Macs are transitioning from Intel to Apple Silicon. Why? And why now?

Caio Andrade
Aug 30 · 8 min read

Are Intel-based Macs still worth buying?

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Apple announced at WWDC 2020 that it will make yet another big transition on the Mac: Away from Intel processors, welcoming Apple Silicon. A little more technical: Away from x86_64, welcoming ARM64. As an effusive user of Apple products, some friends and colleagues asked me some questions about this topic:

What do you think about this change? Is it for the better? What could be the impact on future Macs?

Is it still worth it to buy Macs with Intel processors? Is the price dropping? How long will Intel-based Macs be supported?

The short answers (TL;DR)

Yes, Intel-based Macs are still worth buying, because the prices aren’t likely to drop, and official support for x86_64 should range from 2025 to 2030.

The long answers

What does this represent for app developers?

Apps should share more code between platforms, given that they are going to be compiled to the same architecture across the board. Apple is already showing that a project’s inside Xcode is going to be organized differently: you shouldn’t think about an iPhone app anymore. You’re going to think about an “Apple Platform” app, and it’s going to have a face on the iPhone, another face on the iPad, and yet another on the Mac. The interface and interactions are going to be different, but a lot of business rules are going to be the same. All code in the same project in Xcode, in one repository.

This is going to increase the number of Mac apps in the long run, because converting and iPad or iPhone app to the Mac is a question of adapting the user interface, leaving the shared business rules practically unchanged.

The change from the hardware standpoint

Apple has the very strong culture of releasing technology only when it’s ready. Not before, because it wouldn’t have enough quality. Not after, because competition would have already come too close. And once the technology is ready, they launch it as quickly as possible throughout all product lines. This is easily proven by some recent launches:

Taptic Engine

True Tone

But with TouchID it was different

For TouchID to work securely, there were needed hardware changes to accommodate a Secure Enclave embedded in iPhone’s System-on-a-Chip (SoC). These chips aren’t used on the Mac, that sports only Intel processors. So Apple had to develop a new separate chip, called T1 (and then afterwards T2), to store a Secure Enclave directly on the motherboard, given that they couldn’t alter Intel chips.

This made the fingerprint authentication technology, that was production-ready in 2013 and mature in 2014, be incorporated on the Mac only in 2016. Intel has been hindering innovation on the Mac since at least those times.

FaceID is under the same drama

Right after, in 2018, iPads got FaceID. But for Macs, until today (2020), there’e no sign of the technology, because Intel chips don’t support anything like the Neural Engine. Also that’s probably why 2020 MacBooks still have jurassic 720p FaceTime cameras.

Good riddance… But why now?

Thunderbolt technology is a big competitive differentiator to professionals that work with big files, like audio, video and 3D modelling. Thunderbolt even created a niche in the peripherals business for storage units supporting the technology. For instance, a Thunderbolt 3 compatible device allows transfers up to 40Gbps in a single connection, or even support two 4K displays with a single cable, which is impressive. But it’s Intel’s proprietary technology.

No iPad or iPhone supports Thunderbolt, because Apple’s SoC isn’t compatible with it. In order for Apple to move the Mac to ARM without jeopardizing Pro users that had already purchased Thunderbolt-enabled peripherals, and are used to the high transfer speeds, Apple would have to implement Thunderbolt technology in their own chips, which isn’t really worth it because, apart from having to pay royalties, Intel hasn’t been able to establish Thunderbolt as a market standard.

This makes so much sense that in 2018 Intel stopped charging royalties on Thunderbolt, in a desperate attempt to increase technology adoption, and in 2019, after realizing that the situation was unsustainable, allowed the protocol to be added in the USB-4 open standard.

What a coincidence! Right after that, in 2020, Apple announces the transition to Apple Silicon, so that now they can take advantage of Thunderbolt’s performance by improving their SoC with support for an open standard, royalty-free, with the added side-effect of making sure professional peripheral makers have all the incentive to support it in their new products.

New possibilities

Beyond performance, controlling the SoC allows Apple to include high efficiency cores, that consume much less power, to handle more basic tasks, just like the ones already existent in iPhones and iPads. This new Mac could last a lot longer in a single charge when performing basic everyday tasks, but as soon as a heavier application requested more performance, it’s able to deliver just as quickly.

The same could be said about the integrated GPU, that in the iPad is already incredible. I would go as far as to say that dedicated graphic cards on the Macs are going to be reserved to the top-end configurations like iMac Pro and Mac Pro. Additionally, they can add Neural Engine in Mac’s SoC to make very complex tasks, like image and video editing using Machine Learning, be executed almost instantly, perhaps even in real time, just like some apps already do on the iPad.

Finally, it will be possible and viable to bring FaceID to the Mac, opening the way for new technologies, that are yet to be released, to roll out to the Mac at the same time as other product lines.

Mac prices aren’t going down

The appeal to upgrade won’t be because the older Macs don’t work well and are obsolete, but because the new Macs are that much better. And upgrades like this mean price hikes. It’s a similar movement to what they’ve made to iPhone X: they launched iPhone 8 at the same price point as the iPhone 7, and created a new premium price point for iPhone X.

Apple announced that they still have Intel-based Macs on their roadmap, and I bet those are going to stay at their current price points, so that the new Macs with Apple Silicon and new hardware and software features are going to create a new premium price point. Over time prices can go down, specially near the end of support for Intel Macs, so that Apple can drive those older Macs out of the market. But at start, I don’t think so.

How long will Intel-based Macs be officially supported?

Mac: PowerPC -> Intel (4 years)

iOS: ARM -> ARM64 (4 years)

Mac: x86 -> x86_64 (10 years)

The exact timing for Intel Macs official support is going to depend a lot on how well the new Macs are going to sell. Apple is basically forced to support Intel Macs while they are the majority on the market. History tells us that a minimum of 4 years can be expected, so support should be official until at least 2025. But the new Mac Pro released last year comes with an Intel chip and it seems to have been built to last a decade. Hence I think it’s more likely that the support window extends until approximately 2030, rounding up to 10 years, similar to the x86 to x86_64 transition.

Conclusion

Yes, Intel-based Macs are still worth buying, because the prices aren’t likely to drop, and official support for x86_64 should range from 2025 to 2030.

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