Apple Silicon (ARM): Processors, Performance and More
News • Updated on Nov. 15, 2020
Are you looking forward to the launch of the new Apple Silicon (ARM) processors, or are you a bit anxious about what it might mean for your Intel Mac when the changeover happens?
We’re going to take a look at ARM-based Macs – what they are, what benefits they may bring, and what possible problems may arise. We’re also going to look at whether it’s worth waiting to buy a silicon Mac, what will happen with your Intel Mac after the switch, and whether your current apps will work on the new silicon Macs.
There’s no confirmed launch date for the new ARM Macs yet, but Apple may launch Silicon iMac as early as the first half of 2021. As there’s not much of 2020 left, then we can safely assume that it will happen in the next few months. Apple plans to switch all new Macs to Apple Silicon, which will take about two years to complete.
What’s inside Apple Silicon processors?
Apple Silicon is a new processor series made by Apple. ARM-based A-series chips are already used in iPhone and iPad devices, so it’s not a completely new technology for them. The CPU will be called the A12Z (but production Macs will probably be powered by the A14X), and Apple is also adding a custom-built GPU with high-performance DRAM to the mix which should support serious gaming and content creation.
Rumor has it that the first Apple Silicon processor will have 12 cores, of which eight are performance cores, and four are energy-efficient cores. There’s also going to be technology for image processing from cameras, audio processing, machine learning with a neural engine, and much more.
What performance and benefits will Silicon Macs bring?
Apple claims that the new Apple Silicon Macs will be more powerful than the Intel ones, although some experts feel that ARM-based processors aren’t generally as powerful as the x86 Intel CPU’s that were used in older Macs. However, some encouraging Apple Silicon Mac performance benchmarks on Geekbench have appeared as the new Macs are speed tested, and it seems they already run as fast as some Windows devices.
Apple has already shipped some Developer Transition Kit Macs to developers, and these machines are Mac minis with 16GB RAM and featuring Apple’s Silicon A12Z processors. This is the same chip that runs the iPad Pro, and the data suggests that these field-tested Apple Silicon Macs give some great average scores. These were 811 points (single-core) and 2871 (multi-core), which compares favorably in contrast to the 726/2831 scores that Microsoft’s Surface Pro X reached. That’s a promising start for the ARM-based Macs considering they are running a version of a two-year-old chip, and Apple intends to migrate their silicon to 5- and eventually 3- nanometer process designs.
So the hardware looks promising, but what about software performance? The tests are being run in emulation mode, and Apple’s Big Sur is already running on the ARM Macs, but Big Sur will run better, and so will applications as they are re-written to run natively on the new ARM chips.
Apple also promises that the new processors will feature an always-on processor, advanced power management, high-performance storage, and unified memory. ARM chips do offer better battery life and portability, so Apple Silicon is a great match for the likes of MacBook Air, and the 12-inch Mac Book ARM is said to have a battery life of between 15-20 hours, which beats the Intel MacBook Air with its 11 hours of battery life.
Because ARM chips are already used in Apple iOS devices, using them in Macs will also offer greater integration between the two Apple systems, with apps designed for iPhone and iPad able to run natively on Apple Silicon.
The new Apple Silicon chips will possibly also make Macs a bit cheaper to buy. This is by no means a sure thing, but because Apple will make the Silicon chips in-house instead of outsourcing to Intel, their production costs will be lower and they may pass on some of those savings to the consumer.
Are there any potential problems with the new ARM Macs?
There are those who think that the new ARM Macs will run into problems sooner or later, like Brianna Wu, the CEO of the indie game studio Giant Spacekat. Speaking to Henry T. Casey in June 2020 in his article ‘4 big problems Apple’s ARM-Based Macs will need to solve‘ she said ‘Converting applications … from Windows to macOS, that takes time, but it’s a feasible translation. If you’re asking people to refactor all of that application using Apple’s tools natively, refactor all of that code in Swift [Apple’s coding language], that’s a much much much bigger ask.”
