ARM processors in Apple computers: why it matters and what will change

At the WWDC 2020 conference, Apple officially introduced its own processors for MacOS computers. According to Tim Cook, this is a “breakthrough” and a “largest” step forward, comparable to switching from PowerPC to Intel. We analyze why this is necessary and what consequences this decision may have.

What is known about Apple processors

The chip family so far exists only under the general name Apple Silicon – the company does not disclose the exact specifications and has not yet talked about which devices they will use.

Structurally, Apple’s desktop processors are similar to those used in the company’s smartphones and tablets.

Apple independently designs its processors, licensing the architecture and technology of the British company ARM Limited. The production is carried out by the Taiwanese TSMC.

Qualcomm, Mediatek, Samsung and Huawei work on the same principle – in fact, each of these companies creates their own processors from the “designer”, details for which are provided by ARM, and then they produce ready-made chips from TSMC and at their own factories (Samsung).

The current generation of Apple processors is produced using the 7-nm process technology, but it is known that TSMC is already preparing for the transition to an even more efficient 5-nm technology. In simple terms, the smaller the number in the name, the finer the transistor, and the higher the density of the elements can be achieved on the chip. And the smaller the crystal, the more efficiently it consumes energy and the less heat it produces.

Why is it important

Potentially, Apple could lead a revolution comparable to the release of the iPhone. The stagnant market for computer processors has not experienced anything like this for twenty years – if the ARM chips are accepted, then the positions of Intel and AMD in the consumer segment will seriously shake, and companies like Qualcomm, Huawei and Samsung will try to master a new niche.

This will lead to increased competition and a global change in the market landscape – laptops can turn from a “little brother” of desktop PCs to “tablets on steroids”, and the boundaries between desktop and mobile OS will begin to blur more and more.

ARM architecture is more modern, the energy efficiency of such processors is higher, and the heat dissipation is lower than that of x86 processors. Outside of the temperature limits of smartphones and tablets, SoCs on ARMs are relatively easy to scale.

For example, the most powerful supercomputer in the world Fugaku runs on ARM.

The clear difference between the AMD EPYC server and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 mobile ARM processor

The process of developing “classic” crystals for desktop PCs and laptops goes the other way. First, companies like Intel, AMD and NVIDIA create huge, hot, “gluttonous” but very powerful server chips, and then they begin to gradually simplify the layout and reduce functionality in order to “squeeze” the product into the temperature or price limits of consumer products. That is why the entry-level x86 chips in their current form are unlikely to compete with the “pumped” ARM solutions.

Intel, AMD and NVIDIA will be forced to accelerate the development of their mobile platforms, or will eventually be pushed into the Hi-End segment of gaming, professional and server solutions.

Is there enough power

To demonstrate the capabilities of the new chips, Apple used the Apple A12Z Bionic-based Devkit installed in the iPad Pro (2020). It is a 64-bit SoC (system-on-chip) with integrated graphics. Apple claims that this processor is more powerful than “most Windows laptops,” but it’s not specific.

Developers can already get a devkit with an A12Z Bionic chip in the Mac mini for $ 779 (53.5 thousand rubles), but then it will need to be returned to Apple.

As part of the presentation, the A12Z devkit quickly dealt with photo processing in Lightroom, editing in Final Cut, and even “pulled” the version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider for Mac OS via the built-in emulator (albeit not at maximum settings). For a mobile processor, this is an impressive result.

But you should not expect from the first systems on Apple chips “professional” performance. The stationary Mac Pro is still relatively young, so the first thing the company will be transferring “typewriters” to the new platform.

In addition, it is in this segment that the superiority over existing models will be most obvious. Even if you put the processor from the iPad Pro into the laptop without any changes, then (with proper optimization) this is more than enough for working with documents, communicating on social networks, processing photos and easy amateur editing. But at the same time, the battery life will be significantly higher, and the case is thinner and colder than that of devices on Intel.

