Why Apple will move Macs to ARM, and what consumers get

Posted:
in General Discussion edited June 2020
There are obvious hardware benefits when Apple shifts to ARM processors, and also underlying software ones, which mean that the move is going to bring advantages both to the company and to us.

ARM processors will eventually bring performance benefits to all Macs
ARM processors will eventually bring performance benefits to all Macs


Apple has been carefully and methodically laying out all the pieces so that it can move to ARM, but it's still a major transition for the Mac. Yet it's going to be worth it for Apple, worth it for the Mac, and worth it for all of us, because of the specific key benefits that an ARM Mac will bring.

Replacing Intel processors with ARM-based ones gives Apple certain important hardware benefits. And replacing Intel with ARM or anything at all also gives it opportunities.

The low-end Mac benefits from a shift to ARM processors

Intel is significantly behind its projections for getting more performance out of its processors, and it doesn't seem to be catching up. Apple, historically, hasn't cared for that, and that basically was the impetus for the last two shifts.

Intel has made some strides, yes. But, for the last five years now, it hasn't set a deadline for itself that it hasn't failed to meet -- with some of those deadlines taking years after the promised date to fulfill.

This is complicated, but ARM processors provide better performance than Intel ones for 90% of what a Mac is used for -- or at least more performance than Intel's current roadmap should. And, at the same time, for many engineering reasons, an ARM processor has the bonus that it also produces lower heat than Intel given the same performance.

Apple has seen great and continued success with its own design of ARM processors for iOS
Apple has seen great and continued success with its own design of ARM processors for iOS


If there were no other benefits at all, these would make it worth Apple's time moving the Mac to ARM. New Macs using it will be faster and more powerful, and they will be able to ramp up to higher clock speeds without making the machines run too hot.

T1 and T2 chips are already ARM, and do a lot for macOS now

This isn't just speculation based on specifications and projections, we do already have evidence right there in Macs going back to 2016. That's when Apple introduced its ARM T1 chip into the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, and in 2017 the T2 debuted in the iMac Pro.

Both of these are ostensibly concerned with security because they handle Touch ID and the secure enclave. However, the T2, in particular, has brought other benefits that Apple hasn't promoted, yet are hugely significant to overall performance.

The T2 chip takes over audio processing, for instance, and it shoulders some of the work of video encoding away from the Mac's main CPU. That's enough to make a T2-featured Mac run faster for jobs that utilize offloaded processes than one that isn't.

Apple's shift to ARM gives it control of the entire Mac stack

Throughout its history, Apple has worked to do everything itself that it can. That's not just some corporate ego, though, it is a policy with crucial advantages. It's because Apple controls both the operating system and the hardware that it can progress both at the same time.

It's because Microsoft does not control both Windows and PCs that the WinTel platform arguably gets held back. Microsoft knows that there will easily be dozens of companies, hundreds of apps, and countless peripherals that expect to find Windows working the way it always has. Even as new hardware technology is developed, it takes much longer to seep out to every single PC manufacturer. There are millions of PCs made with myriad combinations of components, and they all have to run Windows.

Apple has avoided that, yet it has still always been dependent on its processor manufacturer. There's no doubt that Apple influenced first Motorola, then PowerPC, and Intel. But at least in the case of Motorola and Intel, Apple was a small company compared to their other customers.

Now with ARM, Apple effectively owns its processor. Apple can design Mac ARM processors just as it does for iOS, and it can get all the advantage of developing both hardware and software in lock-step.

Starting over -- again

From PowerPC to Boot Camp: we've been here before.
From PowerPC to Boot Camp: we've been here before.


Previously, Apple's transition work was so secret that we literally saw nothing. It was Steve Jobs who revealed during the Intel transition that Mac OS X had already been made to run on the new processors for many years.

The late Larry Tesler said that the move to Intel had been worked on from even before Apple bought NeXT.

So doubtlessly there have been ARM-powered Macs inside Apple, but this time we are seeing public signs of the move. Apple may not be admitting that it's all about moving to ARM, but it's made key changes that expressly set up the Mac for this new future.

One of the more blatant signs has been with macOS Catalina. Despite the problems some apps have had with the latest macOS, the move to Catalina has also sorted out some detritus.

Only 64-bit apps run on macOS Catalina, and that means all the old 32-bit ones that might have been difficult to support on ARM, or to port to the new processor, have already fallen by the wayside.

Similarly, 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.

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. 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.

The 2018 Mac mini has an ARM processor -- it's called the T2 chip.
The 2018 Mac mini has an ARM processor -- it's called the T2 chip.


