Apple is officially ditching Intel processors in Macs for the company’s own silicon. The company announced the transition at its online-only WWDC; it will kick off by the end of 2020 with the arrival of the first Mac powered by Apple-built ARM processors.
“Now it’s time for a huge leap forward for the Mac,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said during the keynote.
For years, the company has developed its custom ARM chips for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Now Cupertino wants to apply the same technologies to the MacBook and Mac desktop systems, pointing to the gains in performance and power consumption.
“We will maximize performance and battery life better than ever before,” said Johny Srouji, Apple’s SVP for hardware technologies.
However, the company isn’t going to completely ditch Intel silicon, at least not yet. According to Cook, Apple still has some Intel-based Macs in the pipeline. That said, Apple’s CEO says the transition to the ARM silicon is expected to take two years.
Owners of current Macs also don’t necessarily need to worry. Apple plans to release new versions of macOS for Intel-based systems for “years to come,” Cook said, without elaborating.
No details, such as specs, for the upcoming Macs were announced during WWDC. But the new silicon will feature a host of different components, including processors devoted to machine-learning applications, video editing, and integrated graphics. Expect a family of custom chips specifically for the Mac line.
The other big advantage in switching to ARM is how all Apple products will run over the same computing architecture. As a result, Macs will be able to run iOS and iPadOS apps directly for the first time.
The big challenge facing the transition is getting existing macOS apps to run error-free over Apple’s custom silicon. However, the company is promising the overhaul will be smooth. For one, Apple has already created native versions of its existing apps to run on the custom silicon.
In addition, major third-party developers such as Microsoft and Adobe are already porting their popular applications to the new platform. During the keynote, Apple demoed native versions of Microsoft Office and Photoshop running smoothly on the new Macs.
To get other developers on board, Apple is releasing a development kit this week in the form of a Mac mini device. The kit itself runs an A12Z processor, which is found in the new iPad Pro, and offers some hints of the processing capabilities for the upcoming Mac chips.
Apple is also releasing a new version of Xcode to help developers port their apps to the new platform. “The vast majority of app developers can get their apps up and running in a matter of days,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP for software engineering.
But to address macOS apps, such as games, that can’t make the quick transition, Apple is releasing a program called Rosetta 2, which can enable consumers to translate the existing programs on new Mac systems. During the demo, Apple showed Rosetta 2 running Maya, the 3D animation software, along with the game Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
“With everything we’re doing, the range of apps that users will be able to run on these new Macs is truly unprecedented,” Federighi added.
Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP for software engineering (Image: Apple)
According to one analyst, Apple may end up choosing the 13-inch MacBook to be the first system to get the custom chip treatment.
The transition may be easier said than done. Microsoft has also tried to use ARM-based chips in its Surface products, but results have been mixed. Although the products have excelled at offering long battery life, they often struggle to run third-party applications due to the lack of software optimization.
“Microsoft’s experience with Windows is the blueprint for the potential and the pitfalls of introducing Arm chips to PCs,” says Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight. “The advantages of cost, flexibility and power consumption are clear. But the practical reality of recompiling apps as a stepping stone will take time. Apple can make Final Cut Pro and iWork run seamlessly, but guaranteeing that a myriad of plug-ins behave is another matter.”
Apple today, meanwhile, also showed off the next version of macOS, nicknamed Big Sur. New features includes a customizable start page, more powerful tabs, new translation options, and a new Privacy Report.