Why the Mac's migration to Apple Silicon is bigger than ARM

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited August 2020
Some observers were surprised that Apple's big news in transitioning Macs away from Intel processors didn't refer to the move as a migration to "ARM." Instead, Apple's chief executive Tim Cook introduced it as a move to Apple Silicon. Here's why.

Apple's advantages in chip-making, and what's coming in Apple Silicon
Apple's advantages in chip-making, and what's coming in Apple Silicon

Apple Silicon is a head and shoulders above ARM

The A12Z chip that Apple is currently using in its latest LiDAR iPad Pro and its first generation Apple Silicon chip in the Mac mini developer transition kit does incorporate ARM CPU cores. But that ARM Architecture CPU is not the most significant reason Apple is moving away from Intel's chips on Macs.

Apple alluded to this in referring to its own custom silicon as being an "SoC," or System on a Chip. Over the past decade, Apple has developed a series of SoCs that incorporate essentially an entire logic board of chips that a typical PC would require into a single chip that can be mass produced and used across multiple devices from its iPhone, to iPad, to Apple TV and even HomePod.

The primary advantage of this integration was power consumption. ARM supplied licensed CPU reference design cores that provided leading compute performance per watt, leading Apple to make ARM the center core of its SoC designs. ARM cores are also the basis for Apple's M-series components that monitor data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and barometer to efficiently track how a device is moving over time.

Apple Silicon power consumption to chip performance
Apple Silicon power consumption to chip performance


The baseband modems supplied by Qualcomm for handling connectivity to mobile networks also incorporates an ARM processor core, but most of the value of these chips comes from the total package of components and proprietary software, not merely the standards-based CPU core serving at its center.

In some respects, Apple's use of ARM cores in its SoCs is similar to its use of Unix in the OS itself. Both are effectively specifications that standardize the operations of low level technology layers. In the same way that Macs are more than just Unix systems, Apple's SoCs are more than just ARM processors.

As with Qualcomm's modems, the customizations, optimizations, and additional layers of proprietary work that Apple adds to its A-series SoCs results in a package that's significantly more valuable than its base components.

That reality is reflected in Apple's custom silicon being a lot more than just an "ARM chip," and helps to explain why Apple's SoCs have increasingly outperformed other ARM-based SoCs developed by Qualcomm, Nvidia, Samsung, and others.

Apple Silicon brings more than ARM to the Mac

Apple highlighted a series of features of its custom silicon SoCs that will enhance future Macs. Simply moving to an ARM CPU core itself wasn't even one of them. Most of the advantages Apple emphasized in the move to its own silicon referred to unique, custom-developed features of its SoCs.

These include high-efficiency audio processing, low power video playback, advanced power management, a high-performance storage controller, machine learning accelerators, the Secure Enclave, a performance controller, a high-quality camera processor, cryptography acceleration, the Neural Engine, the Apple GPU, and a unified memory architecture.

Apple specifically stressed the benefits from using its own Apple Silicon with examples such as accelerating Final Cut Pro tasks using the Neural Engine. We recently profiled Alogoriddim's new djay Pro AI, which similarly leans on the Neural Engine to enable entirely new kinds of sophisticated audio processing. Going forward, developers will make increasingly sophisticated use of Apple's custom inference engine to handle machine learning and artificial intelligence tasks that are not simply ARM features.

Additionally, one of the most complained about issues on modern Macs is their substandard webcams delivering poor quality images. Modern iOS devices leverage Apple's sophisticated Image Signal Processor to perform incredible feats in computational photography that are largely driven by that custom ISP silicon. With the same SoC, Apple can bring these imaging improvements to the Mac.

The unique TBDR design of the Apple GPU also brings to the Mac, for the first time, the low memory graphics architecture that has been optimized to enable iOS games to deliver impressive performance. This is the same GPU approach that powered the Sega Dreamcast, and was used by Sony to power its handheld PS Vita.

Some have doubted whether a "mobile GPU" could perform competitively with existing Mac GPUs, but Apple's wide graphics architecture has been driving high-resolution Retina display iPads for nearly a decade already. Optimized for Metal, a variety of Apple Arcade titles already perform impressively on iOS devices while causing a high-end Intel Mac to kick on its fans while struggling to keep up. That may come in part from titles being optimized for iOS, but it suggests that new Apple Silicon Macs will not be struggling to keep up with the graphics on Intel Macs.

