There’s a certain sense to recent rumors that Apple may trade the Intel chips in its Macs for the company’s own processors. Apple is, after all, the poster child of a company that wants to control its own destiny: It makes its own hardware and software, and is a proponent of the “walled garden” ecosystem exemplified by its iTunes Store and App Store. Even more recently, Apple has taken deeper control of its processor design; the iPhone 5’s A6 chip uses Apple’s own custom ARM-based design, rather than taking a standard ARM core and just dropping it in, as the company has with past iOS devices.
However, it’s one thing to design a CPU that’s different but software compatible with existing designs, and another thing to drop in a completely different core. Apple has done that with the Mac twice in the past, once, when it migrated from Motorola’s 68000-based chips to the PowerPC architecture it co-designed with IBM and Motorola, and again when it transitioned from PowerPC to Intel. It wasn’t a painless process in either case, but in both cases Apple had a key advantage: It included emulation technology that allowed the newer CPUs to run old Mac binaries (most of them, anyway). In the latter case, especially, the Intel CPUs were considerably faster than the PowerPC processors, so running in emulation mode didn’t adversely affect performance too badly.
Moving from Intel to ARM is a different proposition, for two key reasons: First, current ARM performance really doesn’t compare with what Intel’s processors offer when it comes to the kind of performance expected from MacBooks and iMacs. Secondly, the currently shipping ARM-based products are 32-bit. ARM announced the ARMv8 64-bit architecture at the ARM Tech Conference on October 30th, but products based on ARM’s 64-bit core are unlikely to hit the market until sometime in 2014.
Intel isn’t sitting still
Meanwhile, Intel’s not resting on its laurels. Next year, the company will ship its new Haswell CPU in mid-2013. Haswell will offer somewhat better processor performance than the Ivy Bridge CPUs used in the current MacBook and iMac lines. However, Intel expects graphics performance for the integrated Intel graphics to double compared to the existing Ivy Bridge graphics. Given that Apple thought Ivy Bridge was good enough to build its new 13-inch MacBook with Retina Display using the chip’s integrated graphics, having even more performance will likely be an attractive proposition for Apple going forward.
Beyond Haswell, Intel will be building a new CPU, code-named Skylake, on its upcoming 14nm manufacturing process, which should substantially shrink the CPU die and reduce power consumption even more significantly. Intel is betting on its processor technology to help it reduce power consumption, and Haswell itself has major tweaks for power management; at idle, it will use less power than any recent mainstream Intel CPU.
Still, Apple is nothing if not unpredictable. If we assume for a moment that Apple is really relentless about completely controlling its hardware chain, the company has more than one way to make that happen.
It could move to ARM by the time the 64-bit core hits the streets; that’s certainly feasible. But if so, it probably won’t happen in the next generation of MacBooks or iMacs. Apple could also design its own 64-bit ARM core for Mac. As mentioned above, the company already did something similar with the A6 used in the iPhone 5. Finally, Apple could always let the Mac product line slowly wither away.
This last item seems more likely. Apple could continue with Intel as long as the Mac line is alive. Meanwhile, it could gradually scale up its iPads to be more powerful and more flexible. Once they’re powerful enough for the kind of pro graphics applications that run on desktop Macs, then the writing could be on the wall.
Or, Apple could keep shipping Intel-based Macs that are on the higher end of the performance spectrum, while also building a low-cost, ARM-based laptop that relies on iCloud for most of its services and storage, much the way Google is trying to do with Chromebooks. That way, it could test the waters for ARM-based Macs, and if unsuccessful, quietly move away from them.
But don’t expect any of this soon. Next year’s iMacs and MacBooks will almost certainly sport Intel CPUs. In the end, Apple still needs to ship products that serve its users’ needs, so replacing all of its desktops and laptops with systems running on ARM CPUs is unlikely in the short term. Beyond that, is anyone’s guess—well, anyone who doesn’t work at Apple, at least.
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Loyd Case first started writing about PC technology for Computer Gaming World, giving him a creative outlet for his obsession about PC performance. The PC industry -- and Loyd -- have never been quite the same since.