Apple ARM Macs: What you need to know now

Apple is moving ahead with its big processor switch – leaving Intel behind and bringing major changes to the company's hardware and software. Here's what that means.

apple stage logo wwdc20

Three weeks ago, Apple did what had been long expected: It announced that the company's partnership with Intel is ending. Macs, the oldest of its extant device lines, would join the rest of the Apple catalog and adopt "Apple Silicon," the firm's designed-in-house processors. Intel is out, ARM is in.

Calling the announcement "an historic day" and the transition "a game changer," CEO Tim Cook touted the move to ARM as "time for a huge leap forward for the Mac."

Nice words. But what exactly does the Intel-ARM swap mean? Computerworld's collected the most pressing questions about the technology switch, and the best answers now available.

"Every time we've done this the Mac has come out stronger and more capable," Cook asserted, referring to the trio of past processor substitutions.

Will Apple four-peat? We'll keep updating this as time passes and more information appears.

What did Apple actually announce at WWDC about the switch to new silicon? The Cupertino, Calif. company confirmed that it will, as talk has asserted for years, shift its Mac personal computers to processors and systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) it designs based on the ARM architecture.

"We're announcing our transition to Apple silicon," said Cook in a June 22 statement.

Just what does that mean? Rather than rely on Intel for the Mac's central processor, and Intel or AMD for the graphics processor, Apple will design a SoC that combines those components, and others, in a single integrated circuit, or chip. Apple has used its own SoCs in the iPhone (iPhone 4) and iPad (first generation) since 2010.

The central processor in Apple's SoCs is based on ARM architecture, which Apple licenses. ARM-based processors have traditionally had lower power demands than Intel's.

Because Apple designs its SoCs, it can customize the hardware for the tasks it prioritizes and to match the strengths of its software.

Okay. But why is Apple doing this? Apple has always valued tight integration between its hardware and software, even the services that have grown out of the first two. The company has also striven for autarky so that it, not a third party, controls its future.

On those levels, the move to ARM was predestined, such, anyway, that years' worth of talk about Mac dumping Intel made enough sense that they never vanished.

More pragmatically, the SoCs should boost Mac performance while – for the company's laptops – also reducing power consumption, extending the time between charges.

And by taking ARM to Mac, Apple consolidates its product lines under that umbrella, letting Macs run software originally designed for iPhone and iPad.

When will this start Before year's end.

Apple said it planned to ship the first Mac with ARM-based SoCs "by the end of the year." The company did not name a date or specify which Mac line – Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, and so on – would be the debut candidate.

How long will the transition from Intel take altogether? "About two years," Apple said.

Really? Keep your skeptical hat on.

The last processor transition, from PowerPC to Intel, took less time than Apple initially pledged. (That was not a huge surprise, as then-CEO Steve Jobs was a big believer in the benefits of under-promising and over-delivering.)

Jobs announced the move to Intel at 2005's WWDC, in June of that year. At the time, Apple declared "plans to deliver models of its Macintosh computers using Intel microprocessors by this time next year, and to transition all of its Macs to using Intel microprocessors by the end of 2007."

In the end, Apple trimmed a year from the two-and-a-half-year planned transition, launching the first Intel-based Mac in January 2006 (six months earlier than promised) and completing the shift by the end of 2006 (12 months prior to previous estimates).

What about operating system support? You'll have it before the first ARM Mac hits an Apple store.

macOS 11, aka "Big Sur," natively supports the new Apple silicon, the company said at WWDC. Big Sur, which developers have had in preview form for weeks, is slated to release this fall. (September or October have been the launch months for the last seven years.)

apple macos bigsur wwdc20 Apple

Big Sur, of course, runs on the current Intel-based Macs, as will several successive refreshes of macOS, even as it powers the new Macs powered by Apple's own SoCs.

Speaking of "successive refreshes," how long will macOS support Intel Macs and the x64 software designed for those systems? "Apple will continue to support and release new versions of macOS for Intel-based Macs for years to come," the firm said.

Just how long "years to come" will be remains unclear.

In the last transition – from PowerPC to Intel – OS X 10.4, better known as "Tiger," was the first to support Intel. Tiger debuted in April 2005, just months before Jobs' announcement of the processor swap. (Tiger was the current OS for 30 months, until October 2007, and so through the entire hardware transition.)

The end of support for PowerPC and its applications took place over several consecutive editions of OS X. Here's how it went:

  • OS X 10.5, "Leopard," is released in October 2007, replacing Tiger. Leopard is the final edition to support the PowerPC architecture; it is the last that will run on a Mac equipped with a PowerPC microprocessor.
  • OS X 10.6, or "Snow Leopard," is released in late August 2009. It is the first Intel-only Mac operating system. More importantly, it is the last that runs applications written for the PowerPC processor. Unlike Tiger and Leopard, which also include Rosetta – the dynamic binary translator that allows PowerPC code to run on an Intel Mac – Snow Leopard does not install Rosetta by default. Users must explicitly select the Rosetta option during the upgrade process or manually install Rosetta later.
  • OS X 10.7, aka "Lion," is released in July 2011. Lion does not include Rosetta. Support for PowerPC thus ends with the introduction of this edition and the transition to Intel is complete.