Along the same lines, iOS devices powered by Apple's recent SoCs can blaze through encryption and decoding tasks that can be embarrassingly slow on Intel Macs. Apple specifically noted that its Macs with its modern silicon would enable higher quality Sidecar connectivity with iPads than is currently possible.

These examples are not general features licensed to Apple by ARM -- they are custom silicon work developed at Apple. Other SoC vendors such as Qualcomm have developed their own implementations of some of these features, but they are not simply components of generic ARM licensed designs.

Intel's own x86 Core processors also incorporate their own proprietary versions of some of these features, including the company's own integrated GPU and media handling logic. Apple's desire to move from Intel's Core package to an SoC design of its own indicates that Apple thinks its own silicon is better.

Additionally, many custom software optimizations already developed for iOS -- such as Metal graphics -- can be brought over to the Mac directly now that both share the same access to Apple's own sophisticated silicon. Currently, Apple has had to develop two versions of Metal, one for iOS and another for the GPUs used on Macs.

So Apple isn't just arbitrarily moving from "x86 to ARM," but rather using its custom silicon work to enhance the performance, features, and deep integration on its Macs. Moving "to ARM" is sort of a side effect of Apple's wanting to use its own custom silicon. Up to this point, Apple has been limited to adding a helper chip like the T2 to its Intel Macs to handle custom features like Touch ID and Touch Bar.

Xcode is ready to go on Apple Silicon, and it probably has been for some time
Xcode is ready to go on Apple Silicon, and it probably has been for some time


It's therefore simply inaccurate and misleading to say that Apple is "moving to ARM," because the real transition Apple is making by moving the Mac to its own SoCs involves leveraging the work it has already done to make its own Apple Silicon an industry leader.

Apple's motivation is not like Microsoft's move to ARM

Additionally, the macOS is not moving to ARM in a general sense, as it's not going to run on a Raspberry Pi or a Qualcomm 8cx "always on" PC designed to run "Windows 10 on ARM."

Microsoft has made multiple attempts to deliver Windows on ARM, first with Windows RT and again more recently with Windows 10 on ARM. Apple has no reason to associate its own work with these efforts, in part because its motivations are entirely different.

Microsoft appears to have added ARM support to Windows primarily to benefit from the low power nature of ARM mobile chips, as well as the mobile data modems integrated into Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors. Note that Microsoft isn't moving away from Intel; it's adding support for ARM hardware.

So unlike Apple's consolidation on its own Apple Silicon, which gives it the ability to reuse more of its existing code and natively run iOS apps on new Macs, Microsoft is pursuing a very different goal that increases its development efforts rather than unifying them.

Leveraging better partners for economies of scale

Apple's move to Intel Macs in 2006 was an effort to leverage the economies of scale in the PC industry that were favoring Windows and Intel, rather than the much smaller ecosystem developing new PowerPC chips. Virtually all of the economic activity related to PCs was driving innovation and investment in Intel's chips. But PC sales have since plateaued and there isn't foreseeable growth driving rapid investment and progression of x86 processors. One reason for that is the move toward mobile in smartphones and tablets, with much of the value shift being driven by Apple.

In parallel, Apple's development of a massive mobile platform of iOS and iPad users has driven economies of scale favoring Apple's own custom SoCs. Apple's revenues from mobile not only helped finance sophisticated advances in custom silicon but also the rapid progression of Apple's operating systems, development tools, its first-party apps, and its third-party App Store ecosystem.

Additionally, there's another important development that favors Apple Silicon over Intel's -- advanced chip fabrication at TSMC. While Intel has struggled to significantly improve its processor designs and chip fab process, Apple's chip fab partner TSMC has delivered consistent progress in delivering major, sophisticated advancements in chip production.

The result is that Apple's SoC designs benefit from production efficiencies that make them smaller, faster, more efficient, and cheaper to produce. This too has enhanced Apple Silicon in ways that are not really related to ARM itself.

TSMC's chip production is so sophisticated -- in part due to its own work and partially attributed to American partners who assist it in developing advanced silicon -- that the U.S. has leveraged its dependence on American chip design tool vendors to block TSMC from fabricating chips for Huawei, under the logic that it gains too much support from the Chinese government with too little transparency on how independent Huawei actually is from the PRC.

