By Chand Bellur
February 24, 2020 at 1:33 p.m. PDT
- Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo indicates that Apple will launch an ARM-based Mac next year.
- By designing the processor in-house, software and hardware can be tightly integrated.
- The iPhone, iPad and iPod touch all use ARM-based processors, designed by Apple.
Next Year’s Mac May Use ARM Processor
Apple is one of the largest corporations on the planet. Their sheer size provides a competitive advantage over others. They can use economies of scale strategies to save production costs and increase profit margins.
Today’s Macintosh computers use Intel processors, but this wasn’t always the case. Prior to Intel, the Mac featured IBM’s PowerPC processor. The Mac has never had a fixed architecture. Instead, it evolves based on market conditions and technological advancements.
Ming-Chi Kuo, one of the most respected and accurate Apple analysts, believes that Apple will launch a new line of Macs with ARM processors. These are the same processors that power iOS devices, such as the iPhone and iPad. It remains unclear whether Apple will use the same processors across all devices, or develop a special A-series chip for the Mac.
Apple’s current A13 processor is speedy, but is still not as fast as a 6 core Intel processor. Rumors abound that Apple’s A14 processor will be based on a 5 nm process. This would provide greater performance without sacrificing energy efficiency.
If this is true, it’s possible that the A14 processor or its successor may power a future Mac. Such a processor would be an ideal replacement for Apple’s discontinued, ultra compact MacBook, which used Intel’s Core M mobile processor.
What is an ARM Processor?
ARM stands for Advanced RISC Machine. The embedded acronym, RISC, equates to “reduced instruction set computing. Essentially, an ARM processor is a stripped down, simplified central processing unit.
First developed by British firm Acorn, ARM processors were fixtures in 1980s BBC computer models. A partnership with Apple, VLSI and Acorn led to the creation of a new chip design firm —ARM Ltd. This company designed the processor for Apple’s infamous Newton PDA.
The Newton was a flop and Apple went though hard times as businesses and consumers flocked to inexpensive MS DOS based computers. Microsoft Windows, which borrowed heavily from the original 1984 Macintosh, eventually became the de facto standard for computing, leaving the Mac to a cadre of dedicated users — graphic designers and musicians.
When Steve Jobs rejoined Apple, the Mac was reborn with the popular, all-in-one iMac. The machine used IBM’s PowerPC RISC processor. Soon after the dawn of the new millennium, Apple began work on the iPhone, which required a powerful, yet efficient processor. The processor team turned to ARM, which accounts for only part of the A-series chip’s technology stack.
Apple continues to develop cutting edge A-series processors using ARM technology. It’s almost puzzling that the company has yet to produce their own processors for the Macintosh.
Switching to ARM Benefits Apple and Customers
The most obvious benefit of creating processors is control. Currently, Apple must wait for Intel to create a new series of processors. They are informed of specifications along with their competitors. This creates a lag between when a processor debuts and when Apple can utilize it. If Apple developed their own processors, they could save time and provide even tighter integration between silicon and software.
ARM based processors use far less energy than Intel’s i-series chips. This is why ARM is so widely used in mobile devices. An ARM-equipped Macintosh would be much more efficient, smaller and thermostable than current models. Much like an iPad or iPhone, it wouldn’t require a cooling fan.
Cost is another huge consideration. Intel is a public company that needs to turn a profit. There’s a markup on Intel processors. If Apple switched from Intel to their own A-Series processors, they would only have to pay cost, without an additional profit margin. Furthermore, if these processors can be used across all devices, Apple would realize an even greater economies of scale advantage.
Assuming that a 5 nm process will produce A-Series chips with comparable performance to Intel processors, the main disadvantage is increased software development costs. Apple must overhaul macOS, at its lowest levels, to use the new technology.
The software challenges should be easily overcome by Apple. Both iOS and macOS are based on the Darwin kernel. Apple would need to alter the version that runs on A-Series processors to support the Mac’s needs. Although this is more difficult than it sounds, it’s not impossible. In fact, macOS already supports iOS apps and this crossover is continuing. If anything, it supports the notion that the Mac may soon run on A-Series chips.