Just as when it moved to Intel, the new move to ARM means that years or practically decades of old code can be left behind, and Apple can start from an entirely new codebase that is designed to help developers on both Mac and iOS.

Not all development is equal

While we have the experience of two processor transitions to show us how remarkably well Apple will handle a third, for the same reason we do know where there will be problems.

Specifically, you can bet that both Microsoft and Adobe will be late to the party as they have been before.

Yet it's perhaps not quite as safe a bet as it might have been before. Where Microsoft did delay making an iPad app, and Adobe did delay moving its software to Intel, both companies may have changed their minds.

Both Microsoft and Adobe are now developing iOS apps and devoting significant resources to them. If Catalyst is as much of a help with creating Mac versions of iOS software as Apple hopes, maybe this will be the first time these two firms join in on time.

No concern

Whether they do or not, there will again be a transition period before they eventually come over, and there will be a transition period as Apple switches over to ARM, though this time it is likely to be longer. It's unlikely that Tim Cook will be able, or want to, emulate Steve Jobs's announcement that all Macs would be using Intel processors within two years. He'll surely not be able to match how Apple actually made that move within 18 months.

That's because Apple has just launched its highest-performance machine ever, the Mac Pro. It's going to take demand from that Pro market to make Apple switch even this machine over to ARM in the short to medium term.

The benefits lower down the range are clearer, but it will still be a transition. What it won't be, though, is a transition that will cause great problems for users.






We know this because, again, we've been here before. Both in the 1990s with the move to PowerPC, and in 2006 with the move to Intel, apps will surely come in what are called fat binaries. They will be able to work on both the old Intel and the new ARM processors without the user having to do anything.

That will be to help people with existing Intel Macs, but it will also be to mean that Apple can continue selling new Intel ones until the range eventually switches over completely.

What's not clear is just where Apple will pitch its first ARM Mac. There's a strong chance that it will be a MacBook Pro of some description, just because Apple sells more laptops than desktops, and it will want the ARM processor to make a splash.

But then it could see a bigger impact from adding ARM to a previously lower-spec device like the MacBook Air. It's just hard to see how Apple will maintain a coherent range of devices if the cheaper Air outperforms the Pro.

If we don't know that yet, we do at least know that Apple does.

It's been planning for this, and it has been getting us ready for a move to ARM for years. It is a giant move that other companies have been loathe to attempt, or are just doing now for the first time. But, Apple has smoothly managed a big hardware shift twice before.


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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 148
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,928member
    Non-programmers—and more specifically, people who don't know assembly language—can't appreciate the significance of ARM64's support for twice as many general purpose registers as X64. For most high-level code, with all else being equal, this gives ARM64 a 20-30% speed advantage over X64, without any tweaking, because it avoids the CPU having to access relatively slow caches and main memory so often.
    Intel is stuck with X64 and the world is ready to move on.
    edited February 2020 AppleishhodarFileMakerFellerlollivercaladanianjony0stanthemanrepressthisapres587watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 148
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,032member
    I don't think there is hope for anyone that doesn't yet see that this has been a long time coming.
    lollivercat52repressthiswatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 148
    rob53rob53 Posts: 2,718member
    Bigger issue will be GPUs. Does anyone have info on how graphics will be impacted by the change?
    macpluspluswatto_cobrarazorpit
  • Reply 4 of 148
    There's also the issue of I/O - PCIe and Thunderebolt etc.

    The consumer will no doubt suffer through quite a lot of teething issues in software and hardware.
    williamlondonrazorpitcaladanianwatto_cobraGrayeaglebaconstangdysamoria
  • Reply 5 of 148
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,032member
    rob53 said:
    Bigger issue will be GPUs. Does anyone have info on how graphics will be impacted by the change?
    No one here has any information from Apple that they can share, but I'd wager that they'll continue to use integrated and discreet graphics like they currently do.
    watto_cobraGrayeagle
  • Reply 6 of 148
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,032member
    jkdsteve said:
    There's also the issue of I/O - PCIe and Thunderebolt etc.

    The consumer will no doubt suffer through quite a lot of teething issues in software and hardware.
    How is Intel making Thunderbolt royalty-free for other chip makers an issue for Apple?
    edited February 2020 lollivergatorguyrepressthiswatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 148
    xgmanxgman Posts: 155member
    I hate this idea.
    ElCapitanwilliamlondoncaladanian
  • Reply 8 of 148
    rob53 said:
    Bigger issue will be GPUs. Does anyone have info on how graphics will be impacted by the change?
    Agreed. The performance of their internally designed GPUs is obviously fantastic, and much better than Intels integrated chips, but very difficult to say how they compare to advanced AMD and nVidia designs. Also wonder how difficult Thunderbolt 3 support is going to be. 

