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A big day for PC industry as Apple makes an ARM switch

On Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook is expected to give a peek into the future of computing by launching the first Macs with Apple’s in-house chips.

Written by Anuj Bhatia | New Delhi | Updated: November 10, 2020 6:56:49 pm
Apple, Apple Silicon, ARM Macs, ARM MacBook, ARM-powered mac, Apple silicon ARM Macs, Apple November 10 eventApple CEO Tim Cook delivering the keynote address during Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference 2020. (Image credit: Apple)

It’s a big day for Apple and the entire PC industry. On Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook is expected to give a peek into the future of computing by launching the first Macs with Apple’s in-house chips. Instead of Intel processors, Apple will use its own A-series processors based on ARM designs to power the most capable laptops available in the market.

“Apple is going to be the first company to have a 100% ARM-based personal computer,” Mikako Kitagawa, Research Director at Gartner, told over an email. “Apple needs to have an ARM-based CPU and Intel does not manufacture it.”

The shift to “Apple Silicon” from Intel processors for its popular Mac computers marks a shift in strategy for the tech behemoth. While some might be surprised to see Apple’s sudden decision to start shipping Macs with its own custom Silicon processors instead of Intel chips, trade pundits and analysts had been expecting this move for long.

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Apple’s A-series chipsets already power iPhones and iPads. In fact, the Cupertino company has been developing its custom “System on Chip” for over a decade, when it first launched the A4 chip that powered the iPhone 4 and the first-generation iPad. Today, Apple-designed Silicon is found in iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, HomePods, Apple TVs, and even AirPods. So Apple knows how to design processors for a variety of devices.

This strategy makes Apple the only tech company to have an end-to-end control on the design, hardware and software as well as the supply chain of its devices that generate billions of dollars each year. But the Mac remains the only product under Apple’s portfolio that the company has partial control on. The reason: Intel processors.

Apple, Apple Silicon, ARM Macs, ARM MacBook, ARM-powered mac, Apple silicon ARM Macs, Apple November 10 event The next-generation Macs will be powered by ARM-based processors. (Image credit: Apple)

Exactly 15 years ago, Apple decided to switch from the PowerPC chips it had been using in Mac to Intel processors. Many hailed Apple’s decision to turn to Intel chips for its superior performance and power efficiency and the two companies together created some breakthrough products such as the MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro. But now Apple no longer needs Intel’s expertise to power the next-generation of laptops and desktops.

“Intel has been one of the important partners for Apple for the past decade and a half,” said Navkendar Singh, Research Director, IDC India. “Macs are the last standing product lineup not running on Apple’s own silicon, which has its disadvantages from Apple’s viewpoint of app developments, user experience, pricing (licensing cost of Intel), app ecosystem (running natively vs requiring an emulator etc). From these perspectives, it is an important migration for Apple and for Intel as well.”

The transition from Intel processors to Apple Silicon is a big deal for the entire PC industry and not just for Apple. For the first time, Apple will use ARM (Advanced RISC Machine), the CPU architecture that powers most modern smartphones in a mainstream laptop of the calibre of MacBook Air. Apple’s shift from X86, a micro-architecture created by Intel to ARM Macs is both exciting and challenging at the same time.

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The ARM transition would give Apple the tight integration of macOS and the silicon itself, thereby helping the company create the Macs that provide better performance and consume less power, resulting in a laptop that boots up in seconds just like smartphones and offers twice the battery life. Having an ARM-based Mac means, Apple can now add 5G connectivity and more security features to its MacBook lineup that were challenging before. But ARM chips are best suited for mobile devices, and no one exactly knows how an ARM-powered laptop would be comparable to an Intel-based MacBook Pro, which is designed to meet the needs of professionals and creators.

“We don’t know the details of Apple’s custom CPU yet, but generally one advantage of ARM over X86 is its low power consumption,” Kitagawa points out. Singh, on the other hand, believes that if the performance of the A-series chipset is to be taken under consideration, it can surely match “Intel in several critical aspects of computing and rendering high graphics.”

Apple has always claimed that its iPad Pro is faster than the majority of PCs. The support for Adobe Photoshop for iPad does put confidence on Apple’s vision of a new computing platform that is in the works for years. But a lot is riding on how developers see the Mac transition to ARM. The iPad Pro is not a traditional machine, but the MacBook Air is.

Apple, Apple Silicon, ARM Macs, ARM MacBook, ARM-powered mac, Apple silicon ARM Macs, Apple November 10 event Apple claims iPad Pro is “faster than 92 per cent of all portable PCs” available in the market. (Image credit: Apple)

The challenge, of course, is to spur developer interest and help them design new apps for ARM-powered Macs that will be coded to run natively. When Apple ships Macs with its own Silicon, macOS will also come with Rosetta 2, a new version of the emulator that translates code written for X86 to the new ARM instructions. Apple even promises that the new ARM-powered Macs will run every iPhone and iOS app natively.

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The transition won’t happen overnight. Apple says the transition to ARM-based Macs from the Intel-based Macs will take around two years. The company isn’t ready to ditch Intel entirely yet, as Apple has plans to launch new Intel-powered products in the near future.

Both Kitagawa and Singh believe Intel’s dominance in the PC market won’t be over any time soon. “While Intel has seen challenges in the past couple of years, with its TigerLake series just launched, Intel is trying to make up for the lost ground and it looks promising from initial reviews in terms of graphics, compute power and other new requirements coming in like battery life, portability etc,” Singh explained.

Apple’s transition from Intel to ARM chips might not hit the chipset giant financially but it could put a question mark on the progress the Santa Clara, California-based company made in improving processors. Lack of innovation and protecting its own market dominance has led to Intel losing Apple business. A once-dominant Intel, which designed the world’s first commercially available microprocessor in 1971, has fallen from its peak and is now unable to stand against AMD and ARM Holdings, a British chip design company.

Apple, Apple Silicon, ARM Macs, ARM MacBook, ARM-powered mac, Apple silicon ARM Macs, Apple November 10 event “Apple Silicon” will be more powerful and energy-efficient than Intel chips. (Image credit: Apple)

It’s not just Apple that will no longer be using Intel’s processors for its future Macs. Microsoft and other PC manufacturers are slowly moving away from Intel’s x86 architecture and trying their hands at making ARM-based Windows machines. For instance, the Surface Pro uses a Microsoft-branded SQ2 processor and not an Intel chipset. The high-end 2-in-1 runs Windows 10 on ARM, though the Windows ARM transition hasn’t been smooth.

The biggest takeaway from ARM-based Macs is not the end of Intel or Windows PCs. It’s all about the business model and that is the reason why Apple is putting its own silicon inside the next-generation of laptops and desktops. The move will bring Macs under Apple’s control and it expands the company’s ability to scale up the business. That means the Macs will be updated frequently just like Apple’s other products.

For Microsoft, Windows on ARM is not that advantageous as there is no ecosystem of ARM-based apps currently available. However, Microsoft wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity by not bringing its core apps on Apple’s ARM-based machines. At WWDC earlier this year, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, showed Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint running natively on the new platform.

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