The PowerPC-to-Intel changeover lasted approximately five and a half years from the introduction of the first Intel Mac to the launch of the first OS X that would not run PowerPC software. If Apple follows that same timetable – and ships its first ARM Mac in, say, November or December – customers can expect to run designed-for-Intel software until June 2026.

Will users be able to run software they have now – programs written for Intel Macs – on the new machines powered by ARM-based SoCs? Yes.

Just as it did 15 years ago when it provided Rosetta to Mac users so they could continue to run their then-current software – the programs written for the PowerPC processor – on new Intel Macs, Apple will provide a run-Intel-on-Apple-designed-ARM utility.

Dubbed "Rosetta 2," Apple described it as "translation technology" – the same portrayal as in 2005 of the original – and said "users will be able to run existing Mac apps that have not yet been updated, including those with plug-ins."

Will those made-for-Intel programs run as well on the new Macs as they have on Intel-based Macs? Depends.

Apple admitted that some might not be spritely. "The translation process takes time, so users might perceive that translated apps launch or run more slowly at times," Apple said in a Rosetta support document.

Fifteen years ago, Apple developers issued "universal binaries," executable files that provided versions for both PowerPC and Intel. Will Apple reprise this? Yes. The new "Universal 2" executables will do the same for this transition.

"Using Universal 2 application binaries, developers will be able to easily create a single app that taps into the native power and performance of the new Macs with Apple silicon, while still supporting Intel-based Macs," Apple said.

apple arm dev kit Apple

If Apple won't release its first ARM-based Mac until later this year, what are developers supposed to use to write software for the new machines? They'll use the Developer Transition Kit, or DTK.

As part of its Universal App Quick Start Program, Apple will sell the DTK to approved developers, charging them $500. The DTK is a modified Mac Mini powered by an Apple A12Z Bionic SoC, the same silicon that's inside the 2020 iPad Pro tablets; 16GB of RAM; and a 512GB solid-state drive.

Have we already seen the last new Intel-based Mac? No.

Apple said it had new (old) Macs in "the pipeline," although it gave no details, such as how many models or for how long during the transition to ARM it would continue to unveil Intel models. Nor did it say whether it would ship Intel Macs after completing the transition.

Releasing both Intel- and Apple-designed silicon at the same time, with some kind of overlap, would be a departure from the PowerPC-to-Intel model. Then, Apple delivered its final PowerPC-equipped device in October 2005 (the Power Mac G5), and its first Intel machines in January 2006 (17-in. and 20-in. iMac Core Duos).

There were no PowerPC Macs released once those iMacs appeared in early 2006.

While it might make sense for Apple to debut one or more new Intel-based Macs between last month's announcement and an end-of-year appearance of the first ARM Mac – just as the company did in 2005, between Jobs' June reveal of the Intel plan and the first Intel-based computers six months later – to offer both ARM and Intel simultaneously would be courting user confusion.

Don't discount a two-pronged approach, though. Enterprises, for one part of the market, may want to continue on the Intel path for at least another three- or four-year hardware replacement cycle, deciding that it would be smarter to stick with existing workflows rather than adopt new technology that might disrupt operations or reduce productivity because of slower-than-expected Rosetta 2 results.

Which Mac will Apple equip with its own SoC first? Apple isn't saying.

In 2006, the first Mac with Intel inside (although there was never a sticker stating "Intel Inside" on a Mac, as there was on countless Windows PCs) was the iMac, sold in two screen sizes. Not surprisingly, desktop Macs – and the iMac was the cornerstone of desktop sales – accounted for the majority of sales at the time.

According to Apple, it sold 687,000 desktop Macs in the June quarter of 2005, which ended shortly after Jobs announced the switch to Intel. Desktop Macs represented approximately 58% of the quarter's 1.2 million units sold.

apple arm iphone apps Apple

Apple showed an ARM-based Mac running iPhone apps at its WWDC 2020 keynote on June 22.

A year later, notebooks comprised 60% of all Macs sold in the June quarter, a position the form factor has never relinquished. (Apple no longer discloses Mac unit sales, much less breaks them down by notebook versus desktop.)

It would be smart, then, for Apple to unveil a laptop as the first ARM-based model. Computerworld sees advantages for both the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. If Apple is to select one, Computerworld puts its money on the Air, in large part because its customers demand less performance from the form factor. From there, Apple could flesh out the ARM line to encompass the MacBook Pro, which pledges power, then the iMac desktop and the niche Mac Mini. As in 2006, it's likely that the Mac Pro will be the last to receive an ARM makeover.

We rely on, among other things, Microsoft Office. Will that be available in a native version for the ARM Macs? Almost certainly.

During WWDC, Craig Federighi, senior vice president of Software Engineering, said that "Microsoft is hard at work on Office for the Mac," during a segment in which he referred to ARM-native applications. He did not provide a release timeline or pledge that Office would be available alongside the debut Apple Silicon Macs.

Expect the native applications to be available only through an Office 365 or Microsoft 365 subscription. The "perpetual" edition – paid for once but lacking a constant stream of feature and functionality updates – of Office for the Mac, now Office 2019, should run on an ARM Mac after a Rosetta 2 translation.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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