ARM-based Macs seen as 'inevitable,' but Apple unlikely to switch anytime soon

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited January 2014
It's "inevitable" that Apple will merge its Mac and iOS devices at some point, but such a change is not expected to happen for years, in the eyes of one industry watcher.

Shaw Wu with Sterne Agee said in a note to investors on Tuesday that he believes it will take Apple some time to optimize its Mac OS X operating system for the ARM processors currently found in the iPad and iPhone.

Intel processors are currently much more powerful for running intensive Mac applications, as well as for development. But he believes that ARM processors will eventually become powerful enough to replace Intel chips.

In his view, making Apple's entire product line based on custom-built ARM-based processors would simplify the architecture of its devices, and also help to create a more seamless experience for users.

Wu also noted that the Mac represents just 14 percent to 18 percent of Apple's total revenue. In comparison, the iPhone accounts for between 45 and 50 percent of the company's revenue, and the iPad is 20 to 25 percent.

Chipworks


Wu's take was issued in response to a report that surfaced on Monday from Bloomberg, which indicated that Apple's engineers are confident that the company's A-series custom chip designs will one day be powerful enough to run the company's desktop and laptop machines. ARM-based silicon in Apple devices is currently limited to iOS devices.

Monday's report also suggested a change to ARM processors is not likely to take place "in the next few years." But it also portrayed a shift to proprietary chip designs as an "inevitable" transition for the company in the future.

Apple is said to have a team dedicated to the project, with engineers working to design a lineup of machines that rely on a common chip design. Apple already employs this approach with its current lineup of iPhones, iPads and iPods.

A potential switch to ARM chips would pose a challenge to Intel, Wu said. He noted that Apples' 11-inch MacBook Air gets four to five hours of battery life under heavy use, compared to 10 hours of battery life with an ARM-based iPad.

Reports suggesting Apple could power future Macs with ARM processors are not new. One recent story issued in October also said Apple has "deliberated" moving its lineup of Mac computers away from Intel processors, though such a change was said to not be "imminent."

Apple has made headway in designing its own custom silicon for the iPhone and iPad. Earlier this year, rumors suggested Apple was looking to use its own ARM processors in upcoming iterations of the MacBook, especially in power-critical applications like the thin-and-light MacBook Air.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 95
    ARM based Macs will come but Intel based Macs will remain.

    While hiring AMD veteran Jim Mergard adds more CPU design expertise at Apple, it does not necessary mean they will drop Intel. Hec, they may license the basic x86 design from Intel or AMD and make their own desktop CPUs.

    Time will tell.
  • Reply 2 of 95
    clemynxclemynx Posts: 1,495member
    This would make playing games on iMac more difficult than it already is. And for what?
    Little Appstore games are fun for a few minutes, but real huge game productions would never make it to the Mac if it were like that.
    Not going to happen.
  • Reply 3 of 95
    irelandireland Posts: 16,904member


    Nothing a few years out in the CE or computer world is inevitable. For all we know in a few years time Intel may have chips for the iPhone that blow ARM away, use less power and Apple uses those in their mobile devices instead, and keeps using improved Intel chips in Macs. Nothing is guaranteed here.

  • Reply 4 of 95
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 12,282member
    I think that: "portrayed a ship to proprietary" maybe should be: "portrayed a shift to proprietary".



    All of that being said I see ARM as a great move for a good portion of the Mac Users out there. For many though giving up Intel is next to impossible. If Apple can get another 2X performance improvement next year without massive clock rate increases we will be well on our way to ARM based Macs.

    Interesting timing here, the August 2012 issue (16) of EDN just came across my desk. Plastered across the front cover is this: "PROCESSOR ARCHITECTURES: ONE TO RULE THEM ALL". I haven't read the article in depth yet but they do put forward the idea that ARM has the potential to be that architecture. Funny thing was I skimmed the article and found no mention of Apple.
  • Reply 5 of 95

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    Nothing a few years out in the CE or computer world is inevitable. For all we know in a few years time Intel may have chips for the iPhone that blow ARM away, use less power and Apple uses those in their mobile devices instead, and keeps using improved Intel chips in Macs. Nothing is guaranteed here.



     


    I'm not so sure. I'm not a processor expert but I believe there is something fundamental about ARM chips which makes them pretty hard to compete with when taking into consideration power consumption/speed.


    As laptops are already running red hot, power consumption becomes more and more important, favouring ARM designs going forward.


     


    Intel may one day come out with a quantum processor, but that technology is still a long way away. Till then, my money is on ARM (which it is literally as I own ARM stock).

  • Reply 6 of 95
    oomuoomu Posts: 127member
    "proprietary chip designs"

    Intel chips are proprietaries too.
  • Reply 7 of 95
    charlitunacharlituna Posts: 7,143member
    I don't agree that it is inevitable. Apple is researching sure, but the end result could be a resounding no.
  • Reply 8 of 95
    irelandireland Posts: 16,904member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by monstrosity View Post


     


    I'm not so sure. I'm not a processor expert but I believe there is something fundamental about ARM chips which makes them pretty hard to compete with when taking into consideration power consumption/speed.


    As laptops are already running red hot, power consumption becomes more and more important, favouring ARM designs going forward.



     


    Yes, I am aware of this, but will this be the case in 3 years time? We don't know for sure. Intel could be secretly (or not secretly) working on something low power we are unaware of.