Regardless of the merits of this policy, this has resulted in TSMC having a sudden need to expand its client base to replace the loss of Huawei's business. This is a fortunate turn of events for Apple, as it enables it more flexibility in handling larger or more diverse orders for custom silicon.

Tim Cook, at WWDC 2020, with an Apple Silicon wafer
Tim Cook, at WWDC 2020, with an Apple Silicon wafer


At the same time, ARM itself is running into similar issues because it is now majority-owned by Chinese interests [Clarification: ARM Ltd is mostly owned by Softbank; only its ARM China venture, servicing the Chinese market, is majority-owned by Chinese interests.]. For this reason, Apple has further needs to be looking into alternatives to ARM's intellectual property. Apple may likely pursue the same kind of distancing independence from ARM reference designs as it demonstrated with Imagination Technologies [note that Imagination is now majority-owned by Chinese investors]. Apple ended up developing a custom GPU with reduced licensing dependence on Imagination. If it does the same thing with regard to ARM, we could eventually see a custom "Apple CPU" emerge in future Apple Silicon.

All of which contributes to the reasons Apple is framing its migration away from Intel as a move to its own technology, rather than being a Microsoft-like move to partner with ARM to hedge its bets.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 123
    rain22rain22 Posts: 132member
     but it suggests that new Apple Silicon Macs will not be struggling to keep up with the graphics on Intel Macs.”

    That would be nice - but seems extremely dependent on programs being optimized. The anemic library of titles will probably shrink even further - at least until there is market saturation. 

    Mac users will be stuck using dumbed down iOS software for a long time I feel. 
    After all - This is the motivation isn’t it? Eventually have just 1 OS that can be modded to facilitate the device. 
    williamlondonprismatics
  • Reply 2 of 123
    darthwdarthw Posts: 61member
    Will it be possible, eventually, for Apple to make faster SoCs than the fastest most powerful intel Xenon chips?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 123
    crowleycrowley Posts: 9,082member
    I wonder if the higher end Macs will have A chips with integrated GPUs, or if there will be non-GPU variants where Apple have a dedicated separate GPU, presumably from AMD.
    Beats
  • Reply 4 of 123
    rain22 said:
     but it suggests that new Apple Silicon Macs will not be struggling to keep up with the graphics on Intel Macs.”

    That would be nice - but seems extremely dependent on programs being optimized. The anemic library of titles will probably shrink even further - at least until there is market saturation. 

    Mac users will be stuck using dumbed down iOS software for a long time I feel. 
    After all - This is the motivation isn’t it? Eventually have just 1 OS that can be modded to facilitate the device. 
    Apple have already said that the likes of Adobe are on board for this move. That is a big change from last time.
    May I suggest that you wait a bit and see what other companies get on board with this by the time the first real devices are released.
    Rayz2016williamlondonBeatsaderutterStrangeDayslollivermwhitejony0watto_cobraAppleSince1976
  • Reply 5 of 123
    narwhalnarwhal Posts: 68member
    rain22 said:
    Mac users will be stuck using dumbed down iOS software for a long time I feel.  
    Here's news for you, Rain. Very few new apps are written for macOS (or Windows). Apps today are developed for the web, iOS and Android.
    williamlondonlolliverjony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 123
    rob53rob53 Posts: 2,718member
    Good article but you left out how virtualization works and after doing a quick search of Apple's new Developer app, nothing showed up. Nothing for Rosetta either. Doesn't surprise me because it's probably a very proprietary set of software and hardware, which is fine with me.

