ARMing Macs – From Intel to Apple’s own A-series chips: how long?

Since Apple started producing its own silicon for the iPhone, the A-series of ARM-based chips has gone from strength to strength. No better device to demonstrate the muscle of the Apple designed SoCs is the iPad Pro. It’s a very capable multitasker – great with media consumption and even pretty decent when it comes to media creation too. But is iOS and iPadOS limiting the series’ potential?

If Apple intends to put their own silicon at the heart of the Mac, it needs to be able to run all current software at the same or better performance than that which is offered on the current Intel platform. Apple has only just released the Mac Pro, a full on Intel-based Mac with up to 28 cores (56 threads) and is a beast (and possibly one of the best design PCs in existence according to several reviews I’ve seen – it’s so clean and manageable inside!). It seems they intend to release a 14″ 10th generation Intel based MacBook Pro at some point this year too.

Yet in the PC world, AMD has the Ryzen 3990X processor with a stupidly insane number of cores: 64 (128 threads) and is an overkill for all but the most intensive applications. For those that need the performance, I don’t think the ARM64 architecture has got to the point where it can compete in that space for a good number of years. Certainly, if Apple were to release a Mac in 2021 with an Apple designed SoC – even if it’s the standard MacBook (not the Pro) model – this means introducing tools to convert existing x86 code to ARM64 and vice versa. Nobody is ever going to run Logic Pro or Final Cut Pro on a simple MacBook, but how powerful does the Apple processor got to be in order to perform the code translation. Or how much work will the developer have to put in to create a universal binary that runs on both platforms? It’s Rosetta all over again.

Then there is the question of Windows. Intel Macs can run Windows natively via Boot Camp. Or via virtualisation within macOS. But if Apple starts moving to ARM processors, this obviously will break that feature – which is very useful for those that develop for both the macOS and Windows platforms.

Microsoft has done some legwork porting Windows to ARM. They’ve even released a Surface Pro laptop (the Surface Pro X) which runs Windows under ARM. But there are so many limitations with the platform which make adoption pretty terrible (and expensive) right now. Apple could potentially update Boot Camp for use with ARM Windows, but until the Windows on ARM platform is sufficiently mature – I don’t think it’s worth it. Even through x86 emulation, it’s not going to be good enough.

Then there are the Thunderbolt 3 ports on current Macs. Dongle city. Thunderbolt is very much an Intel thing, so Apple would still have to continue licensing it from them as well as perform extensive testing to ensure existing peripherals continue to work.

The important thing for me is that Apple doesn’t try to force an iPad-like experience on macOS. If macOS is going to go ARM, I want the macOS experience and to see the performance from applications around the same mark as the Core i9 and AMD Radeon Pro 5500M in my MacBook Pro (which has got to last me 4 -5 years before I can afford another major Apple purchase).

So at what point do you release an ARM-based Mac (if at all)? Difficult to say, but I’d say it’s 2021 would still be far too early. It’s not as though we’ve reached a plateau of power/performance which was certainly the case with the G4 and G5 processors. IBM pretty much forced Apple’s hand, because it just wasn’t possible to put a G5 processor into a laptop.

So maybe Apple should keep ARM to the mobile devices, and switch to AMD for its processors instead. They’ve leapfrogged Intel at an important milestone when it comes to die shrinkage – and, after all, they devised the whole x64 architecture anyway. And AMD must be pretty decent given that both Microsoft and Sony will be using their CPU and GPU technology in the PS5 and Xbox Series X. So any all-AMD Mac/MacBook Pro would be a decent all rounder.

It’s been argued that he x86 architecture is old and out of date – and it has been around for a very long time, this is true. But ultimately it’s allowed those of us with feet both in the Windows/PC world and Mac world the ability to co-operate with each other like never before and do stuff that just wasn’t possible back in the days when Macs where running 68000 or G4/G5 processors.