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What is Apple Silicon?

At WWDC 2020, as well as showcasing iOS 14, Apple announced their plans to begin the 2 year transition away from Intel processors that it has used for the last 14 years, to their own custom Apple Silicon chips in their Mac devices. This article will explain what Apple Silicon is, why Apple is moving away from Intel and if you should consider buying an Apple Silicon Mac.

Note: An Apple event in November (all signs point to the 17th November) will showcase the first Apple Silicon Macs and we will update this article with more information accordingly!

What is Apple Silicon

Apple has been making its own custom ARM-based chips, for their iPhones and iPads, in the form of their A Series for a number of years. Apple’s first SoC (system on a chip) was the A4, produced in 2010. ARM stands for Advanced RISC Machine, this chip architecture differs from Intel which is based on CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing).

Apple has reiterated that this is a move to its custom Apple Silicon, not to ARM. Whilst Apple’s SoCs are based on ARM, Apple Silicon is its own entity. ARM based chips require less transistors which lowers cost, reduces power consumption and produces less heat. With these advantages, Apple should be able to build powerful devices that are lighter and thinner than their predecessors.

Why is Apple Moving to Apple Silicon

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled their plans to move to their own custom Silicon, he explained that by doing so, Apple will be able to “make much better products”, take them to “a whole new level” and generally be a “huge leap forward for the Mac”, akin to the leap when apple moved from PowerPC to Intel in 2005. Apple intends to create Macs that have better power management, improved performance per watt and greater battery life, to name just a few reasons.

By moving away from Intel, Apple will no longer have to rely on a third party for their Silicon chips, they can unify their hardware and software, and will ultimately have a lot more control over what goes into their Macs. In addition, Apple will be able to release updates as and when they choose, improve and implement certain new features such as machine learning, the Neural Engine and advanced power management.

Will Apple Silicon be More Powerful than Intel

It is possible to look to the existing ARM based chips that are used in Apple’s iPhones and iPads for comparisons with Intel based devices. For example this test by Macrumors using Geekbench 5 showed that the iPad Pro (with a A12Z Processor) was more performant than both the 13” MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air.

There have also been leaked benchmark scores from the Apple Silicon Developer Transition Kit, which is using the same A12Z Bionic Chip. The single-core tests gave around 800 points average, and 2780 average for multicore. Bearing in mind that this was done using Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulator, on a development kit (not destined for public use), which will have impacted the performance as it wasn’t running natively.

Ultimately, it is arguably too early to tell how Apple Silicon will perform compared with an Intel or AMD processor, however the first signs, based on the iPad Pro, and the leaked benchmarks are very positive.

When Will the First Apple Silicon Mac be Released

Apple revealed that they would be releasing the first Apple Silicon based Mac in late 2020. They are yet to confirm which device will have Apple Silicon first, however there have been rumors that it could be a new 13” MacBook Pro (or even the eagerly anticipated 14” MacBook Pro), or redesigned iMac (as the iMac has not been physically updated for a while).

Whichever Mac is first released with Apple Silicon, you can expect Apple to go all in and show off what they are fully capable of when they have full control.

Will My Intel Based Mac Still Be Supported by Apple?

Apple has said that it will be supporting Intel based Macs for years to come. They haven’t specified how many years, however they have stated a list of Macs compatible with Mac OS 11 (Big Sur):

  • MacBook 2015 and later
  • MacBook Air 2013 and later
  • MacBook Pro 2013 and later
  • iMac 2014 and later
  • iMac Pro 2017 and later
  • Mac Mini 2014 and later
  • Mac Pro 2013 and later

Logically you could expect Apple to continue providing updates for new Intel based Macs for around 7 years. Apple have also said that they still have some Intel Macs to release, and as they intend to transition from Intel to Apple Silicon over the course of 2 years, you will still be able to buy an Intel Mac during this period.

Should You Buy the First Generation of Apple Silicon Macs

This is one of the questions that has been raised a lot since Apple revealed it was moving away from Intel. There are a number of arguments for and against being one of the early adopters of a new technology.

The sensible choice would be to wait and see how the first generation of Apple Silicon performs over time, how it ultimately compares to the existing line up and to wait for any potential teething issues to be resolved and buy into the second generation as and when that is.

Another important consideration to make is if an App that you rely on and use regularly is ready for Apple Silicon. And while Apple’s Rosetta 2 is designed to ease the transition from Intel to Silicon, by running Intel based apps on the new devices, this emulation could be less than ideal.

Conversely, an argument for adopting this technology straight away is that despite this being the first ARM based chip designed specifically for a Mac, Apple have 10 years of experience producing their own chips for their iPhones and iPads.

Moreover, Apple typically does not release products that are worse than previous versions (the Butterfly Keyboard is arguably one of the exceptions). The first signs are encouraging and the performance of Apple’s chips in the iPad Pro could help relieve some of the uncertainty.

How Much Will the First Generation Cost

It is assumed that because Apple is no longer buying its processors from Intel and creating their own, the costs will be reduced, which has lead to hope that this saving will be passed onto the consumer. And whilst Apple has not officially released any official price for the new Apple Silicon laptops, a recent report has suggested that the first Apple Silicon laptops will be a 12 inch MacBook, costing as little as $800! This will allow it to compete with the typically lower cost Windows machines. There is also rumored to be a 13 inch MacBook Pro in line to be released at the same time - costing $1000. This is around $200 cheaper than the current entry model MacBook Pro.

Should You Avoid Buying an Intel Mac

If you are in the market for a Mac today because your current device is no longer functional, or no longer performs the tasks that you rely on day to day, then don’t wait. The current generation of Intel based Macs is excellent, and you could argue that buying an Intel based Mac at their relative peak performance is better than waiting to buy the unknown quantity that will be the Apple Silicon Macs.

If you are looking for a new Mac, but your current device is still functional, then you may be better off waiting, at least until Apple fully announces and releases their first generation of Apple Silicon Macs. If they are as impressive as they promise to be you can buy a new Apple Silicon Mac if you wish. However this will also be a good time to buy an Intel based Mac because their prices will most likely go down once the new Silicon Macs are on the market.

Using the MacRumors Buying Guide you will be able to see what Mac’s to avoid and which ones to buy based on how long ago they were updated, and other factors.

We will keep this article up to date with any new information on the Apple Silicon Macs as when it is released.
Photo: Unsplash & Apple & MacRumors


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