    Specifically, you can bet that both Microsoft and Adobe will be late to the party as they have been before

    late, but not as late. Last time, Adobe had a lot of Carbon and Java code to port over to Cocoa. Then they had to update all their Cocoa 32 to 64bit support. All that work is done now... the only rough patch I can think of is GPU and SIMD stuff. Microsoft’s work should be a breeze. 
    macpluspluscat52repressthiswatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 148
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 5,816member
    I personally hope that some kind of x86(64) support continues, or that Apple has their iMacs or a "pro" Mac that continues with Intel hardware.  It's mandatory that I be able to run Windows on my Mac for various reasons.  Last thing I want to do is look into a Wintel solution.

    That being said, as far as I'm concerned I agree that it's a wise move for Apple to get off (or branch away) from Intel.   The CPU tech coming out of Apple put's Intel to shame. Apple has proven that it has much better abilities to create CPU's, perhaps AMD as well.

    I'm curious what Intel's management is doing behind closed doors in dealing with these kind of rumors.  I'm not sure what percentage Apple's CPU business is to Intel, but it would sure be a really bad PR smear the day Apple dumps Intel like a bad habit.  It's like when IBM was dropped by Apple because they could not compete with Intel's offerings.  
    repressthiswatto_cobracyberzombiepscooter63dysamoria
  • Reply 10 of 148
    tjwolftjwolf Posts: 406member
    The author gives Apple's previous two CPU transitions as an indicator for a successful ARM transition.  But he's kind of ignoring the fact that in those two prior transitions, the CPU being moved to was significantly faster than the CPU being migrated from.  This then allowed the use of emulation software ("Rosetta") to let users continue using "legacy" software without too much of a performance penalty.    ARM is not significantly faster than Intel chips, so how will Apple handle this transitional period in which users need/want to continue using legacy software?

    With respect to software getting transitioned to ARM, the author picks only the low-hanging fruit: sure, for software actively for sale, its developers have an economic incentive to move it to ARM, but what about truly legacy stuff or even open-source applications with little community support?  Developers are a big group, enthusiastic Mac user group.  We use all sorts of open source software - be it IDEs, web servers, compilers, Java VMs, virtualization software, etc.  Can you imagine how slow an emulated VirtualBox would be trying to, itself, emulate an x86 version of Windows?
    wonkothesaneElCapitanmacplusplusdewmeFileMakerFellercaladanianseanjmuthuk_vanalingam45Cowdinrepressthis
  • Reply 11 of 148
    croprcropr Posts: 1,053member
    Using the Mac for cloud development, this could become an issue for me.  All major cloud providers are using an Intel architecture. 

    If Apple would move the whole Mac product line away from Intel there is absolutely no reason to keep a Mac as a development machine.   A Dell XPS with Ubuntu will not only have the price advantage (the current situation), but also the ease of use and speed advantage.

    My use case is of course only limited to a few percent of the market, but it could anyhow jeopardize the market share of Macs
    Rev2LivElCapitanMplsPdewmecaladanian45Cowdinrepressthis
  • Reply 12 of 148
    DRBDRB Posts: 34member
    When Apple decided to move from PowerPC (RISC) to X86 (CISC), they had a strategy to move ALL of their computers to the X86 platform. It took a couple of years for the roll out of the hardware products, but it took a few more years for the software apps to be re-written from the ground up to X86, Microsoft being one of the hold outs. Apple DOES NOT HAVE a complete platform of ARM based processors that they can roll out a completely new line of Macs that are ALL based on ARM processors. PERIOD. I highly doubt Apple is going to muddy up and confuse everyone by having some Macs running ARM and other Macs running X86. it will cause more confusion with the application developers and that's going to cause even more confusion. Apple has already stated that they have no intentions of replacing X86 Based Macs with ARM. The only public statement they've made is that they are doing to AUGMENT X86 Macs with ARM for either enhancements or new features, which they have done by using these T chips to add security features, controllers, security features, Fingerprint ID sensing. So, they have reached their obligation and will continue doing so. Until Apple makes a public statement that they are switching to ARM based Macs ditching X86, anything discussed is PURE speculation, rumor, or guessing. There is NO validity to it UNTIL Apple says there is.. Microsoft is just dabbling in ARM processors for Windows devices, and they can do that because they failed in the smartphone industry with Windows phones on ARM. They failed at their first attempt with their ARM based Surface Products. I see them as just dabbling with Windows based ARM computers, but time will tell if they are successful at it and because they have over 90% market share in the installed base of computers, they can afford to dabble in it. Apple can't afford to dabble in it and fail.. They don't have a big enough market share to split off some of their Mac computers to ARM and their others running X86. Now, what's MORE plausible to me is a new designed laptop with a touch screen that's ARM based running a future version of iOS that adds more features that are in macOS. THAT I can see them possibly doing since iOS is their OS for ARM based computers. But running macOS on ARM for only a few or one selected units? Nah, don't be silly.
    wonkothesanebniceElCapitandewmemacpluspluscaladanianseanjwatto_cobrapscooter63
  • Reply 13 of 148
    I'm honestly not worried. Apple will do their best to make the transition as painless as possible. I don't for see issues with graphics support or issues with IO. Apple isn't about to shoot them selves in the foot here. Apple is not the same Apple from 2006. It's a much larger company and there is allot riding on this. As for performance I think that's the true question mark. What ever Apple puts into the Mac line will be a serious departure from the ARM processors currently used in their iPhones and iPads. Having absolutely no idea what that new processor will look like is where the majority of fear/excitement is. Unfortunately, unlike before we can't peak over the fence at intel or IBM to see their roadmap.

