Macs Switching from Intel Chips to Apple Silicon—Answers to Your Questions

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, the company dropped a bombshell: in the future, Macs will no longer be powered by Intel chips but will instead rely on custom-designed Apple chips. As surprising as this is, the company has made such massive transitions twice before: first in 1994 with the move from Motorola’s 68000 chips to IBM’s PowerPC platform, and again in 2006 with the jump to processors from Intel. Here are the answers to the main questions I’ve been hearing.

Just give me the short version. What’s going on?

Apple is changing the “CPU” or central processing unit from Intel, which it has used for about 15 years, to a chip they created themselves. This chip is not new. iPhones and iPads have always used it so Apple knows this chip inside-and-out. But because it does use a different computer language, software developers are encouraged to convert their software to the new language for future compatibility and better speed. On the surface, nothing is changing. This is all under the hood.

What about apps that don’t get converted? Fortunately, for several years Apple will maintain translation software that allows the vast majority of unconverted apps to run on the new chips. This translation is completely transparent and unless you dig into the technical details you might never even know that this translation is happening.

Will I notice anything different? Apple switched chips from IBM to Intel about fifteen years ago, and except for some fringe cases, that was a pretty seamless transition. I think this time around it will go even more smoothly because people depend more on internet services these days rather than software. So no, most people won’t notice anything different except that their new computers might be better.

So why do I care? The vast majority of computer users probably won’t. Except that this will allow future Macs to run faster, quieter, use less energy, and it will allow you to run iPhone apps. The people who are talking about it right now are mostly excited about the technical details or concerned about fringe cases. Most of us just want a computer that completes the task at hand, and couldn’t care less how it gets there. This is why Apple has never carried an “Intel Inside” sticker or made a big deal about what is behind all the aluminum and glass. They believe technology should be transparent. Remember, all of this was announced at Apple’s developer conference, so it really isn’t intended for the general public.

Okay, on to the more technical questions

What is “Apple silicon”?

For many years now, Apple has created its own chips to power the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV. These chips, the A series, are based on a platform called ARM, though Apple took pains to avoid saying that during the keynote. Of all Apple’s products, only the Mac uses processors from Intel.

Apple said it would be creating chips specifically to power Macs, although they’ll be part of the same chip family used in iOS devices. That makes sense since macOS and iOS share a great deal of code under the hood.

Why is Apple making this transition?

There are four main reasons:

  • Performance: With its ARM-based A series of chips, Apple has achieved high levels of performance per watt. When chips run faster, they consume a lot more power, which cuts into battery life and produces a lot of heat. By creating its own chips, Apple can tweak the designs to the sweet spot of performance and power consumption for any given Mac—laptops trade processing power for longer battery life, whereas desktops have fewer tradeoffs. Plus, Apple can build special technologies, like advanced power management and high-performance video processing, into its chips to enhance those capabilities in macOS.
  • Profit: Apple didn’t mention this in the keynote, but it’s a big deal. Intel processors have high profit margins, and Apple would prefer to keep that money instead of paying it to Intel. Apple could possibly translate that to lower-cost computers or computers that are supported for longer.
  • Control: Tim Cook has famously said, “We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make.” With Apple making its own chips, its product roadmaps are within its control, rather than being subject to Intel’s schedule, capabilities, and whims. This makes sense because the central processor is at the very core of what makes a computer a computer. This is a major reason why we see iPhones released every 12 months like clockwork, but Mac releases are extremely unpredictable.
  • Security: Rumor has it the deciding factor that pushed Apple over the edge was several huge security bugs that affected Intel chips, and now Intel is no longer making new security patches for some rather recent processors. This leaves many recent model Macs unable to be fully secured, even when running the latest system software. Bringing the processor design in-house gives Apple full control of the security, potentially allowing Apple to support their computers with software updates for even longer.

When will the first Macs with Apple silicon appear?

Apple said that we’d see the first Mac with Apple silicon by the end of 2020. If past performance is any indication, expect it in December.

The company did not say what type of Mac it would be, although the Developer Transition Kit hardware that developers can rent from Apple is a Mac mini with the same A12Z chip that runs the latest iPad Pro models. Other likely possibilities include the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and iMac.

Is it better to wait for Macs with Apple silicon or buy Intel-based Macs while I can?

There are two schools of thought here. Some recommend buying the first models that appear after a major chip change because Macs with the previous chips may have a shorter effective lifespan once the transition is complete. Others prefer to buy the last models with the earlier chips under the assumption that the first new Macs might have unanticipated problems.

