There has been speculation, rumors, conjecture, hunches, hypotheses and hearsay for years that Apple would contemplate moving from the Intel chipset architecture powering their desktop and laptop computers, and a new report from Bloomberg suggests that it is indeed going to be happening, and soon. Whilst Intel and Apple have had a long and fruitful partnership, there’s a variety of factors that could, on paper at least, serve as an incentive for Apple to look elsewhere for the processors powering their Mac desktops and laptops.
The report from Bloomberg claims that Apple will be announcing at their Apple Worldwide Developers Conference later this month that they are soon going to begin shipping Apple computers powered by an arm based CPU, for the first time. Because of the underlying differences between how Intel chips and these new Arm-based processors operate, developers will need to update their software to work correctly on new Apple computers once the transition has begun. Apple has been down this path before, but it won’t be easy to make the transition entirely smooth, and hopefully, they have put serious thought into how to ensure the most important software can carry over to their newer systems without any incompatibility issues.
Apple announced their move to Intel CPUs for their computers back in 2005 when they announced their shift away from the PowerPC architecture. It took a while, but gradually they shifted their entire product line of desktop and laptop computers over to the Intel architecture. The Bloomberg report says that Apple will be attempting a similar strategy here, gradually revamping their entire computer product line with updated arm based models.
These new chips will be manufactured by the Taiwanese chip giant TSMC, as per the Bloomberg report:
“TSMC will build the new Mac processors using a 5-nanometer production technique — the same approach as for the next iPhones and iPad Pros.”
They are licensing the design of these chips from Arm, but the processor will be designed by Apple themselves, which they have never done before in any of their Mac computers. This will give them more freedom and flexibility to design processors with specific products and features in mind. The specific gains that these chips are able to offer end users are improved graphics performance, improved power efficiency, and gains for apps using artificial intelligence.
On a pure logistics standpoint, it somewhat makes sense for Apple to want to switch to using one single processor architecture across their desktops, laptops, phones and tablets, there are a variety of gains and opportunities by somewhat unifying the hardware powering all their computing devices. Despite shifting for more commonality between the hardware of their devices, the Bloomberg report says that there are currently no plans to merge the software side of their devices, where Macs will still run macOS, and mobile devices will still run iOS.
Beyond simple improvements to performance, I’d be very curious to see if this fundamental change in the chips powering their computers could lead to design changes. Could we see Apple create even smaller and lighter machines that don’t have to compromise on performance? Could we eventually see new form factors that support different usage scenarios? It’s going to be interesting to see if this shift in processor architecture will have any kind of impact on how people use Apple computers going forward.
Gaming is going to be a big question too. Not many people buy Apple computers specifically for the purpose of gaming, but plenty of people do use Apple machines for gaming. Right now, you can access a huge library of games on Mac computers via services like Steam or GOG, but unless Apple can implement a robust compatibility layer, presumably a huge amount of games are going to be unavailable to users of arm based Apple computers. Gaming has never been a top priority for Apple, and I don’t think losing access to games would have any impact on their decision making regarding processor architecture going forward, I’m sure there are dozens of factors that would be higher on the list. It would be a shame for people who enjoy gaming on Apple computers to have their options severely limited.
Support for other operating systems is another question for these future devices equipped with Arm chips, as it would presumably no longer be possible to use Bootcamp to install the x64 based Windows 10, although perhaps Windows 10 on arm could be supported in some way?
I’m sure Apple will be irritated if this was intended to be a big announcement at WWDC 2020, and Bloomberg stole their thunder, but there will still be lots of specifics to find out if and when this announcement is made later this month. We’ll be keeping an eye out on this story as it develops. Mark June 22nd in your calendar if you want to find out more about Apple’s future plans.