Intel’s iron grip on the computer market is over. AMD’s Ryzen and Threadripper chips are doing the trick for gamers and PC builders, and even Apple – an old ally since switching from IBM’s PowerPC platform in 2006 – is switching to its own ARM-based processors in the Mac.
Starting in the autumn, Apple is embarking on an ambitious project to replace processors across the Mac family with proprietary “system on a chip” – processor, graphics circuit, AI engine and much more backed up on a silicon wafer.
We users have a lot to gain from this. Intel has been lagging behind in development for many years, particularly in terms of manufacturing technology: Taiwanese firm TSMC now leads the way with its super-efficient 5nm technology. Mac users will be able to take advantage of TSMC’s power-efficient chips.
Many developers will also be happy. Finally, they don’t have to put so much effort into making a completely different version for Mac. They can simply release their iOS app on the Mac App Store, or reuse large parts of its code for the Mac version. This will cause many more iOS apps to be ported to the Mac.
But the biggest winner will be Apple.
No obvious gain for all users
For those who have a laptop and want decent power and the longest possible battery life, I think Apple’s processors will do tremendously well.
Intel’s processors are constantly hitting the heat ceiling, and the MacBook Air could just as well have got its name from how much it draws on the fan as from its lightweight chassis. If you’ve used an iPad Pro – based on proprietary Apple chips – you’ll have been struck by how well it manages to deal with heavy work tasks in apps such as iMovie and GarageBand while remaining completely silent.
Users of desktop Macs do not necessarily have as much to benefit. First, the processor is not always the most important component in such machine; the graphics card can be significantly more important, obviously in games but also in many professional programs.
Second, on the iMac, the Mac mini and most importantly the Mac Pro, Apple must not only beat Intel in terms of performance per watt but also in pure performance. Power efficiency isn’t everything. Customers won’t buy a Mac Pro that’s both slower and less versatile (for example, no way to run Windows), no matter how little power it draws.
Mac users who choose that platform because they prefer macOS but want a flexible, broadly usable computer that can do anything will have problems with the new Macs, at least initially. Although Rosetta 2 works incredibly well, there will be programs that simply do not work, and hardware whose drivers are never updated. Logic Pro X will be optimised, but what happens to the hundreds of plugins musicians and audio editors usually work with?
Much to prove
Apple didn’t reveal anything about how far the new family of processors for Macs has actually come, and what performance we can expect. The A12Z chip that sits in the computer Apple has started renting out to developers gives hints about what we can expect in the smallest, lightest portable models but doesn’t say much about what it will be like in a 27in iMac.
For several years AMD has had more efficient processors than Intel, with more cores, but it was only at the end of last year that the company managed to use these to achieve better real-world performance. To reach that point AMD had to abandon much of its efficiency focus.
When Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel, all Macs immediately became significantly faster. The first model of the MacBook Pro whipped the Power Mac G5 in almost all tests and was even faster in many applications when translated via Rosetta.
During the WWDC presentation, nothing was shown to prove that Macs with Apple Silicon will be faster than Intel machines with AMD graphics. Playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider in 1080p is not a direct test of power, and the extremely short demonstration of Maya doesn’t show much. What’s more, Maya is a program whose Mac version is already far worse than the Windows version that most 3D creators switched to long ago.
In short, Apple has a lot left to prove.
Long term: Macs get faster but more limited
In the medium term, Apple’s switch to its own processors seems to mainly benefit the company itself, and users with simpler needs who will immediately benefit from longer battery life and quieter computers.
Professional users are most likely to encounter various hassles and problems, although Apple promises that the Intel version of macOS will be updated and maintained for many years.
But in the long run, it’s almost guaranteed that the switch will lead to Macs that are faster than they had been with Intel – in the tasks they are good at. What a future Mac will be good at is up to Apple. A clear example of that is gaming.
Since Metal was released, developers have requested better compatibility with Vulkan and DirectX 12, to make it easier to port Windows and console games – but Apple has not listened so far. Whether or not the Macs of the future will run anything other than mobile games is entirely up to Apple, and many game-loving Mac users may be forced to buy a PC, even though a MacBook in theory has the power to run any game.
The Macs of the future may not be the practical, flexible “trucks” Steve Jobs envisioned, but rather specialist vehicles – the computer world’s ice cream vans and ambulances. Best at some things, impossible to use for others.
The risk is that, in the end, only developers, photographers, video editors and designers will use Macs. Which might seem ironic, since it was the designers who kept the Mac alive during the dark years of the 1990s.
Read more about the plan in our complete guide to Apple Silicon. You might also be interested to read about how Apple Silicon will compare to Intel here.
This article originally appeared on Macworld Sweden. Translation by David Price.