Apple must show its iPhone chip sibling is powerful enough for a Mac

But don't expect a Mac Pro powered by Apple's own Arm-family chips anytime soon.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Apple's Arm-based Macs will be able to run software for iPads and iPhones, including the game Monument Valley.

Apple's Arm-based Macs will be able to run software for iPads and iPhones, including the game Monument Valley.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple is taking a risk giving Mac computers a brain transplant, swapping out Intel chips for processors of its own design. Apple's processors are part of the Arm family -- the kind used in iPhones and iPads -- that have delivered lackluster speed on Windows PCs.

But Apple has a chance to give that reputation a speed boost. With the A series chips, iPhones have trounced Android phones in performance, according to the Geekbench speed test, and already the iPhone 12 surpasses Intel-based MacBook laptops in some tests. The new Mac Arm chips give Apple the opportunity to pack in more circuitry backed up with a bigger battery.

We won't know how fast the chips are until the expected "Apple silicon" Mac announcement on Tuesday. Performance will be crucial to the Mac chip transition, influencing whether Mac buyers embrace the new models enthusiastically, sit things out for a while or even buy a Windows machine powered by Intel's new Tiger Lake chips. With the coronavirus pandemic triggering a PC sales surge, it's prime time for Apple to try to lure as many customers as possible.

Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart expects two or maybe three Apple silicon varieties for different types of Macs -- thin laptops, more powerful laptops and plugged-in desktops. "Over time Apple will put its own silicon in all of its Macs, but the Mac Pro will likely be last to fully switch away from Intel," he said.

Apple declined to comment for this story. At its June WWDC announcement, the company said it'll continue to sell Intel-based Macs for about two years and maintain software support "for years to come."

Apple has real reasons to take on the chip switch challenge. The company can more tightly link its hardware and software, as it does with iPhones. It can customize its chips with features like more AI processing circuitry to stand out from Intel-based PCs. It can cut component costs.

There's also Apple's desire to "own and control" the main technologies in its products, a principle known as the "Cook doctrine," for CEO Tim Cook.

In recent years, Macs have been yoked to Intel's fate as the chipmaker suffered years of difficulties modernizing its manufacturing. Apple silicon gives the company free rein to take the Mac family where it wants to go.

Starting small

Given the performance and power efficiency of current Apple silicon chips, like the iPhone 12's A14 Bionic, a likely Arm-based Mac category is a mainstream laptop that combines midrange performance with stellar battery life. That could replace today's Intel-powered MacBook Airs.

A more powerful MacBook Pro equivalent, with the horsepower needed by photographers, video editors, programmers, illustrators and musicians, would be a significant step away from iPhone and iPad processors. But it would let Apple cater to customers willing to pay a premium for performance.

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Apple is expected to offer a 13-inch MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro with the new chips, Bloomberg reported this week.

Although the Arm chips should be cheaper than Intel chips, Apple still will continue to charge a premium for its new Macs, Greengart said. "Apple already has a lower cost computing platform. It's called iPad," he said.

High-end iMacs and Mac Pro desktops are another matter altogether. Plugged into a wall socket, they can gobble as much power as a PC gaming rig. Apple would need beefy chips with lots of processor cores, high-speed cache memory and communication links.

Apple signaled that the new Macs will be ready for at least some heavy-duty work in June, demonstrating Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, Affinity Photo, Cinema 4D and its own Final Cut Pro on a prototype Apple silicon Mac.

Just don't expect Apple to go al -in on its own silicon just yet. 

The monster Mac?

Technically, there's nothing stopping Apple from making monster Macs with its own chips. The fastest supercomputer in the world right now uses Arm processors. Though current Arm-powered PCs aren't fast, that's because chipmaker Qualcomm's processors prioritized low power consumption and superlong battery life over high performance.

It's a business question, however, about how far and how fast Apple will go. Big processors cost a lot of money to make, and high-end machines sell in much smaller quantities. Apple pays Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) to make its chip designs.

It's relatively easy for Intel to tweak its high-end Xeon server processors for use in high-end PCs. For Apple, a big, beefy processor is much farther away from its sweet spot.

"I'm not questioning whether Apple can compete" in high-end PCs and workstations, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "I'm just questioning whether Apple is willing to invest a lot of money for high-end Apple Arm chips that can compete with Xeons."

Tricks of the transition

The move to Apple's own processors is the third such switch in Mac history. The first Macs used Motorola's 68000 family of chips. Apple switched in 1994 to PowerPC chips developed by an Apple-IBM-Motorola alliance, then to Intel chips in 2006.

Such transitions are difficult, requiring Apple to reengineer its Macs' electronics, rebuild its MacOS operating system and software like Safari, update developer tools other software makers need to support the new machines, and build emulation software to let old-style apps run on the new machines.

Apple's first transition was disastrous, Brookwood said, with Apple losing market share as developers struggled to bring their software to PowerPC machines. For the transition to Intel, Apple had its own developer tools, and the transition was fast. Brookwood expects a similarly smooth change to Apple silicon.

Apple has offered developer systems for months to give developers a head start before the actual Arm-based Macs start shipping. There's an added incentive to support the new Macs this time: iPhone developers will be able to bring their iOS apps to MacOS.

If Apple offers powerful Arm-based Macs, that'll be another incentive for developers to move swiftly -- and Apple customers, too.