How the Mac Will Switch From Intel to Apple’s Own ARM Chips

A visual of Apple siliconApple

Mac passes another huge CPU switch. By the end of 2020, Apple will launch Macs that include “Apple Silicon,” just like iPads and iPhones. Here’s what the end of Intel processors means for the future of the Mac.

The new macOS 11.0 Big Sur, expected in fall 2020, will be the first version of macOS that supports this new architecture.

Why Apple Passes and What It Means To You

A graph showing the performance of Macs with Apple silicon compared to their energy consumption.Apple

Apple insists that this switch “will give the Mac a whole new level of performance.” Apple silicon, found in devices such as the iPad and iPhone, offers much better performance by amount of energy used than an Intel processor.

Intel processors require more power and generate more heat. In a device like a MacBook, this means that performance is limited by battery power and the need to keep internal components cool.

Apple’s own SoC (systems on a chip), which it calls “Apple Silicon”, are technically ARM processors. ARM is only an architecture: Apple designs and manufactures its own processors. With Intel, Apple is entirely at the mercy of another company to develop and manufacture the CPUs of its Macs. With ARM, Apple is able to design and create its own custom silicon. Apple has been doing this for years, and now this expertise is coming to the Mac.

Make no mistake: Apple is not going to insert an iPhone or iPad processor into the Mac. Apple only makes chips for the Mac, and they should be even more powerful than the silicon inside the iPad Pro. Apple has a big lead over its competitors here –Microsoft makes ARM laptops running Windows 10, but Microsoft does not design its own custom CPU ARM for Windows PCs.

Ultimately, the new architecture means improved battery life, reduced power consumption, and that Apple can control its own destiny and design the internal components of the Mac to be tightly integrated with its software. Apple says the new architecture will allow it to “maximize performance and battery life better than ever.”

IPhone and iPad applications on Mac

Various iPhone and iPad applications running on a Mac with Apple Silicon.Apple

By switching to the same chip architecture that powers the iPhone and the iPad, Apple gains compatibility with the iPhone and iPad applications.

You can open the App Store on a Mac with ARM and install any iPhone or iPad application you like. This application will run in a window on your Mac desktop. The developer has nothing special to do.

It’s like how Google Chromebooks can run Android apps.

Developers can easily port their Mac apps

Apple

Existing Mac applications are not left behind. Apple approaches compatibility in two ways: by making it easier for developers to port their applications to the new architecture, and by letting Mac users run applications that have not yet been ported.

Developers will be able to open their existing Intel Mac applications in Xcode and recompile them for ARM. Apple said most developers should only take a few days for their apps to run on ARM.

All Apple applications included with macOS 11.0 Big Sur will work natively on Apple’s own architecture. Other companies are also working on porting their applications – Apple has also introduced Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop CC running natively on ARM. Developers can create universal binaries that run on both Intel and ARM Mac systems.

Developers can hire a “Developer Transition KitApple to start porting their apps.

You can run Intel Mac Apps with Rosetta 2

An Apple slide showing the different features of Rosetta 2.Apple

But what about applications that are not worn? Apple has announced Rosetta 2 for this use case. Rosetta 2 is a compatibility layer that translates existing Intel applications into ARM, allowing you to run the same applications on your new ARM Mac as you can run on your old Intel Mac.

Translation occurs when you install the application, if possible. If the application uses code just in time, Rosetta 2 can also translate the code on the fly.

Apple has introduced a Tomb Raider game running with excellent performance under Rosetta 2. It seems much faster than Microsoft’s compatibility layer in Windows 10 on ARM, which is known for its poor performance.

In other words, Mac applications that have not been ported will “just work.” You will still get the best performance with apps that run natively on ARM, of course.

A Tomb Raider game using Rosetta 2 on a Mac.Apple

Full hardware virtualization support

Mac ARMs also offer full support for hardware virtualization. Apple demonstrated how to run Parallels virtual machines on a new ARM Mac, allowing developers to run Linux as they would on an Intel Mac.

What happens to Mac Intel?

A slide showing the different features of Apple Silicon.A slide showing the many hardware features included in Apple Silicon. Apple

Apple says you can buy a Mac with an ARM processor by the end of 2020.

But the abandonment of Intel does not happen overnight. Apple says it will be a two-year transition, and new Macs with Intel processors are already in Apple’s production pipeline.

Your existing Mac with an Intel processor will still be supported. Apple says it will continue to support Intel Macs with macOS updates for years to come.

At some point, Apple will likely stop supporting Intel Macs, just as it stopped supporting PowerPC Macs after the transition to Intel. But this point is in many years.

RELATED: Deja Vu: a brief history of each Mac CPU architecture

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