waited for some spectacular hardware. The history of Apple Silicon begins with some of the most storied names in computing history.
Speculation that Apple would use its own chips in computers began in April 2008 when the company paid $278 million for P.A. Semi, a chip design firm responsible for some of the fastest and most energy efficient computer chips available.
P.A. Semi specialized in ARM-based RISC chips. Apple Computer had experimented with ARM chips in the early 1990s, using these fast but energy-sipping chips in Apple’s personal digital assistant, the Newton. Although the Newton was ridiculed by many, it led directly to today’s smartphones and tablets. More than 90 percent of smartphones sold in 2020 use an ARM design-based chip.
Apple adopted ARM chips for the iPhone and iPad because these systems-on-a-chip processors offer blazingly fast processing per watt of energy. Apple worked with P.A. Semi to customize SoCs with best-in-class audio and video performance. Today’s 2020 iPad Pro performs as well as a mid-range 2018 MacBook Pro. In a MacBook case with fans and heat sinks, the A12 SoC might match the performance of an Intel i7-based design.
Imagine a faster computer with better media playback and all-day battery life. That’s why Apple decided switching to its SoCs gives the company an edge over competitors.
There are unanswered questions regarding this transition, but Apple has managed similar hardware evolutions well.
From 1984 through 1996, Apple’s Macintosh, Performa and PowerBook computers relied on Motorola 68000-series CPUs. In 1996, Apple transitioned to the PowerPC chips designed jointly by IBM and Motorola. Unfortunately, PowerPC chips use a lot of power, generating a lot of heat. Apple switched to Intel CPUs in 2006 in part because PowerPC laptops were too hot and the battery life was mediocre.
When Apple migrated to OS X from Mac OS 9, Apple made it possible to run both operating systems on the same computer. When the company shifted from PowerPC to Intel x86, Apple included the Rosetta emulator to keep older software working for the next three years. With macOS 11, Apple includes Rosetta 2, an emulator and trans-compiler that enables Intel-based applications on the ARM SoCs.
Just hours before Apple’s announcement, Fujitsu announced that it had built the world’s fastest computer using 158,976 ARM-based A64FX SoCs working in parallel. The Fugaku computer is 2.8 times faster than the next fastest supercomputer in the world, one built for the U.S. Department of Energy.
It has been suggested that multiple SoCs could appear in a Mac Pro. The potential for two, four or more Apple Silicon SoCs should excite developers and media producers.
Apple innovations cause frustration, yet they usually pay off for loyal users. The move to ARM might be bumpy, but the potential is incredible.