WWDC 2020: Apple Drops Intel Chips In Favour Of ARM

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Apple chief executive Tim Cook at WWDC 2020. Image credit: Apple

Apple shifts to its own custom silicon for the Mac, bringing it into line with iPhone and iPad and promising major boost to performance and power-efficiency

Apple has officially confirmed it plans to move its Mac computers to ARM-based chips, a shift that will allow the systems to run native iOS apps.

The migration is Apple’s biggest since it moved the Mac from PowerPC to Intel processors in 2006 – with another major shift being the introduction of Unix-based Mac OS X in 2001.

Apple said it plans to introduce the first ARM-based Macs by the end of the year and that it expects the transition to take two years.

The move means that apps created for the iPhone or iPad will run natively on Macs.  Most apps “will just work”, Apple said.

Photoshop shown running on custom Apple silicon. Image credit: Apple
Photoshop shown running on custom Apple silicon. Image credit: Apple

Custom silicon

The company said it expects significant performance and power-savings gains with its own custom-designed silicon, which are to include Mac-specific features.

The use of ARM across Apple’s product range of iPads, iPhones, desktop and laptop Macs should also make it easier for developers to create apps that run across all devices.

The next version of macOS, Big Sur, is to include updated versions of Apple’s own pro apps, such as Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro, modified to run natively on ARM.

Apple said Microsoft is updating Office for ARM, with Word and Excel already running natively and PowerPoint using Apple’s Metal rendering technology.

Apple is also working with Adobe on updating its apps, and demonstrated Lightroom and Photoshop running smoothly on an ARM Mac.

The company’s Rosetta technology, which allowed PowerPC apps to run in a virtualised form on Intel Macs, is to make a reapparance in the form of Rosetta 2.

This is to automatically translate Intel apps to ARM at the time of installation, allowing them to work without modification, although not as well as native versions.

Transition

Apple said the new ARM Macs can run Linux under virtualisation.

At its World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple said it is making a developer “quick start” programme available including documentation, sample code and access to labs around the world.

Developers can take advantage of a Transition Kit that includes ARM-based hardware in a Mac Mini enclosure, along with desktop-level features such as 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.

“The vast majority of developers can get their apps up and running in a matter of days,” said Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi.

The new Big Sur OS is to include updates to Messages and Maps, amongst other improvements, the company said.

CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber said it was “logical” for Apple to extend the “enormous investments” it has already made into ARM chips to the Mac.

But he said shifting third-party software would be a “journey”.

Investment

“Apple can make Final Cut Pro and iWork run seamlessly, but guaranteeing that a myriad of plug-ins behave is another matter,” he commented.

Microsoft began releasing versions of Windows modified to run natively on ARM architectures in 2012 and continues to support Windows 10 on ARM as well as Intel chips.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X tablet-laptop hybrid, released in October of last year, features Windows 10 running on an custom ARM-based chip called SQ1 that the company developed with Qualcomm.

At the time of launch Microsoft claimed that due to ARM’s power-efficiency, the device offered three times the performance of a Macbook Air along with 13 hours of battery life.

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