At first, ARM processors will be able to compete with the top-end MacBook Pros and iMac Pros on the Core i7 and i9. The difference in performance level with Apple’s mobile chips is too big.

The hardest thing with the graphics subsystem. 8 A12Z video cores turned out to be powerful enough to run Tomb Raider at medium-low settings, but this is far from the level of Vega 8 built into Ryzen 4000 mobile phones or, moreover, a full-fledged discrete video card. Most likely, the release will increase performance, but it is unlikely that Apple, a beginner in this market, will be able to instantly catch up and overtake AMD, Intel and NVIDIA.

Microsoft’s bad experience – but Apple may succeed

The main problem with a Mac on an ARM processor is not performance, but optimization. Any program is written for a specific OS and is designed to work only on it. That is, when you “move” to a new hardware platform, compatibility with the software library for older devices will be lost.

At the end of 2019, Microsoft introduced the Surface X, the main competitor to the iPad Pro. A lightweight, compact tablet with high autonomy, a pen and a keyboard, which at the same time works on full-fledged Windows 10. And inside – a custom ARM-chip from Qualcomm.

On paper, the idea was great, but in fact, a device worth more than a thousand dollars turned out to be practically useless . Microsoft was not able to convince a sufficient number of developers to start porting programs, and as a result, most of the software either does not work at all, or is launched through the built-in emulator. Small adapted programs like the Microsoft 360 package work quickly and flawlessly, but in the same Adobe Lightroom emulation “eats” most of the productivity and even turns photo processing into torture.

Microsoft sells about 600 thousand Surface per quarter, this is negligible compared to market leaders. And the experimental Surface Pro X turned out to be a piece product. Supporting such a product is economically disadvantageous – most software developers work on a well-defined schedule, and will not urgently seek time, resources and employees to port a negligible percentage of users to their needs.

Apple annually sells over 20 million Macs . In 2018, Apple occupied a little less than 10% of the laptop market – a lot, given the high price and very limited lineup compared to Lenovo or HP.

In addition, the company managed to turn its products into a whole culture. So if someone is able to push through such an initiative, then only Apple.


Compatibility and Emulation

At WWDC 2020, Tim Cook noted that the company is serious about compatibility and optimization. All programs from Apple, Microsoft Office and the Adobe package now natively work on the A12Z on MacOS Big Sur.

For porting, it is enough to make minor changes and recompile the code in the Xcode program – according to the official version, this will take a few days. Apple also updated the Rosetta binary translator, which first appeared on MacOS X to mitigate the switch from Power PC to Intel.

MacOS Big Sur

For most MacBook consumers, the transition is likely to be painless and smooth, since all the most popular programs have already been successfully ported.

Other developers have at least another six months to figure out the technical documentation. The real difficulties are likely to be encountered only by advanced users who are used to relatively unpopular, highly specialized applications.

Apple separately emphasized that now most of the company’s devices will work on processors with the same architecture. This will introduce full compatibility at the software level.

On MacOS Big Sur, you can freely run any application from the App Store for iPhone and iPad.

Transition Timing and Intel Support

Apple has promised to introduce the first devices on its own processors before the end of 2020, and significantly expand the range in 2021. At the same time, Tim Cook said that Intel has also prepared several announcements for the company, so the transition will definitely not happen at one time.

Most likely, in the first wave, the company will introduce relatively inexpensive laptops like the 12-inch MacBook – an ultra-compact computer with great autonomy, but without an application for a professional level of performance.

Then, perhaps, an analogue of Mac mini on ARM processors will go on sale – the most affordable device on the new architecture, an “entrance ticket” to the Apple ecosystem.

Judging by the performance declared for the A12Z Bionic devkit, such “low-power” devices can turn out to be much more practical and powerful than the same MacBook 12s – thanks to a good integrated graphics core, they can easily deal with not only office chores and content consumption , but also with photo processing and easy editing in Final Cut.


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