What You Need to Know about Apple’s Silicon Transition

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This year has brought us a ton of Apple products. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is Apple announcing moving away from Intel’s x86 processors to its own custom ARM-based silicon. There is a lot to unpack here, especially for consumers who generally don’t need to know much about processors beyond, “Is this one faster than my old computer?”

I’m not even saying most people need to understand the exact nuance between Apple and Intel silicon. A lot of this is for developers to understand. There are, however, a few things everyone should know, and if you are looking for a new computer or are about to start shopping, Apple’s announcement might have an impact on your decision.

Keep in mind that this isn’t the first time Apple has made a huge computing change. Back in 2005, Apple revealed plans to move from IBM’s PowerPC to the current Intel processors. On the surface, this is Apple doing a very similar thing, and the reason appears to be the same: improved performance.

Apple ARM versus Intel x86

Most computers use Intel chips these days, and the x86 has become the default. This means that right now, everything is built and optimized to run on its architecture. Talking about architecture, this is where we get into some super technical differences between ARM and Intel x86.

ARM runs as a Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC), while Intel runs as a Complex Instruction Set Computer (CISC). While RISC is seen as a streamlined version of CISC, there are still moments when CISC can perform better due to how it bundles tasks. However, there is a lot of nuance to this comparison. Much more than I want to get into here.

ARM shouldn’t be wholly unfamiliar to most of you. If you have a modern smartphone, an iPhone for example, you have been using an Apple-designed ARM processor already. Over the past decade, Apple shifted over to its own ARM processors in its iPhones, iPads, and practically everything else except for Macs.

As a surprise, some Macs actually already have ARM chips in them! The T1 and T2 chips that showed up in recent years are Apple-designed ARM processors. By using ARM-based chips as the main processor, it means that Mac devices are going to share architecture with iOS and iPadOS devices. That is a huge advantage.

Apple has made its goal very clear with the new silicon in Mac: more performance per watt. This means that it is aiming for high performance with less power consumption. Energy efficiency is huge for computing, and targeting this goal is what allowed iPhones to become so powerful. If you have ever peeked into a desktop computer (or just sat next to one for long enough), you’ve likely seen the huge fans and cooling systems they have as well as serious power supplies. This is what helps guarantee performance. Apple’s silicon goals have pushed boundaries here, making iPhones that are even more powerful than some laptops without the need for active cooling and being able to boast all-day battery life.

“Huge Leap Forward for the Mac”

What exactly is the huge leap that Apple is making for Mac? Well, its claim of best performance per watt should mean that it will be able to speed up its Mac computers dramatically when software is properly optimized. Apple being in complete control of the chain means that it can likely make significant upgrades to speed at a faster rate. Simply put, Mac computers are set to get much faster in a much shorter period of time.

The other part is something many have seen coming for a while: Mobile apps will be able to run on macOS using Apple silicon. This may or may not be super important to customers, but for developers it means you can more easily program for both mobile and desktop users and likely bring new features to your apps more easily.

During the WWDC keynote, Apple revealed that its demo was running on an early dev kit mac Mini that used a variation on the A12Z chip. This is essentially the same processor found in the current iPad Pro and is very similar to that in the 2018 iPad Pro. It was smoothly running Final Cut with multiple video tracks and doing it all without any hiccups.

Imagine what is possible with a from-the-ground-up Apple-made chip for Macs. iPhones are unarguably some of the most powerful devices out there, and getting the same performance in a MacBook is something to think about.

Realistically, I think changes to things like battery life and heat will allow the creation of new types or styles of devices that we could make with conventional components. Imagine smaller, thinner laptops than can offer all-day battery life or that can live in sleep mode for a week without losing their charge.

If Apple Silicon Is So Good, Should I Still Buy an Intel-Based Mac Today?

Yes. If you need a device, don’t be afraid to upgrade today.

You should have no worries about purchasing an Intel-based Mac today, or tomorrow, or even for the next year or two. Apple has said the transition is going to take two years to complete; that means your exact device might not even get an update for years. If you need a new computer today, the current options will more than satisfy your needs.

Apple 27" iMac with Retina 5K Display

Also, while many developers have already stated they will support Apple silicon—Adobe, for example—many smaller companies have not yet made their plans public. This means that you might actually be better off with an Intel Mac for the foreseeable future if you need particular software to do your work. There’s always potential for bugs and compatibility issues if you are an early adopter.

Apple has already come out and said it plans to support Intel-based Macs for years to come, even beyond the completion of the transition. With software already built around x86 designs, you will likely have fewer growing pains sticking with the current chips instead of moving up to the first generation of Apple silicon Macs.

Now, if you are locked into Apple products, use exclusively Apple software such as Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X, and aren’t in a rush to upgrade your current product, then you might want to wait and see what the rest of the year brings.

What Happens When Apple Silicon Macs Are Released?

One thing to be aware of if you do end up waiting to get an Apple silicon Mac is that there might be some early compatibility issues. Apple is looking to resolve many issues by offering multiple options for developers and users to work with existing apps. These include Universal 2, Rosetta 2, and Virtualization.

Without getting too far into it, there will be ways to run programs not coded for Apple silicon on your Mac. However, you might not get peak performance, and there is potential for some programs to encounter serious errors. If you opt for Apple programs, you won’t have a problem. When Big Sur launches, practically every single one of Apple’s native programs will be rewritten to work natively on Apple silicon.

There also might be weirdness with external devices, such as eGPUs. I would recommend this for light users or people looking for something a bit more future-proof. If you are an early adopter okay with some growing pains or experimentation, I say go for early Apple silicon devices. I’m certainly considering it myself.

Or, wait and see what the pros have to say after the first Apple silicon devices hit the shelves.

Stay tuned right here because we will let you know whenever Apple announces its first Apple silicon Macs, whatever they may be.

Are you ready for the Apple silicon transition? Are you waiting or do you need a computer today?

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2 Comments

Interesting. I'm five years into my MBP and don't feel the need to buy a new model yet. For right now, I'm more concerned about Adobe adapting to ARM. Think I'll wait to see what happens. Should be very interesting.

If you don't need to upgrade that's great. I'm working on a 2016 MacBook Pro myself (plus an iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard I love for day-to-day stuff).

Apple did talk about how many brands were already developing for ARM, including mentioning Adobe, so hopefully we will see a quick update to support it. I'm excited to see what happens.

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