Why Apple will switch to ARM-based Apple A-series-powered Macs

“Somewhere on Apple’s campus, ARM-based Macs are already running OS X,” Matt Richmond blogs.

“In September of 2013, the world’s preeminent independent processor expert compared Apple’s latest iPhone chip with Intel’s fastest tablet chip and concluded that the two perform similarly — even though the Intel chip draws more power, contains four cores versus the A7’s two, and is produced with a more advanced manufacturing technique,” Richmond writes. “If Apple’s chip design team can create a phone processor that performs on par with Intel’s fastest tablet chip, the company’s ‘highest priority,’ then there’s no reason to believe that the same team at Apple can’t design chips powerful enough for any Mac in the company’s lineup.”

“Apple wouldn’t have been able to create Touch ID if the iPhone were powered by an Intel chip instead of an Apple-designed one. There wouldn’t have been a “secure enclave” on the iPhone’s processor to store the fingerprint data, nor would there have been perfect hardware-software integration. Apple was able to implement Touch ID because it designed the A7 chip in tandem with the iPhone 5S’s software and the rest of its hardware,” Richmond writes. “I’d bet that there are features Apple envisions for the Mac that simply can’t be built while Intel designs the chips inside of them.”

Much more in the full article -recommended – here.

Related articles:
Why Apple won’t dump Intel x86 for its own ARM chips in MacBooks and the Mac Pro – August 5, 2014
Intel-powered Macs: The end is nigh – August 4, 2014
Intel’s Broadwell chips further delayed; not shipping for most Macs until early-mid 2015 – July 9, 2014
Apple will inevitably drop Intel for their own A-series processors in the Mac – June 26, 2014
How long before Apple dumps Intel from MacBook Air? – June 26, 2013

73 Comments

  1. I don’t see Apple changing Macs to A chips anytime soon. The problem lies more with the necessary computing power for its iMac and Mac Pro models. Apple is now getting major CAD software for OS X that was not available for years, and then it’s going to throw in a processor switch for them? Sorry, but that’s a good way to get some of these firms to drop the Mac again.

    In addition, moving to A chips for Macs isn’t simple. Not only does OS X have to be rewritten/compiled for the new instructions sets, all applications have to be rewritten as well. Sure, Apple could have a Rosetta-like layer to ease the transition, but in the end software has to be rewritten.

    And for what? What major advances would A chips bring to Macs that aren’t already present in Intel chips or which are road mapped to be added? Plus, people don’t upgrade Macs every 1-2 years, it’s more like 4-5, so a transition could take quite a long time.

    No, Apple is better off concentrating its resources on keeping the A chips as fast, iOS-specific mobile chips and let Intel be the OS X chips.

    1. Why would adding mid-range ARM Macs to the line up cause any problems for Intel iMac/Pro models?

      The market for ARM Macs would be a huge new market for Apple, not a replacement for higher end Intel Macs.

      1. Because the software would have to run on both platforms. That is just as workable as supporting both Windows 8.1 and Windows RT on the same computer. If Apple ever switches, it will be across the entire Mac line like the previous times.

        The transitions to PowerPC and Intel worked because the new processors were so fast that they could emulate the existing midrange Macs. The A-series is still light years away from that.

        iOS and OSX share origins, but they do different things. The A7 just has to support one foreground program and a few background processes that are optimized to steal as few processor cycles as possible. My wife currently has 15 programs running on her iMac with over 200 open windows.

        If you tried that on an A7 or anything likely to evolve from it within a few years , the performance would be unacceptable even with native code, much less for Intel stuff run in emulation.

        1. You are absolutely right that emulating Intel on ARM would not be acceptable. Which is why when Apple introduces ARM chips they won’t cancel all their Intel Macs.

          Most people will be happy with the ARM once its ready, but Apple isn’t going to try and out compete Intel on the high end from the get go. They don’t need to, the mass market doesn’t need that kind of speed.

          It will be smooth transition for everyone, except for Intel and Microsoft’s profit margins which will crater as the mid-market gets scooped up by Apple.

    2. “but in the end software has to be rewritten”

      If Apple does their job well, you could just open your old project in the latest Xcode, recompile to the new processor, then you’re ready for testing. It could end up that very little code has to be rewritten, especially if performance is good.

  2. To start, I want to say I’ve never been a big fan of this idea. But that doesn’t mean that such a move is impossible. And most of the objections (including all I can thing of) can be overcome.

    First, the vast majority of software is completely processor agnostic. I can recompile software for ARM, Intel, PPC, and a dozen other processors with very little work using LLVM. Some software, such as Photoshop, has in the past been optimized for specific processors. A small amount of critical code has to be customized for the processor for best performance while the bulk of the code remains common across platforms/processors.

    However, today such software optimizes not for the CPU but for the GPU. Enter Apple’s recently announced Metal — a low level layer between the programmer and the GPU. Making optimization to Metal rather than a specific GPU very attractive.

    Second, device drivers and the underlying OS is where most CPU specific modifications must be made. We’ve been told since the first iPhone that iOS and OS X share a common code base. That tells us that much of the work to get OS X working on ARM has been done. This part of the transition is totally on Apple. If I’m making an app for the Mac App Store, once Apple does it’s work, a simple recompile will make it ARM compatible.

    Third, virtual machines. The transition from 68k (CISC) to PPC (RISC) worked because of the great performance advantages of PPC. By contrast, the first Intel Macs were slower than the PPC machines they were replacing. It worked because of JIT (Just in Time) translating in Rosetta, which allowed PPC code to work at near full speed on Intel.

    Those were software solutions. But we’re not talking about Apple using off the shelf parts that it must force into compatibility. For the first time, we’re talking about Apple designing its own hardware. Imagine a desktop chip from Apple with 4 or 6 ARM cores AND 1 or 2 Intel i64 compatible cores. During the Intel transition, Intel code (including the OS) would run on Intel and PPC code ran under Rosetta. A transition with a hybrid chip, ARM code would run on the ARM cores, Intel code would run on the Intel core(s). Only highly parallel Intel software would suffer in such a situation.

    Again, I don’t see it happening soon. But the closer I look at it, I see the foundations being laid. And the more I look into it, the more is seem not only possible, but probable — eventually (i.e. when Apple is good and ready).

    1. This. Intel has been using RISC cores with a CISC decoder for x86 chips since the Pentium 4. Which is the same thing Apple could do with an ARM chip if they wanted to. If it makes sense spec wise and money wise, they will do it, otherwise they won’t. The “problem” everyone is arguing about was solved almost twenty years ago.

  3. The move is possible, it’s simply not happening. It doesn’t make sense. btw, Apple’s going deeper with Intel (around integrated graphics) not further away.

    1. Remember, Apple is using Intel’s integrated graphics because they HAVE to. Intel made a change awhile back that means you can’t use their processor without their graphics. So, got a system with limited space and want to have decent graphics power from AMD or Nvidia? Since you’re forced to have Intel’s graphic chip, you either
      A) try to shoehorn in two graphics chips into a tight space.
      B) just use Intel’s graphics chp.
      There is no option for
      C) use Intel’s CPU and a good performance low tier graphics chip from another company.

      I’m sure that Apple (and other vendors as well) wish on the low end they had a choice other than Intel integrated.

      In addition, this also means that for power machines, if you just want one Powerful chip… You still have to leave space for Intel’s integrated graphics…

  4. I’d love for Macs to incorporate a complementary A-series chip so that iOS app could run natively alongside OS X apps in the same environment while giving both a boost in performance. That would be mind-blowing!

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