For the longest lifespan, wait for new Macs with Apple silicon. But if you’re worried that the first models out will have teething pains, invest in the last Intel-based Macs, just be aware that those models might have support dropped earlier than you’d like.

But if you need to buy a Mac now you need to buy a Mac now. There is no sense in struggling with a computer that doesn’t meet your needs when you could be waiting two to three years before the model you want is available.

How long will Apple keep selling Intel-based Macs?

The company said that it anticipates releasing new Intel-based Macs for roughly 2 years and that it has some exciting new models in the pipeline. My guess is that this refers to some upcoming Intel iMac Pro and Mac Pro models (not to be confused with MacBook Pro), as these have some very high-end processing requirements and it might take Apple some time to scale up the power on these chips.

How long will Apple continue to support Intel-based Macs?

Apple didn’t commit to a specific length of time but said it would be releasing new software and supporting Intel-based Macs “for years to come.” In the previous processor transition from PowerPC to Intel, Apple maintained the Rosetta translation environment for over 5 years.

In other words, if you buy an Intel-based Mac today, it should have an effective lifespan of at least 3–5 years. Businesses often refresh their Macs on such a cycle, so that’s not unreasonable. Home users often push their computers to 5 to 10 years, so they may be left behind sooner. However, they may also be less bothered with running outdated software for a bit.

Will my existing software run on a Mac with Apple silicon?

Almost certainly yes! Apple announced Rosetta 2, which will ship with macOS before Macs with Apple silicon appear. Rosetta 2 automatically translates existing Intel-based apps and can even dynamically translate apps with just-in-time code. If that all sounds like mumbo-jumbo, don’t worry—Apple said that Rosetta 2 will be completely transparent to the user.

There are some exceptions, though. Rosetta 2 will probably work only with 64-bit apps that work in 10.15 Catalina. Old 32-bit apps that don’t run in Catalina are unlikely to be supported, nor will low-level software like kernel extensions. Plus, with translated software, performance is always a question.

So basically, with a few exceptions, most software that runs on macOS Catalina today will run just fine on new Apple processors.

Will I have to upgrade my apps for Macs with Apple silicon?

Although existing apps should still run, thanks to Rosetta 2, developers will be recompiling their apps to take advantage of all the capabilities of Apple silicon, so where upgrades are available, you’ll generally want to take advantage of them. Native apps running on Apple silicon should enjoy better performance.

Will I still be able to run Windows software in Boot Camp or a virtualization app?

Maybe. Apple talked about virtualization on Macs with Apple silicon and even showed off Parallels Desktop running Linux (versions of which run on ARM chips) but said nothing about Windows.

There are some ARM-based PCs, including Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, that come with Windows 10 for ARM. So our guess is that Boot Camp is history, but you’ll be able to run Windows 10 for ARM in Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion. That may be sufficient if your needs are mainstream, but Windows 10 for ARM has a long list of restrictions. If you still need access to Windows it might be time to consider an actual PC.

Are there any other advantages to Macs with Apple silicon?

Indeed! Apple said that Macs with Apple silicon would be able to run all iPhone and iPad apps. During the keynote, the company demoed a few such apps running in their own windows on a Mac with Apple silicon. Whether this is game-changing depends on your needs, but given the millions of apps for the iPhone and iPad, it could be compelling.

There are also exciting rumors that Apple could also allow you to connect an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard to an iPhone, allowing you to have a single pocket computer that runs both mobile and desktop OSes. This would be attractive for those people who just need a basic computer on occasion. Apple filed a crazy patent that makes sense now, showing a laptop computer shell where you drop a phone into the trackpad slot. Or, this is me with a crazy idea, what if the new Apple glasses could allow you to run a desktop OS on your iPhone without the need for a traditional computer? Apple has often said that if you don’t cannibalize your own products, someone else will.

Is this transition a good move?

Although there will undoubtedly be some bumps along the way, I think it is. Macs with Apple silicon should be faster and have better battery life than comparable Macs with Intel-based chips. It’s possible that Apple will lower prices too, given the savings from not buying expensive chips from Intel. Or maybe Apple’s savings will translate into longer support. And while the capability to run iPhone and iPad apps won’t float everyone’s boat, it could be useful for many.

Further help

If you are an existing customer who needs help with this or if you have other questions, or if you are in San Francisco and interested in becoming a client I invite you to book an appointment with me. Otherwise, you may wish to contact Apple Support or find a local Apple consultant.

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(Featured image by Apple)