Later this year, Apple will start selling a new Mac computer. While Apple – like most technology firms – loves a bit of hyperbole, it’s absolutely going to be true to say that this will be a Mac like no Mac ever before.
That’s because amidst announcements around new versions of its iOS, iPadOS, WatchOS and macOS operating systems, Apple also announced that it’s going to stop using Intel x86-based processors for its Macs, and instead switch to “Apple Silicon”. The first Apple Silicon Mac will go on sale later this year, although it’s far from clear if it will be a desktop style unit – either an iMac or Mac Mini – or a new MacBook laptop device.
Intel’s processors have been powering Mac computers for the past 15 years, and the x86 architecture they use has been the bedrock for Windows for multiple decades now, although AMD also has presence there with its own x86 processors. So what’s “Apple Silicon”, and why is it different or worth switching to?
At one level, Apple Silicon is just a marketing term – remember how I said tech firms love a bit of hyperbole? More to the point, it’s using the same ARM-based architecture as Apple’s existing mobile devices such as every iPhone and iPad it’s ever made, including the recent iPad Pro as well as its Apple TV set-top-box.
ARM isn’t an unknown quantity on the Windows side of the fence either – the Galaxy Book S I reviewed here runs on a processor based on ARM – but Apple’s shift to ARM isn’t just about the usually claimed benefits in battery life specifically. It also allows Apple to fully design and implement its own ARM processors, rather than being stuck on the cadence of Intel’s development for its Core series x86 processor line. Apple loves having as much control over its processes as it can, and controlling the essential processor will give it a wider grip on the whole Apple ecosystem.
While Apple didn’t say much about new Apple Silicon hardware products, aside from making an Apple Silicon based Mac Mini available to developers so they can convert and develop new apps, it did detail what that means for folks owning current generation Intel-based Macs, or those planning to buy them.
The next version of macOS will finally make the jump from Mac OS X. That’s X as in the Roman numeral 10, and with the next version it’ll finally jump to version 11, a journey which has taken some 19 years. Strictly speaking, macOS 11 will more formally be known as macOS Big Sur.
Apple used to call its operating system after large felines, but switched a few years back to California landmarks, if you care. The key feature here for macOS Big Sur is that it will support both Intel x86 and Apple Silicon developed apps, as Apple shifts towards making its entire computer line Apple Silicon based.
What that means in practice is that any Intel-based Mac will still be able to run at least macOS Big Sur, and probably its replacement OS as well for their effective service life. According to what Apple execs said at WWDC, they plan to shift to only offering Apple Silicon based computers within the next two years, but that they will still offer and develop new Intel-based Macs in this period.
What about if you opt to jump to a new Apple Silicon machine? We still don’t know what they’ll cost or what forms they’ll take, although it seems likely Apple will at least at first offer spins on their existing MacBook and iMac lines, because plenty of people like them as they are.
Apple Silicon based Macs will be able to use emulation software, called Rosetta 2 to run x86-based apps that already run on existing Macs. It will be interesting to see how well they run, because there’s a similar kind of emulation already at play with Windows 10 machines like the aforementioned Galaxy Book S to run x86 apps there. It’s a bit hit and miss, to be honest, and given the wide variety of apps and developers I doubt Apple’s going to promise 100% compatibility.
What we do know won’t make the transition at all is Apple’s “Boot Camp” software. This allows you to install Windows onto its own partition on any Intel-based Mac and run it like it was a Windows laptop entirely. With no x86 core, Apple isn’t going to offer Boot Camp at all any more.
What it is promising 100% compatibility with are existing iOS and iPadOS apps, and that’s another part of the Apple Silicon story. In theory any iOS app on your iPhone or iPadOS on your iPad should be able to be installed and run on any Apple Silicon laptop or desktop computer. That opens up a pretty wide range of app experiences, as well as the question as to whether Apple might finally offer a laptop computer with a touchscreen, given how many iOS and iPadOS apps are touch-centric by design.