Things are already tough enough as they are, she said, “If I’m trying to develop games using Unreal Engine, there is a fork of that for macOS but it runs drastically worse than on Windows. It’s to the point where most people don’t use it. ”
Wu also says there will be fewer AAA games coming to macOS, like Final Fantasy XIV and Tomb Raider. This is because it would be a big undertaking to translate massive games like these from x86 to ARM, and studios aren’t willing to take the risk. “Look at the adoption of Metal in macOS,” she continued, “Ask yourself how many native games and applications for Windows are ported over to Metal. And the truth is, it’s not as large a number as we would like. So I think this would further disincentivize people from working on applications for the Mac.”
Having said that, if you’re not into serious gaming then that won’t be an issue for you. Whenever a new technology is launched, there will always be bugs and issues to be resolved, so it won’t be surprising if the new Apple Silicon Macs have their share of teething problems.
If you want your Mac to run Windows then you might be disappointed. Boot Camp will not be available on Apple Silicon Macs, and any existing virtualization solutions won’t support running Intel Windows. There are currently no plans to create an ARM-based version of Windows for Macs, so if you prefer Windows on your Mac then brace yourself – it’s not going to happen with the ARM Macs.
Buying a new Mac: should you wait for ARM Macs to be released?
Well, that all depends on how badly you need a new Mac! If you need one now, then go ahead and buy an Intel Mac, as Apple has stated that they will still support them. If you really want to run Windows on your Mac, then buy a current Intel Mac because the ARM-based ones won’t support Windows.
There’s also the factor of the unknown to consider. First-generation tech is often rough around the edges and there are bugs and glitches galore. Sometimes it’s better to either wait until the initial problems have been solved or buy one of Apple’s existing Macs that are proven performers.
At the end of the day, if you can wait to see how things work out with the new machines then it would make sense to put off buying one until you know how they perform. However, Apple says that it’s going to take two years to transition the entire Mac lineup to Apple Silicon, so it depends how long you are willing to wait for a new Mac!
What is Apple Silicon M1 chip?
With the latest surprise from Apple, you can now check out the new MacBook Air laptop with Apple’s first Mac-focused Apple Silicon chip, the Apple M1.
The Apple M1 chip works with 4 high-performance cores, each of which is what Apple described as the “world’s fastest.” The 5nm M1 system-on-a-chip (SoC) features an 8-core CPU, which the company claims delivers the best performance-per-watt of any processor on the market, and up to 8 GPU cores. Those CPUs cores are divided up into four high-performance and four efficiency cores.
According to Apple, the former deliver industry-leading performance in single-threaded workloads, while all four performance cores can work together for a boost in multi-threaded performance.
Does ARM mean that my Intel Mac will become obsolete soon?
Those with Intel Macs are understandably worried that the new ARM-based Macs will supersede them, leaving them high and dry with an obsolete Mac. That’s not going to happen, according to Apple. They are committed to supporting Intel-based Macs into the future, they will still send out software updates, and they currently have new Mac models in production that have Intel processors.
What about my apps? Will I lose my old favorites?
Apple expects developers to start building native apps for the new Apple Silicon Macs immediately, but you will still be able to run your old Intel apps that haven’t been updated yet on the ARM Macs because of Rosetta 2 – a translation process that runs in the background and has been tested by Apple with excellent results.
This is good news for those who have their favorite apps on the current Intel machines – especially suites of apps like Setapp, which contains over 190 productivity, lifestyle, programming, and creative apps from different software developers in one suite. Without the Rosetta 2 translation engine, getting all the app developers on the same page at the same time with Apple Silicon compatible software would have been difficult.
As it stands, all the apps in Setapp and other suites will work perfectly on the new Silicon Macs, either because the developers will update them, or because Rosetta 2 works its translation magic – there won’t be a problem. Your old apps will also work perfectly on the Intel Macs for as long as they are around, so it’s a win-win situation here.
Hopefully, we’ve managed to answer your questions regarding the new ARM-based Macs and put any fears of your old Macs becoming obsolete overnight to rest. You can also expect to use your current favorite apps on Silicon Macs in the future, so with luck, the transition from Intel to Apple Silicon processors will be seamless.