    I saw that Parallels released a blog article mentioned their prototype version of Parallels was used for the demo but nothing about which port of Debian was used. Their blog keeps saying to check back later. Has anyone been able to ask this question of any of the macOS Big Sur Apple people during a WWDC conference call? If Parallels only had to create an Apple Silicon version of Parallels (ok, Im stopping to say ARM because it's obviously a lot more than just ARM developers will have to content with) while macOS Big Sur using Rosetta did the "conversion" then that is also a huge step by Apple. 
    fastasleepwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 123
    Apple doesn't use ARM cores.  They have a license of the instruction set that they use to develop their own cores, so technically they aren't ARM cores, but Apple cores that are using ARM instruction set.
    williamlondondave marshfastasleepericthehalfbeemattinozStrangeDaysmacpluspluslolliverDon.AndersenBeDifferent
  • Reply 8 of 123
    darthw said:
    Will it be possible, eventually, for Apple to make faster SoCs than the fastest most powerful intel Xenon chips?
    Yes. I just read that the new Japanese super computer, that is the fastest in the world is built using Arm chips.
    lolliverspock1234watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 123
    flydogflydog Posts: 1,023member
    Since releasing the first iPad carrying an A-series chip, Apple has never referred to its own chips as "ARM" so not clear why everyone is placing so much meaning on the use of the term "Apple Silicon."  It's clearly intended to refer to a line of chips, and has no hidden meaning beyond that.  And as someone else has pointed out, there is no such thing as an "ARM" chip.

    https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2010/01/27Apple-Launches-iPad/
    williamlondonStrangeDaysmacpluspluswatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 123
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,799member
    Any speculation as to how many Apple silicon cores will go into various models? I wonder how many they will put in a Mac Pro vs MacBook Air for example. 
    aderutterlolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 123
    nuclidenuclide Posts: 1member
    Arm Holdings (stylized as arm) is a semiconductor and software design company wholly owned by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group and its Vision Fund. 

    How is ARM "majority-owned by Chinese interests?"
    prismaticsaderutterKITAwilliamlondonlolliver
  • Reply 12 of 123
    crowleycrowley Posts: 9,082member
    ErlendurK said:
    Apple doesn't use ARM cores.  They have a license of the instruction set that they use to develop their own cores, so technically they aren't ARM cores, but Apple cores that are using ARM instruction set.
    That's not a useful distinction; ARM aren't a manufacturer of any processors, so any processors that use the ARM instruction set are going to get called ARM cores for convenience.  Insisting that they be referred to as "Apple cores that are using ARM instruction set" is needlessly long winded pedantry.
    muthuk_vanalingamRiker
  • Reply 13 of 123
    mcdavemcdave Posts: 1,826member
    The last section was interesting. It’s odd that Apple would move from one 3rd party ISA to another except to divorce itself from 3rd party components. Perhaps what they’ve also done is made their App ecosystem ISA-independent.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 123
    BeatsBeats Posts: 2,634member
    rain22 said:
    “ but it suggests that new Apple Silicon Macs will not be struggling to keep up with the graphics on Intel Macs.”

    That would be nice - but seems extremely dependent on programs being optimized. The anemic library of titles will probably shrink even further - at least until there is market saturation. 

    Mac users will be stuck using dumbed down iOS software for a long time I feel. 
    After all - This is the motivation isn’t it? Eventually have just 1 OS that can be modded to facilitate the device. 

    A-Series is closer than you think. We will see A14 this year which will surpass PS4 Pro graphics. Eventually iPad games and Mac games will be next-gen quality. We could potentially see iPad/Mac pass PS5 quality during PS5's lifetime.

    Yes, I know nerdcore gamers will compare this to $5,000 rigs just to sh** on Apple but the reality is, 99% of the population doesn't give a damn at this point. This isn't 1993 when 8-bit and 16-bit was a massive leap and at 7"(iPhone)-24"(iMac) screens there will be no need for 8k or something ridiculous.

    I think a smart move would be for Apple to encourage developers to support A14 games. We need a handful of titles that run better than that Tomb Raider demo even at the cost of leaving iPhone 6s users behind.
    aderutterfastasleepwilliamlondonmacpluspluslolliverpatchythepiratemwhitewatto_cobraDetnator
  • Reply 15 of 123
    Dan_DilgerDan_Dilger Posts: 1,583member
    crowley said:
    I wonder if the higher end Macs will have A chips with integrated GPUs, or if there will be non-GPU variants where Apple have a dedicated separate GPU, presumably from AMD.
    Having a dedicated GPU available would not require a "non-GPU variant," nor would that really even be desirable. 

