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Apple Moving from Intel to Arm Processors in Their Computers

By: Justin Kresse

On Tuesday, November 10, Apple hosted their “One More Thing” virtual event. During the presentation, they revealed their new M1 processor, which they designed themselves, along with three different computers – all using that same processor. This isn’t the first time Apple has had a big transition with their computer processors, and it’s definitely a welcome advancement.

Screenshot from Apply "One More Thing" event November 10, 2020

In January 2006, Apple announced their first computers using Intel processors instead of PowerPC processors. Now, more than 14 years later, the engineers at Apple have done it again. With the new M1 processor, Apple should be able to bring a major performance boost to their machines and increase the battery life of their mobile computers. This move is likely because of the lack of advancement at Intel lately.

Intel’s mobile processors have not been performing at the standards that Apple would like – partly because of the lack of efficiency. This means that the Intel processors were draining the batteries faster while not delivering great performance. With the M1 chip, Apple has attempted to create a much more efficient system.

The new processor has everything in one chip – the processor cores, the integrated graphics, the RAM, the thunderbolt controller and more. This means that it takes less energy and time for the different pieces to talk to each other and you get a smoother experience.

With Apple’s switch from Intel to Arm processors, they also get the advantage of more compatibility with the iPhone, iPad and possibly even the Apple Watch. All these mobile devices use Arm processors, which means that the apps that have been designed for IOS and iPad OS should be easy to port over to Mac OS Big Sur on the new Apple silicon computers.

Possibly one of the most important parts about this move is that Apple will now have full control over everything in their Macs. They already control the software and now they’ll also control the hardware going into the Mac. This means that the new Macs should be even more optimized. It also means that modifications to the hardware and software are going to be even more difficult. For instance, building a “hackintosh” – a traditional PC computer (likely using an Intel processor) that you install Mac OS on illegally – could become impossible once Apple only supports their own processors in the newest version of Mac OS.

Looking at the three Mac models that Apple just released – the Mac Mini, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro – we can see that Apple is less focused on the performance of each machine and more interested in the form factor. All three computers have the same M1 processor (though the base-model MacBook Air only has 7 GPU cores instead of 8). The only difference is the chassis they are put in.

The MacBook Air has gotten a big boost in performance and it doesn’t even need a fan (a pretty big achievement since many MacBooks have had thermal problems with the Intel processors recently). The MacBook pro is very similar, though it has a slightly larger form factor and includes a fan to give it a little bit of a boost in performance. The Mac Mini is obviously a desktop computer, which means the efficiency of M1 is less helpful, but it still packs a punch – especially at a quite reasonable (for Apple) $699 starting price.

However, these new Apple silicon computers are not perfect, and you may want to wait a generation or two if you are considering upgrading to one of them. They only have two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports on the left side – a minor inconvenience, but I would hope that Apple figures out how to include more than one Thunderbolt controller in their next processor.

There are also, of course, concerns with the compatibility of software. Apple did talk about Rosetta 2 and how it will allow users to run apps made for Intel-based Macs on Apple silicon, but they likely won’t be as efficient as they could be if run natively. Adobe isn’t even ready with Apple-silicon-ready versions of Lightroom and Photoshop. Other apps, especially older ones, might never get ported over to Apple silicon. So, if you’re considering ordering one of the new Macs, take a look at your App library before hitting the “checkout” button.

Overall, the new Apple computers using the M1 chip should be very interesting. I’m excited to see what this could mean for future Apple computers, but I know that I’ll be sticking with my trusty Intel Mac for at least a couple more years.

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