The Mac’s Apple Silicon processor transition: Everything you need to know

At its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced it will begin shipping Macs with its own custom Apple Silicon processors instead of Intel chips, something that was confirmed at the company’s “One More Thing” event in November. These chips are based on ARM designs, something Apple already uses in its iPhones and iPads.

Why is it making this change? And what can you expect from a new Apple Silicon Mac? We have the answers to your questions right here.

Why is Apple moving away from Intel?

Apple WWDC 2020

According to Apple, moving away from Intel is about creating the next era of products. In its iPad and iPhone chips over the years, Apple claims its developed the most energy-efficient chips in the world that consume less power while also providing better performance. It wants to apply this efficiency, along with its other advanced features, to a new “family of Mac SoCs” (system on a chip) in these new products.

Beyond what was shared at WWDC, we suspect one of the main thrusts for Apple changing its processor supplier lies with its dissatisfaction with Intel. The rate of innovation and improvement at Intel appears to have slowed in recent years, likely prompting Apple to look elsewhere for a solution. That line of thought was backed up by former Intel engineer François Piednoël, who claimed that the quality assurance of the company’s Skylake chips was “abnormally bad,” creating a tipping point that convinced Apple to end its partnership with Intel.

The second major contributor is control. Apple could simply have switched to AMD for its processors (and this has been rumored in the past), but this would still leave it with the problem of relying on a third-party supplier whose objectives may not match Apple’s. By bringing the processor designs in-house, Apple can coordinate its hardware and software teams, ensuring each takes advantage of the features in the other.

What is ARM?

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

All of Apple’s A-series chips use the ARM (standing for Advanced RISC Machine) architecture, designed by Arm Holdings. The designs are licensed out to other companies, such as Apple, who can then use these designs in their own processors. Apple has used ARM designs extensively — every iPhone and iPad ever released has used an ARM-based processor, for instance.

ARM chips are known for their low power consumption, making them ideal for phones, tablets, and smart home devices. That efficiency also makes ARM processors attractive to companies like Apple, as it would allow them to build thinner and lighter devices without necessarily sacrificing performance.

These are the same types of chips Microsoft has attempted to use in some of its Windows on ARM devices, or the more recent Surface Pro X.

When will the first Apple Silicon Macs come out?

At WWDC 2020, Apple announced the first Apple Silicon Mac would come out in late 2020. At the time, the company didn’t specify what product it would be, but the most likely candidates seem to be either a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro.

Apple won’t make the transition across all its Mac lineups overnight. The company says the process of switching the entire Mac line-up to Apple Silicon will take around two years. It has even stated that future Intel-powered products are still planned in the future, and this was borne out in August 2020 with the release of the updated Intel-powered iMac 5K.

After announcing the switch to Apple Silicon, Apple offered a Developer Transition kit to help app makers get used to the new architecture. This was a Mac Mini running the A12Z Bionic processor and 16GB of RAM. Don’t read too much into this, however — it does not necessarily mean that an Apple Silicon Mac Mini will be among the first new-generation Macs.

Will Apple Silicon chips be as powerful as Intel processors?

This is a difficult question to answer, largely because few consumer companies have brought out ARM-enabled computers. One exception is Microsoft, which released the Surface Pro X with an ARM chip, claiming it offered three times the performance-per-watt of the Intel-based Surface Pro 6. The processors in Apple’s iPhones and iPads are ARM-based, too, and surge ahead of the competition. While this is not a direct comparison to Mac processors, it is encouraging nonetheless.

Added to that is reporting from Bloomberg, which claims Apple’s internal testing has shown its upcoming Apple Silicon chips outperforming Intel equivalents, especially in graphics and artificial intelligence, all while consuming less power. That was affirmed by Apple at WWDC, where it revealed its new chips aim to combine top-level performance with minimal power consumption levels. Indeed, that is exactly what Apple claimed was the motivation behind the switch.

As this is still a relatively unknown area, however, we will have to reserve judgment until we can review an Apple Silicon-based Mac. Apple did demo some of these chips’ performance in a Mac running on an A12Z Bionic processor, the same one used in the recent iPad Pro. In Final Cut Pro, the Mac was able to play back 4K video clips with live effects applied, as well as three streams of 4K ProRes footage.

Will my apps be compatible?

In a word, yes. Microsoft had to warn customers that some of their apps may not be compatible with the Surface Pro X. Apple seems confident it will not suffer the same fate, however. It says it already has many apps — such as Microsoft Office apps and pro-level apps from Adobe — ready to go from day one, as well as its own in-house apps, from Notes to Final Cut Pro.

There are a number of tools Apple is using to convince developers to transition their Intel-based apps over to Apple Silicon. Apple says a new version of Xcode will allow developers to bring Intel applications over in just a few days, using a new application binary called Universal 2 that works for both Intel and Apple systems.

For apps that don’t make the transition, Apple is updating Rosetta (the framework it used to help developers transition their apps when it moved from PowerPC to Intel). It is now called Rosetta 2 and can translate apps as they are installed, meaning they can launch right away. That means that even apps whose developers have not released Apple Silicon versions should still work seamlessly on the new architecture.

Lastly, Apple is also enabling virtualization for developers looking to run Linux.

Should I buy the first Apple Silicon Mac?

It is often wise to pass on first-generation technology so that it can be refined and perfected further down the line (as recently demonstrated by the Samsung Galaxy Fold). That is likely to be the case with such a monumental move as the changeover to Apple Silicon processors.

The news of Apple’s internal testing is encouraging. Apple usually waits until it feels it can make the best product in its class before releasing something, rather than rushing to market with an inferior product just so it can claim to be first. If Apple believes its ARM processors can outstrip their Intel counterparts, that suggests the first Apple Silicon Mac could be an excellent performer.

The first-generation Apple Silicon Mac may require sacrifices. Will your favorite app work on launch day, or will you have to wait for it to be ready? And if it does work, does it work without compromises, or will it be a shadow of its former self? Will your peripheral devices work with your new Mac, or will you have to wait for their manufacturers to update their software to work as well?

Apple has sought to reassure users with things like Rosetta 2 and ensuring many top-level apps are already running on the new system. But these are still questions we do not yet know the answers to. Because of that uncertainty, it might be best to wait for reviews and compatibility confirmations before taking the plunge.

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