After 15 years, Apple will again transition the Mac to a new architecture. The company announced at its developer conference today that it will introduce Macs featuring Apple-designed, ARM-based processors similar to those already used in the iPhone and iPad.
Tim Cook pegged this switch as one of the four biggest transitions the Mac has ever had. Alongside the move to PowerPC, the move to Intel, and the transition to Mac OS X, ARM will be one of the biggest Mac changes ever. Apple is promising “a whole new level of performance” with a “Family of Mac SoCs.
Longtime Apple users have been through all this all been through this before, with the transition from PowerPC to Intel, and now for Intel x86 to ARM, all the big platform transition hits are coming back. The transition to ARM from x86 means that some Mac apps will be native and some won’t. For apps that support both x86 and ARM, Apple is introducing the “Universal 2” binary that will package both codebases together. For apps that haven’t made the transition to ARM yet, the Rosetta emulator is back as “Rosetta 2,” and will now let x86 apps run on your ARM Mac, albeit with reduced performance.
For the new macOS 11 Big Sur, all of the included apps are adding native ARM binaries. Xcode developers can “just open their apps and recompile” to get an ARM binary. Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop were demoed as native ARM apps. Final Cut Pro has an ARM version too, along with features that run on the “Neural Engine” in the Apple SoC.
iPhone and iPad apps can now run natively on the Mac, which will not only be great for developers but will give users access to all their favorite apps. iOS apps will all show up on the Mac App Store from day one, and while Apple didn’t make a huge deal about this, that sounds like a huge explosion of apps in the Mac App Store.
The key announcement was the timeline: The first Mac with Apple silicon will happen by the end of the year, with the whole Intel-to-ARM transition taking around 2 years. Expect to see new Intel-based macs come out in the near future.
To help developers with the transition, Apple announced what is technically the first ARM Mac ever: the “Developer Transition Kit.” This is a Mac Mini enclosure with an Apple A12Z SoC, the same SoC as an iPad Pro. As the name suggests, it’s meant for developers that want to port their x86 apps to ARM macOS, and comes with a beta version of Big Sur.
Apple’s biggest market advantage comes to the Mac
This move has been predicted for years, as the upsides for Apple are clear. Cupertino has always valued tight integration of hardware, software, and services, but Macs have been outliers among Apple’s products in their reliance on an outside party for the CPU. (iPhones and other Apple products do contain display panels, modems, and camera components made by other companies, though.)
So far, Apple’s chip division has excelled in every market it has entered. In the world of smartphones, the company’s SoCs are easily a generation ahead of the best Qualcomm, Samsung, and MediaTek have to offer. Apple’s most dominant smartphone showing is probably the iPhone SE, a $ 400 iPhone that will out-perform $ 1200 Android phones thanks to the A13 Bionic SoC.
In smartwatches, Apple’s chip division is one of the few companies making a viable smartwatch chip. The S5 SoC in the Apple Watch Series 5 gives the watch have great performance and battery life, and the only other company with an even slightly competitive watch is Samsung, thanks to its own chip division. All the other Android competitors are reliant on Qualcomm for the future direction of their smartwatches, and since Qualcomm has opted to not compete in the smartwatch market, that entire market segment is basically dead.
Laptops and desktops are the next great frontier for Apple’s chip division, and it will let the company avoid the same fate that has befallen Android smartwatch manufacturers: letting some other company dictate your product lineup. Apple’s plans to update the Mac have often been stymied by Intel’s product roadmap, and Intel does not make chips that serve all of Apple’s design priorities. The new CPU will be just one part of an Apple-designed system-on-a-chip that would also include (among other things) an Apple GPU and a desktop version of Apple’s Neural Engine machine learning and AI processor found in the iPhone and iPad.
Apple’s chip division has reached the point where it should be able to reliably compete with Intel on performance. The 2020 iPad Pro with an Apple A12Z SoC turns in comparable Geekbench numbers to a 2019 MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i9. An Apple SoC in a laptop, with a higher thermal budget, should do well, but Apple didn’t offer any specifics yet.