    We'll just have to wait and see.
    lolliverseanjchabigwatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 148
    Saying ARM gives Apple control over the hardware/software stack doesn’t really help me understand the benefits of the switch. If Intel wasn’t missing targets would Apple still be doing this? There’s a bumpy road ahead to make the transition. It will be challenging for users. What about Pro level users? Can ARM work for them? Apple has shown they can integrate ARM processors such as the T2 chip into the existing intel platform. Maybe they should be going after graphics first? Or maybe they want seemless app capability across iOS and MacOS? Or maybe they want just a single OS? Any insights from the experts?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 148
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,032member
    cropr said:
    My use case is of course only limited to a few percent of the market, but it could anyhow jeopardize the market share of Macs
    Did you consider the increase in Mac marketshare from having faster Macs at a lower entry-level price point? There is also the added advantage to all in more Mac users by Apple now allowing developers to sell a single license for iOS (watchOS), iPadOS, and macOS apps.
    lolliverjony0repressthiswatto_cobrarazorpit
  • Reply 16 of 148
    I can’t imagine the developers that make products that run on the Mac and other platforms would be happy about transitioning ARM. Do we really think it would be just a recompile for the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Java (Oracle), Autodesk, Vmware and ... to bring their products over to a new processor architecture?
    edited February 2020 caladanian
  • Reply 17 of 148
    jimh2jimh2 Posts: 370member
    tedz98 said:
    Saying ARM gives Apple control over the hardware/software stack doesn’t really help me understand the benefits of the switch. If Intel wasn’t missing targets would Apple still be doing this? There’s a bumpy road ahead to make the transition. It will be challenging for users. What about Pro level users? Can ARM work for them? Apple has shown they can integrate ARM processors such as the T2 chip into the existing intel platform. Maybe they should be going after graphics first? Or maybe they want seemless app capability across iOS and MacOS? Or maybe they want just a single OS? Any insights from the experts?
    Apple is tired with being dependent on Intel with their power hungry chips and missed release dates. You can only take so much. For the lower end machines they will not miss Intel chips. By the time the pro machines are converted emulation will be more than sufficient.
    lolliverjony0repressthisMacProwatto_cobrapscooter63cat52
  • Reply 18 of 148
    These means no more hackintoshes. :-(
    MacPro
  • Reply 19 of 148
    hodarhodar Posts: 338member
    tedz98 said:
    Saying ARM gives Apple control over the hardware/software stack doesn’t really help me understand the benefits of the switch. If Intel wasn’t missing targets would Apple still be doing this? There’s a bumpy road ahead to make the transition. It will be challenging for users. What about Pro level users? Can ARM work for them? Apple has shown they can integrate ARM processors such as the T2 chip into the existing intel platform. Maybe they should be going after graphics first? Or maybe they want seemless app capability across iOS and MacOS? Or maybe they want just a single OS? Any insights from the experts?


    One of the reasons Apple migrated from the Motorola 68xxx to PowerPC, was Motorola's failure to meet self-set milestones and deliver processors as promised.  By making the transition to PowerPC, Apple basically had the ability to pit IBM against Motorola on the same PowerPC processor, with the better performing, higher yielding competitor taking the lion's share of the sales.

    If Intel can't hit milestones - history is basically repeating itself.

    randominternetpersonlolliverjony0pscooter63muthuk_vanalingamrepressthiswatto_cobrarazorpitcat52
  • Reply 20 of 148
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,316administrator
    a3dstorm said:
    These means no more hackintoshes. :-(
    Perhaps, but as long as the present iMac 4K and 5k iMac are supported, they should stick around, as neither has a T2.
    watto_cobra
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