The transition to Apple Silicon has been going on for a long time, and developers can finally customize their applications for ARM-based Macs. Apple supports developers and consumers with virtualization software and real-time translation of Intel-based applications. The company plans to support Intel Macs over the next few years, but it is clear that the future of Macs is in custom ARM chips.
Apple Silicon refers to all of the company’s specialized silicon, not a specific chipset or processor. Development allows companies to focus on productivity and vertical integration between platforms without having to optimize their software to work with other companies’ hardware.
Custom processors designed by Apple have helped iPhones and iPads for years, and now they will benefit the Mac as well.
With over 10 years of chip architecture experience gained through the development of A-Series processors, Apple paved the way for Apple Silicon for Mac with macOS Big Sur, Mac Catalyst, and many other developer platforms.
Apple Silicon Ecosystem
The first custom processors made by Apple were made on demand because Intel didn’t want to develop a chip for the iPhone. Thanks to this, Apple was able to create a processor for the iPhone and provide full vertical integration with the software.
The A-series chips continued to be the most powerful and efficient mobile chipsets, and even Qualcomm and Intel could not catch up. The Mac now has an M-series chip that goes beyond what was possible with Intel running on a Mac.
M1: the Mac custom processor
Apple has created a very powerful chipset for the iPhone and iPad, but it won’t be used on the new Mac. Macs and MacBooks use a special system-on-chip architecture called the M1. The first Macs to use the new chipset are the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini.
The M1 uses a 5nm architecture with 16 billion transistors, 4 high performance cores, 4 high performance cores, and 8 GPU cores. It runs faster on MacBook Air than 98% of consumer notebooks on the market.
Apple boasts a revolutionary machine learning M1 with the world’s fastest low-power silicon processor, the world’s best CPU performance per watt, the world’s fastest PC graphics and neural motors. However, the M1 offers 3.5x faster processor, 6x faster GPU, and 15x faster ML than previous Intel-powered Macs.
The GPU can execute nearly 25,000 threads concurrently with 2.6 teraflops of bandwidth. Apple says this makes it the fastest integrated GPU in consumer PCs. The webcam used in the new MacBook remains at 720p, but the ML and ISP improvements in the M1 improve the overall image.
Expected release dates
Renowned Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has reported on several occasions that Macs with Apple Silicon will be released in late 2020. The July report provides more details.
- First model could be a 13.3-inch MacBook Pro in 4Q20
- Multiple MacBook models expected in 4Q20
- MacBook Air in 4Q20 or 1Q21
- 14-inch MacBook Pro 2Q21 or 3Q21
- 16-inch MacBook Pro with new design 2Q21 or 3Q21
Since Apple announced the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro at the One More Thing in November 2020, this report has so far been confirmed to have missed the Mac mini update released even during the event.
iPhone and iPad
During WWDC 2020, Apple boasted that it had successfully installed 10 billion chips in its devices over the years, and wants to apply that experience to the Mac. They think they can find the best balance between power consumption and performance by providing chips that can be very efficient yet very powerful.
Over the past decade, custom chips have allowed Apple to increase CPU performance by 100x and GPU performance by 1,000x.
Apple has also developed new system architectures and technologies specifically to take advantage of SoCs, such as the Neural Engine for machine learning or the Secure Enclave for encryption. Combining these technologies with existing software implementations like Metal and Swift allows Apple to take advantage of specialized chipsets that are much better than Intel.
The Apple Silicon transition
Apple has provided a Developer Transition Kit that developers can order through the Universal Rapid Launcher. The DTK is a Mac mini powered by an A12Z with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage and you will need to rent it for $ 500 and return it to Apple later.
With this kit, developers can run applications directly on macOS and Apple Silicon. But hardware isn’t all that Apple has included to help with the process.
During WWDC, developers can attend virtual sessions or discuss issues with engineers in forums and in the Apple Developer app. Apple also provided documentation for Day 1 of Universal App Development and Testing.
All applications built for iOS or iPadOS also run natively on Apple Silicon Mac computers.
MacOS Big Sur has several apps to navigate. Apple announced three specific products: Universal 2, Rosetta 2, and Virtualization.
Universal 2 is a generic binary that runs on Intel and Apple Silicon based Macs. The same binary developer can create applications that run on both platforms.
Third-party developers like Microsoft and Adobe have already started building applications that will run on the new chipsets. The WWDC demo showed a new app that launches easily even when editing 4K video live.
Since Rosetta allowed PowerPC applications to run on Intel Macs, Rosetta 2 does the same to get Intel applications running on the new architecture.
Instead of the “JIT (Just In Time)” process that Rosetta originally used, Rosetta 2 does the heavy lifting of installation by transforming the code, thereby increasing the processing load. Code from third-party browsers that run in Java and other similar technologies still use JIT technology to work.
As shown at WWDC, Rosetta 2 is powerful enough to run some Intel-made games without major issues.
Virtualization software also runs on Apple Silicon Mac computers, but its scope is not fully known yet. Apple demonstrated the use of Linux through virtualization applications such as the Parallels desktop.
Users who require Windows on a Mac may be excluded from the transition because Apple didn’t mention the platform during the presentation or BootCamp.
Apple noted that other platforms like Docker also work with Apple Silicon and developers can make the most of their software.
Apple Silicon benchmarked
Apple’s A-series chips have been used in iPhones and iPads since the iPhone 4, and the latest generation has proven to be as powerful as Intel-powered consumer laptops. They are designed to be mobile first, battery life is a top priority, but they are of great quality.
Macs using Apple Silicon are designed with specific use cases in mind, but they will likely have a power supply connected to an active cooling solution to provide a more powerful processor.
Benchmarks for different system architectures do not reflect the performance of each, but provide a good indication of how well mobile ARM devices perform compared to aging Intel chips.