    Current MacBook Pros have Intel Core chips with integrated Intel GPUs, and more powerful AMD GPUs that can be turned on when more graphics HP is needed. 
    fastasleepmacpluspluslolliverspock1234joeljrichardswatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 123
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,580member
    Lot of people who talks jibber jabber about Apple's move away from Intel don't know that when Apple makes decision, it is so well thought through that don't doubt or criticize it. Today's Apple is full of smart engineers and strategist, visionary forward looking that the chance of screwing up little to none.
    In fact I am delaying the purchase of Macbook until the end of year when Apple silicon based MACs are released.
    aderutterrmusikantowwilliamlondonpatchythepiratedewmespock1234watto_cobraDetnator
  • Reply 17 of 123
    Dan_DilgerDan_Dilger Posts: 1,583member

    rob53 said:
    Good article but you left out how virtualization works and after doing a quick search of Apple's new Developer app, nothing showed up. Nothing for Rosetta either. Doesn't surprise me because it's probably a very proprietary set of software and hardware, which is fine with me.

    I saw that Parallels released a blog article mentioned their prototype version of Parallels was used for the demo but nothing about which port of Debian was used. Their blog keeps saying to check back later. Has anyone been able to ask this question of any of the macOS Big Sur Apple people during a WWDC conference call? If Parallels only had to create an Apple Silicon version of Parallels (ok, Im stopping to say ARM because it's obviously a lot more than just ARM developers will have to content with) while macOS Big Sur using Rosetta did the "conversion" then that is also a huge step by Apple. 
    Rosetta 2 does not support translation for virtualization 

    nuclide said:
    Arm Holdings (stylized as arm) is a semiconductor and software design company wholly owned by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group and its Vision Fund. 

    How is ARM "majority-owned by Chinese interests?"
    Yes that's partially correct. In 2018, SoftBank set up an ARM China joint venture and then sold off half of the interest in that to Chinese interests. That was likely to get around US restrictions on sharing ARM technology with Huawei. SoftBank also still needs money, so it could go further and sell more of ARM Ltd. In any case, apart from Qualcomm and Samsung, pretty much all of the mobile competitors using ARM are served by ARM China.  
    StrangeDaysmacpluspluslolliverspock1234watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 123
    mjtomlinmjtomlin Posts: 2,486member
    gwmac said:
    Any speculation as to how many Apple silicon cores will go into various models? I wonder how many they will put in a Mac Pro vs MacBook Air for example. 

    Well Apple mentioned that they were creating a new "Family" of SoCs for the Mac, not just a new series. If we're going by current naming conventions, I'd guess an X-series for low to mid-end (consumer), and Z-series for mid to high-end (pro). Of course they could another route and create different models based off desktop vs. mobile rather than consumer vs. pro.
    williamlondonlolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 123
    prismaticsprismatics Posts: 163member
    nuclide said:
    Arm Holdings (stylized as arm) is a semiconductor and software design company wholly owned by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group and its Vision Fund. 

    How is ARM "majority-owned by Chinese interests?"
    it appears everything not coming from the USA must be Chinese.
    williamlondon
  • Reply 20 of 123

    rob53 said:
    Good article but you left out how virtualization works and after doing a quick search of Apple's new Developer app, nothing showed up. Nothing for Rosetta either. Doesn't surprise me because it's probably a very proprietary set of software and hardware, which is fine with me.

    I saw that Parallels released a blog article mentioned their prototype version of Parallels was used for the demo but nothing about which port of Debian was used. Their blog keeps saying to check back later. Has anyone been able to ask this question of any of the macOS Big Sur Apple people during a WWDC conference call? If Parallels only had to create an Apple Silicon version of Parallels (ok, Im stopping to say ARM because it's obviously a lot more than just ARM developers will have to content with) while macOS Big Sur using Rosetta did the "conversion" then that is also a huge step by Apple. 
    Rosetta 2 does not support translation for virtualization 

    nuclide said:
    Arm Holdings (stylized as arm) is a semiconductor and software design company wholly owned by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group and its Vision Fund. 

    How is ARM "majority-owned by Chinese interests?"
    Yes that's partially correct. In 2018, SoftBank set up an ARM China joint venture and then sold off half of the interest in that to Chinese interests. That was likely to get around US restrictions on sharing ARM technology with Huawei. SoftBank also still needs money, so it could go further and sell more of ARM Ltd. In any case, apart from Qualcomm and Samsung, pretty much all of the mobile competitors using ARM are served by ARM China.  
    This cannot be allowed to continue happening. ARM architecture is way far too important to be allowed to be appropriated by the Chinese Communist government. Something must be done.
    williamlondonmarklarkspock1234watto_cobra
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