  • Reply 9 of 95
    I guess I'll be switching back to pcs then. Cause I want a processor that's powerful and compatible with windows.
    Stupid move IMO

    I like ARM in phones Etc
    Hopefully it's just be like a version of the MacBook Air and not all MacBooks
  • Reply 10 of 95
    I guess I'll be switching back to pcs then. Cause I want a processor that's powerful and compatible with windows.
    Stupid move IMO

    I like ARM in phones Etc
    Hopefully it's just be like a version of the MacBook Air and not all MacBooks
  • Reply 11 of 95
    igxqrrligxqrrl Posts: 105member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by monstrosity View Post


     


    I'm not so sure. I'm not a processor expert but I believe there is something fundamental about ARM chips which makes them pretty hard to compete with when taking into consideration power consumption/speed.


    As laptops are already running red hot, power consumption becomes more and more important, favouring ARM designs going forward.


     


    Intel may one day come out with a quantum processor, but that technology is still a long way away. Till then, my money is on ARM (which it is literally as I own ARM stock).



     


    There is nothing fundamental about ARM chips which make them pretty hard to compete with when taking into consideration power consumption/speed.

  • Reply 12 of 95

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by igxqrrl View Post


     


    There is nothing fundamental about ARM chips which make them pretty hard to compete with when taking into consideration power consumption/speed.



     


    Don't they own some IP regarding RISC or something? Again, it's been a long time since I read upon this subject, so I forget the specifics. 

  • Reply 13 of 95
    irelandireland Posts: 16,904member


    A.I. ?


     


    You may want to fix this. It's fine on your homepage, but within this forum thread here's what I see on the toolbar, an incorrect AAPL stock price:


     


  • Reply 14 of 95
    Apple's been down this road before... it would really surprise me if they went 100% into a non-intel design. How fast we forget history.
  • Reply 15 of 95
    clemynxclemynx Posts: 1,495member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    Nothing a few years out in the CE or computer world is inevitable. For all we know in a few years time Intel may have chips for the iPhone that blow ARM away, use less power and Apple uses those in their mobile devices instead, and keeps using improved Intel chips in Macs. Nothing is guaranteed here.





    The tech world goes so fast, who knows what the future will bring. But it would mean a change in how developers work. Most of them don't want the additional hassle of having to port a program to a platform which gathers only a small percentage of users.

  • Reply 16 of 95


    Hardware and chip type are all well and good but 'it's the software stupid', I mean I have twelve cores at my disposal and when rendering with hyperthreading I get twenty four virtual cores, but if I go model something I get one! worse still if I go int AE because Adobes Open CL implementation is crap mainly because they've gone with Nvidia s Cuda implementation I'm equally screwed, all I'm saying is that unless the code written leverages the chipsets full potential its somewhat arbitrary which architecture you have, when we were risc based in the Motorola days all we ever got were Windows ports for programs and when we went Intel based all we've had are Windows port of programs and if we go arm based all well get is Windows ports of programs, plus ça change.

  • Reply 17 of 95

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    It's "inevitable" that Apple will merge its Mac and iOS devices at some point, but such a change is not expected to happen for years, in the eyes of one industry watcher.


     


     


    Nothing more than last years recycled nonsense rumor.


     


    Top end ARM chips are totally outclassed, even by the PowerPC chips Apple transitioned away from in 2005.


     


    ARM may be getting faster, but it doesn't come close to catching Intel in the foreseeable future.

  • Reply 18 of 95

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by cpenzone View Post



    Apple's been down this road before... it would really surprise me if they went 100% into a non-intel design. How fast we forget history.


     


    The problem back then was that Apple didn't call the shots. IBM and Motorola did, and they both left Apple in the lurch. These days the story is very much different as Apple is financially and technically very much in control. 

  • Reply 19 of 95


    Forget CPU power for a minute, how about the GPU? If we need 4 cores just to power an iPad are we going to need 64 to match the 650M in the Mac?


     


    Come on...

  • Reply 20 of 95
    mfrydmfryd Posts: 104member
    Apple has lot's of experience running software compiled for one platform on another. OS-X is designed with the idea that applications can be compiled for different architectures and appropriate bridge software is automatically used for non-native applications.

    The glue software is architecture specific. It needs to be re-written (or discontinued) before Apple moves to a new architecture.

    The original Mac was 68K based. When Apple switched to PPC they included software to seamlessly run 68K code on PPC. Apple discontinued this software before switching to Intel.

    When Apple switched to Intel, they included "Rosetta". This was their name for the bridge software that allowed PPC code to seamlessly run on Intel architecture.

    It is doubtful that Apple wants to invest the resources to allow PPC software to run on ARM. Therefore Apple would likely discontinue support for Rosetta before switching to ARM. For marketing purposes Apple would want to claim that anything that runs on the Intel Mac will also run on the ARM Mac. They would want to discontinue Rosetta about a year or two prior to switching to ARM. In this way the public would not associate the loss of Rosetta with the ARM switch.

    Apple discontinued Rosetta with Lion. This was a big step in the move to ARM.

    OS-X is already up and running on millions of ARM processor. Apple calls the ARM version "iOS".

    Apple has in-house chip designers working on ARM chip designs. Apple loves having complete control over their hardware. Using custom designed chips fits in with Apple's business strategy.

    Lots of people will argue that ARM is inappropriate for the Mac, and that Intel is a better choice. These arguments are irrelevant. Apple is targeting the consumer market, not the high end professional. ARM chips are more then sufficient for this market.

    Apple sells far more ARM based iOS devices than Macs. Apple's main business is the iPhone and iPad. That's where they make their money. The Mac will switch to ARM as this allows it leverage off Apples iPhone/iPad development. I suspect it also drastically reduces their cost per CPU chip which translates into higher profits.

    The Mac will certainly switch to ARM processors.
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