Apple’s First ARM-Powered Mac Could Launch in November
Ever since Apple announced it would move to its own custom ARM CPUs for laptops and desktops, there’ve been questions about what kind of platform we should expect and how the company will position its first entry into homegrown product design. There are now rumors that the firm will launch its first ARM-based Mac hardware next month rather than using the “Hi, Speed” event scheduled for tomorrow to do the job.
Originally, the Mac was tipped to arrive in November, so we don’t know if Apple will launch and ship the device quickly, or if it’ll launch in November but ship in December. With COVID-19 still screwing up shipment schedules across the world, it wouldn’t be surprising if the hardware slipped into early 2021, though Apple doesn’t typically launch hardware more than a few weeks before it starts shipping.
This latest rumor comes from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg, who believes the new systems will launch at another event next month. Separately, we’ve gotten some reports on what kind of hardware might be inside the next-generation Mac. It’s generally thought that Apple might re-introduce the chassis for the MacBook, as rumor suggests the upcoming machine has just one USB-C port. Leaked specifications on the machine are shown below:
12” Retina Display
15hr~20hr battery life
720p Facetime HD Camera
Single USB-C port
About 2 ponds
4th gen Butterfly Keyboard
$849~(For Students: $799~)
— Komiya (@KOMIYA45020228) August 29, 2020
The reappearance of the much-loathed butterfly keyboard is anything but positive, but maybe 4th time’s the charm as far as designing butterfly switches that don’t jam on a single grain of dust.
Comparative and Sustained Performance
One important caveat on Apple’s existing A-series chips is that while these CPUs offer great performance, they also boost to thermal limits that are unsustainable in mobile form factors. This will be significant for any consideration of Apple’s ARM silicon versus an Intel x86 chip — how does performance compare as the device heats up, and what does sustained performance look like compared with x86 chips?
Keep in mind that while Apple’s A14 is a six-core, the chip is actually a brace of high-performance cores with four high-efficiency cores behind it. The assumed upscaled configuration would be four high-performance cores and eight high-efficiency cores, though it’s also possible that Apple will use a different mixture of cores in the higher-end SoC.
There are a lot of moving parts that will play into how x86 and ARM compare against each other in this market, including how effective the system is at taking advantage of the two different core types simultaneously versus the more-homogenous distribution of CPU cores in a Windows PC. Given that we know Intel is planning to add little cores to its own chips and that AMD has its own interests in the segment, it seems safe to conclude the market, as a whole, is moving in this direction.
If these rumors regarding positioning are true, I don’t expect Apple’s first ARM hardware to be an x86 killer in some absolute sense. What I expect, rather, is that it’ll offer far better battery life than any other current Apple product paired with good, possibly even very good, performance for its price point. The alternative idea — that Apple would build an amazingly fast SoC and then chain it into a single-port MacBook at a bargain-basement price, forcing customers to choose between literally every other reason to buy a MacBook Pro and a fast CPU — makes no sense. Neither does the idea that Apple would draw out the replacement process by doing it piecemeal for no good reason.
Given that Apple has signaled that the x86 transition will take two years, we can assume the company will introduce at least some refreshed x86 products over the next 18 months. The implication here is that the ARM-powered Mac will appear in markets where long battery life is likely to be most appealing, similar to how Microsoft has attempted to position ARM-powered Windows devices. As Apple’s absolute performance and SoC scaling both improve, the company will introduce new ARM-based devices to replace its Intel hardware, dropping these chips into market when it knows it can ship a better — or at least equivalently good — solution to an existing x86 chip. If Apple thought it could shift its entire market with a single, unified launch, the company would likely do it.
We may see this lower-end launch in 2020, followed by MacBook and iMac refreshes in 2021, with an iMac Pro / Mac Pro refresh cycle in 2022. Each wave of refreshes would introduce a new ARM option to a higher-tier market segment, while phasing x86 parts out simultaneously. Whether Apple would build an x86 MacBook Pro and an ARM MacBook or just swap the entire mobile product line at once is open to speculation.
Either way, this is going to be one of the most interesting CPU launches in decades. Intel’s Tiger Lake is a significant boost to overall CPU efficiency, and we expect great things from AMD’s Zen 3 architecture. For now, I think we’ll see an emphasis on efficiency, which seems to be the angle Apple is playing up, but we’ll learn a great deal from the performance comparisons and hopefully come away with a better understanding of how each company’s products fare against the other.