28 October 2020

Posting the latest science and tech news

ARM-Based Macs: The Future of Apple Computers

Some say it’s a power move; Apple asserting dominance, proving that they are better than Intel. But others say that it’s a cost-saving measure; reusing processors made for iPhones and iPads. This article explores the true reason why Apple’s making this switch and how it might affect you.

Apple marks the end of a 15-year long partnership by ditching Intel in favour of Apple’s own custom ARM processors.

Some say it’s a power move; Apple asserting dominance, proving that they are better than Intel. But others say that it’s a cost-saving measure; reusing processors made for iPhones and iPads. This article explores the true reason why Apple’s making this switch and how it might affect you.

The reason behind this switch

With Intel processors, Apple has less control. Not just over the computer itself, but also over the entire manufacturing process. Apple wants this control. Take the iPad Pro 2020 for example, its A12Z processor just as powerful as the Intel Core i7 processor in the MacBook Pro (13-inch Mid 2020). To put this in perspective, a passively cooled processor which consumes almost half as much electric power is as quick as Intel’s latest, high-end and very expensive i7 CPU. Apple, or any company, as a matter of fact, wouldn’t want their tablet to outperform their laptop computers.

Power and Efficiency

The Apple ARM processors push the iPhone and iPad in terms of performance, resulting in similar, if not more powerful than Apple’s Intel-based computers. Yet, given the smaller battery size of iPhones and iPads compared to Apple Mac Laptops, they achieve almost 2 days of battery life. Mac laptops, on the other hand only achieves around a few hours of battery life.

Graph From WWDC 2020 Showing Apple Silicon Performance vs Efficiency
WWDC 2020 Apple Silicon Performance vs Efficiency

Apple ARM processors are also extremely efficient, the fact that iPhones and iPads are passively cooled, i.e. don’t require internal fans to cool down the processor, could mean that ARM-based Macs will not need large and heavy cooling solutions. Reduced heat dissipation also means that less electric power is consumed. This means that this processor will sip electricity from the battery, compared to Intel processors devouring it. Furthermore, a reduction in the need for cooling will drastically reduce the size and weight of future Macs.

Features

Apple Silicon also brings more custom features and specifications to the table. Before, with Intel Macs, Apple were fully reliant on the performance of Intel CPUs. With Apple building its own processors, they have full control of the development and manufacturing and don’t have to rely on another company to improve their product every year.

Image From WWDC 2020 Showing Apple Silicon Feature Set
WWDC 2020 Apple Silicon Feature Set

With Apple making their own processor, they can easily link all of the other hardware together very well. Before, the hardware had to be designed around the Intel CPU. Now, Apple will have more flexibility.

Apple takes a lot of safety precautions, especially with Intel as those CPUs have a lot of security vulnerabilities. Apple designed the T-Series chips, these chips take care of security, such as disk encryption, biometrics such as the Touch ID sensor and also acts as a gatekeeper to other hardware such as the webcam and microphone.

Now, Apple can embed this chip inside of their ARM based silicon, or even completely remove the T-Series chips entirely. Either of these options will save physical space and also reduce power consumption, making future Macs even more efficient.

This is not the only feature which ARM-based Macs will bring, in-fact, the sky is the limit. As Apple will control all of the manufacturing of these chips, they will be free to add whatever they want.

Price

Intel chips are extremely expensive. The Intel i7 processor, found on the MacBook Pro (13-inch Mid 2020), costs $426.00 per piece, the price can be found here. The high prices of these Intel processors are one of the reasons why Macs are so expensive.

With Apple controlling the manufacturing of their processors, they could save a lot of money. Hopefully, this saving would reflect on the final prices of Mac computers, bringing them down and making them more affordable yet more powerful.

When is it coming?

Apple are planning to start the transition towards ARM-based Macs later this year. The company has started a programme, called the Developer Transition Kit, costing $500, they will loan developers a Mac Mini‌ equipped with an A12Z chip from the ‌iPad Pro‌, with 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD.

This is to allow developers to experience the new ARM-based Mac era, and to prepare their softwares to run on this platform.

How will this affect you?

The good:

Apple Silicon uses a completely different architecture to Intel CPUs, ARM chips uses an architecture called ARM64 and Intel chips use x86-64. This means x86-64 software is completely incompatible with ARM64 unless there’s a conversion layer between.

During the 2-year transition period towards ARM, Apple will be utilising a dynamic binary translator, called Rosetta-2. This software will convert instructions so that x86-64 software can run on ARM64. Rosetta-2 will be transparently embedded into macOS Big Sur, and will likely be embedded into future macOS version, but probably not as transparently.

With Apple Silicon, iOS applications can be directly ported to Mac computers and will be able to run natively. This will be a more streamlined approach and will make it easier for app developers to develop for the entirety of Apple’s range of products. Furthermore, iOS and macOS App Stores may merge, which will substantially increase the breadth of software available across all of Apple’s products.

The bad:

Unfortunately, this isn’t all good news, ARM Macs will kill Bootcamp Windows, which will leave millions of Apple users unable to dual-boot Windows on their Mac computers. This is due to a licensing issue caused by Microsoft disallowing Windows to be used on ARM-based computers.

Apple is insisting virtualisation is the only route, as senior software engineer, Craig Federighi, stated,

“Purely virtualization is the route… Hypervisors can be very efficient, so the need to direct boot shouldn’t really be the concern.”

Craig Federighi’s views on dual-booting

Running macOS on devices other than Apple’s Macs will be a thing of the past as ARM-based Macs could entirely terminate the “Hackintosh” community, or at least severely restrict it. This is because, future macOS versions will most likely only run on ARM64, this will prevent people from being able to run it on non-Apple devices, running on x86-64.

Conclusion

All-in-all, this is a huge step for Apple, not to mention a bold one too. This transition will bring Macs which are more powerful, cheaper, last longer on battery, thinner and lighter. This will allow more people to finally invest in it and enter the Apple ecosystem.

I use Bootcamp Windows very frequently, to play games and to run Windows exclusive apps. And in my honest opinion, I am not really looking forward to this. Virtualisation will most likely be the only way to run Windows, and with visualisation, there will be a huge sacrifice in performance. Windows would have to run on top of another operating system whilst sharing computer resources, instead of being able to run directly on the hardware without sharing.

However, for most people, the advantages overweigh the disadvantages. Those who use macOS exclusively would really benefit from Apple Silicon. But, those who use macOS and dual-boot Windows will be in a bit of a sticky situation. Virtualisation is an option, and if you’re willing to sacrifice performance to be able to run Windows, then you should look forward to this.

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