It’s an announcement we have all been waiting for a while, but that didn’t take away the excitement when Tim Cook announced it. On stage at the first virtual keynote, Apple’s CEO said that the company was bidding farewell to Intel’s chips, all Mac’s will now use Apple’s custom System on Chip (SoC) instead, based on ARM. The company expects the transition to last two years, but also has plans to support Intel for the foreseeable future. So what does that mean for the Mac exactly? 

A Long Road

The shift to ARM-based CPUs has been a long road for the company. At the keynote, Johny Srouji, Apple’s SVP of Hardware Technologies outlined how the company managed to take the lessons it learnt from a decade of chip designing, and apply it to the Mac. With the iPhone SoC’s, the team perfected performance per watt. With the iPad, it was scaling that design for better performance. And with the Watch, the team perfected optimising performance. All of these lessons have now helped the team design a family of Mac SoC’s.

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All of the features of Apple’s custom SoC.

For a very long time, the company has been working towards transitioning the Mac towards its own processors. With OSX Yosemite and iOS 8 in 2014, Apple introduced Continuity and Handoff. Since 2017, Apple has been pushing developers to adopt 64-bit architecture, a key part of ARM designed CPU’s. In 2019, it introduced Catalyst, allowing developers to create Mac apps from iPad apps. And finally, earlier this year, Apple enabled universal purchases across its ecosystem. These choices show a company playing the long game. 

To commemorate this shift, macOS Big Sur will also move away from the OSX naming. Although it was not announced on stage, the first beta of Big Sur calls it macOS 11. The new visual languages and features are all part of Apple’s effort to show that it is indeed moving on from Intel. 

A New Generation of Computing

While the company has been using Intel chips since 2006, it has been a rough ride for the company. Intel’s slowing performance gains and poorer optimisation have left the Mac an outlier from the rest of Apple’s hardware. Intel’s production has also increasingly come under pressure, with delays forcing its partners to delay their own plans. Now, Apple can create an SoC that “just works” for the Mac, all while sticking to its own timelines.

Another advantage of moving to custom silicon is performance. “Bringing our SoC’s to the Mac will allow us to build much better products” Srouji said. Apple can now build faster and better Macs, without having to compromise as much on power. The team already has a base with the A12X chips it built for iPad, which beat the Intel Core i7 in a benchmark test by Geekbench. With the Mac, Apple has the ability to simply scale that performance.

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A screenshot from Apple’s keynote outlining the advantages of using custom SoC’s.

For developers, having a common architecture across Apple’s ecosystem will make it far easier to create apps for multiple platforms. Project Catalyst was simply a stepping stone to that. With macOS Big Sur, users will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps natively on the Mac. Ultimately, developers will simply need to create a single app for all of Apple’s devices, and consumers will have access to millions of apps on the Mac, just like their iPhone. It’s a win-win for everyone. 

The Transition

Tim Cook announced that Apple would transition to its own silicon over a period of two years. This will give developers enough time to jump aboard the train while ensuring that customers still get to use the apps they love. The big challenge for Apple is that unlike iPhones, people don’t upgrade their Mac’s every few years. Rather than leave millions of users in the cold, the company will continue to support Intel-based chips “for the foreseeable future”. 

And that’s where Rosetta comes in. Rosetta 2 will translate all apps not optimised for Apple’s SoC in real-time, allowing Intel-based Mac users to still enjoy the latest macOS updates and apps. Just like the switch from PowerPC to Intel, this transition is going to take a year or two. Rosetta is just a stopgap, to ease that transition. By 2030, Apple will definitely drop support for Intel processors, so if you just bought a Mac in the last year or two, here’s your warning. 

Cook also announced that Apple has Intel-based Mac products in the pipeline. This is probably to smoothen the transition, while giving an assurance to customers and developers that Apple won’t abruptly end support for Intel-based Macs. Given the timeline, it’s likely that the device is Mac Mini (last updated October 2018). Apple just refreshed the MacBook Air and Pro, so it seems unlikely it will launch another Intel-based MacBook right now. 

When the first Apple SoC-based Mac does come out, it is likely to be the iMac or the iMac Pro. The Mac Pro has just become available this year, so again it seems unlikely to get an update in 2020. The iMac Pro is long overdue for a refresh (no updates since being launched in December 2018) and could be the perfect testing ground before the SoC goes mainstream with the MacBook Pro or Air in 2021. 

To help kick start adoption, developers will have access to a “quick start program” that offers sample code and documentation. There’s also a Developer Transition Kit, in the form of a Mac Mini running Apple’s A12Z chip from the iPad Pro. 

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A screenshot of the Developer Transition Kit Apple will make available.

Right now we can only speculate on the new Macs, but a few things are for certain – the new Macs will be insanely faster and have much better battery life. They are also going to come with some very exciting new features (FaceID on Mac anyone?). Users won’t be buying iPad apps or iPhone apps, instead they will be buying Apple apps that work across the entire ecosystem. 

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