Apple has announced the biggest change heading to its Mac computers in 14 years: the dumping of Intel Inside.
The company is ditching Intel’s traditional so-called x86 desktop chips for Apple’s own processors based on ARM designs – those used in smartphones and mobile tablets, including the iPhone and iPad.
At the firm’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), held virtually for the first time due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the US, Apple said the first silicon-based Mac would ship by the end of 2020, with the full transition taking two years, giving developers forewarning of the modifications they will have to make to their apps.
The shift to Apple’s own ARM-based chips gives the firm even greater control over the its hardware and software, in the same way it has with the iPhone and iPad. But for users it promises very powerful machines that are drastically more efficient, meaning longer battery life, with the same instant-on features as a phone and potential for built-in mobile broadband.
Apple said switching to its own chips not only opened up performance but also new, innovative technologies such as the AI neural engine, high-performance graphics and best-in-class security.
The new macOS Big Sur also revamps almost all of the user interface of the Mac with new translucent effects, depth and colour. New is a unified space for both notifications and widgets, which now resemble those of the new iOS 14. Apple has also brought Control Centre from the iPhone to the Mac for quick settings changes, such as brightness, Bluetooth and wifi.
The dock, too, now floats at the bottom of the screen, similar to that seen on the iPad in iPadOS 13, while the Messages app now operates like an iPhone with pinned messages and mentions. The Maps app has also been revamped using the iPad app as the base.
Safari has also been sped up, now up to 50% faster than Google’s Chrome browser, but also has new privacy-protecting features, such as the ability to see how a site is tracking you from a button on the address bar. Apple has also added built-in translation, better tab management and a redesigned start page.
Apple is not the first to attempt the switch to the vastly more power-efficient ARM chips. Microsoft has dabbled several times with ARM chips in its Surface Windows PCs, most recently with the Surface Pro X, which has a custom-designed chip made by Microsoft with mobile chip-maker Qualcomm.
Despite making both hardware and software, Microsoft has struggled to bring key third-party software such as photo-editing suites to its ARM-based PCs. Here is where Apple may have the edge, with both greater control over third-party developers and previous experience in making such a dramatic switch.
Apple said it had already ported all its apps to the new ARM-based chips, including its heavy, professional apps such as the video-editing suite Final Cut Pro. The company also said that both Microsoft and Adobe were working on getting their apps ready for the switch, demonstrating Photoshop among others.
Apple is pushing a new Universal 2 format that allows developers to produce one app that runs on both existing Intel Macs and new ARM Macs.
But the firm said it also has new emulation technology called Rosetta 2 to make sure that existing apps that haven’t been updated will run on the new Apple ARM-chips from the beginning. The new Macs will also be able to run iPhone and iPad apps natively, downloaded straight from the Mac App Store.
In 2006, Apple switched its Mac computers and software from PowerPC chips to Intel’s x86 platform. It announced the change at WWDC in June 2005 before rolling out the first Intel Mac in January 2006. Apple completed the switch in its full Mac line-up by the end of 2006, but continued to support both PowerPC and Intel machines for several years with emulation layers helping PowerPC software run on faster Intel chips.
The move will not be welcomed by Intel, which has enjoyed a near monopoly on the PC processor market. The firm tried and failed to break into the smartphone market with lower-power chips, but could not effectively compete with ARM-based designs.
“Apple has made enormous investments in Arm chip design and it’s logical that it extends that capability beyond the iPhone and iPad,” said Geoff Blaber of analysts CCS Insight. “Its motivations for doing so include reducing its dependence on Intel, maximising its silicon investment, boosting performance, and giving itself more flexibility and agility when it comes to future products.”
Now that Microsoft and Apple are switching to their own chips, and with Google also rumoured to be working on similar own-brand ARM chips, Intel is in danger of seeing significant erosion of its dominant position.