Rumor has it pthat Apple is planning to
produce its own CPUs and GPUs for Macs. Those
T2 processors we have today are just a tiny first
step—the big leap is to take something like the A12X and build
a MacBook around it. It makes sense from the perspective of
both power-to-performance ratio and a cost-to-performance
ratio. Perhaps more importantly, it puts Apple fully in control
of its whole platform, and allows the company to innovate in
ways it can’t when it cedes the very heart of its computers to
For these reasons and more, I think it makes sense to begin
transitioning macOS to ARM and for Apple to produce computers
with its own CPUs and GPUs inside. But that transition will
take years. While that’s going on, Apple should kick
Intel to the curb and go all-in with AMD.
Better performance, lower power
The consumer chips AMD will ship this year—new third-generation
Ryzen chips based on the Zen 2 core and the Ryzen Threadripper
high-end desktop and workstation chips with the same
technology—are going to do more than give Intel a run for its
money. The current generation of these chips already
meet or beat Intel in nearly all tasks except for high-end
gaming. And let’s face it, as much as I love Mac games, gaming
is just not a strong market for the Mac.
We’ve only had small sneak peeks at the new 7nm products AMD is
shipping this year, but the company is crushing it.
During its CES keynote, AMD showed an early engineering sample
of the new third-generation Ryzen chip, running at a reduced
speed. Even so, it
beat out a Core i9-9900K in a Cinebench test. That’s an
impressive feat, considering that both chips had the same 8
cores and 16 threads.
But when AMD’s Lisa Su held up the Ryzen chip that was
demonstrated, the layout was conspicuous. It looks like there
is deliberate room left for a second 8-core, 16-thread
“chiplet,” which makes me think that the company played it
close to the vest in showing only its 8-core version. If AMD
can match or beat Intel core-for-core, and can ship a 16-core,
32-thread regular desktop CPU, they’re almost certainly going
to take the overall performance crown, despite the
improvements Intel will make this year.
AMD’s CES demo was significant in another way, too. The
third-generation Ryzen test system used about 25 percent less
overall power than the Intel system. If the final chip is
clocked a bit higher, that gap may narrow, but it’s a
huge deal that AMD is matching or exceeding Intel’s
performance with early silicon at significantly lower power
Now scale that up to a third-generation Threadripper chip, a
perfect match for the upcoming Mac Pro. Just as with the first
two Threadripper generations, we can expect those to be similar
to AMD’s Epyc server chip line, which means we’re looking at up
to 64 cores and 128 threads.
Can you imagine a Mac Pro shipping near the end of this year
with up to 64 cores and 128 threads, with per-core performance
on par with Intel’s latest and greatest?
Oh, and AMD is ahead of the game with PCI Express 4.0 support,
too. Apple loves to put tons of fast I/O in its Pro desktop
computers, so that’s just another feather in AMD’s cap.
Priced to move
Apple has never been a price leader, but it certainly doesn’t
want to pay more for its CPUs than it has to. Ever since the
launch of Ryzen in 2017, AMD has offered exceptional
performance-per-dollar. Even its highest-performing desktop
chips (which are often faster than Intel’s in many tasks) can
cost hundreds of dollars less.
Naturally, a huge and prestigious manufacturer like Apple
doesn’t pay street prices. But it’s hard to imagine AMD
wouldn’t be able to undercut Intel’s pricing, allowing Apple to
pass some of those savings on to customers. AMD is already the
sole provider for Mac GPUs (in those Macs that have discrete
graphics), and it would be a huge “get” to pull Apple’s CPU
business away from Intel, even if it’s just on the desktop.
The boost to AMD’s stock price alone would probably make it
worth taking almost no margin at all.
Easy on developers
It could be worrisome to change CPU vendors…why bother if
it’s just going to be a few years before Apple has its own CPUs
inside all Macs? But a switch like this one has more in common
with switching from Nvidia to AMD. For most developers, it
would be all but invisible.
The broad compatibility between Intel and AMD CPUs means that
developers wouldn’t have to do a lot of work. In fact, most
apps would “just work” with no changes at all. Developers who
want to really optimize for AMD’s architecture will find lots
of familiar tools to do so. In fact, some of AMD’s best
optimized code is found in the Linux community, which is a
smaller hop to macOS than Windows. Compared to making an app
run on ARM, making the entire current macOS catalog work on
AMD’s Ryzen processors would be a cinch.
Fan club included
Apple seems more interested in becoming a services company than
selling a lot of desktop computers, but it doesn’t make Macs
for nothing—it’s still important to move some hardware. In
fact, Mac sales have been stagnant lately, and could use a bit
of a boost. In the long term, the innovation that can come from
Apple producing its own Mac processors is the best way to
In the short term, it never hurts to have a bunch of rabid
fanboys who are psyched to buy your computer because it uses
their favorite company’s processors and GPUs. There are Intel
fans and there are AMD fans, but the AMD fanbase has the sort
of ride-or-die, “always the underdog” attitude that should fit
right in with Apple. If you don’t think an AMD fan is going to
consider buying their first Mac just because it has a Ryzen
Threadripper chip inside, you haven’t met an AMD fan.
ARM-based Macs will take a while
The performance of the A12X in the iPad Pro is already good
enough for a thin-and-light MacBook, but it’s several
times slower than an 18-core iMac Pro’s Intel processor
from a year earlier. Then there’s GPU performance, memory
bandwidth, tons of PCI Express lanes…in short, Apple is pretty
close to building all the components it needs for a great thin
and light MacBook, but years away from the sort of big
high-power chips needed for future iMac Pro and Mac Pro
That’s okay. The ARM Mac transition, if it’s going to happen,
should start with thin and light laptops first and move up the
product stack from there. Not only are Apple’s current A-series
chips much closer to meeting the performance and feature
expectations of those laptops, but the inevitable compatibility
issues will be less of a problem.
The thin-and-light Mac laptops—the MacBook and MacBook Air—are
consumer devices. People use them to browse the web, check
email, listen to music, watch videos, and maybe do a little
light content creation (modest photo editing and the like). If
macOS transitions to ARM, it will require developers to do a
lot of work re-writing apps, but the consumer needs of the
MacBook Air set can be almost entirely met by Apple’s built-in
apps. With a few exceptions, consumers can switch apps fairly
easily; if their favorite note-taking app does not have an
ARM-compatible version, they can try another.
But high-end Mac desktops—the iMac Pro and Mac Pro—are made for
people who do big video editing jobs, 3D modelling and
animation, and high-end image editing (like movie posters). The
pro apps they rely on are updated frequently to add new
features, but major shifts to a new architecture can take
years. And customers can’t easily jump to a competing
product—they may have to convince their company to buy it
first, and then they have years’ worth of legacy data and
libraries to contend with.
I think Apple should transition the Mac line to ARM, and should
start with the MacBook and MacBook Air. As Apple develops ever
bigger and more powerful chips, it can replace x86 processors
with its own ARM chips in the MacBook Pro, then the iMac, then
the iMac Pro and Mac Pro. And in the years it takes the company
to develop those chips and ship those products, pro-level
application vendors will have all the tools and time necessary
to transition their software.
So, even if the transition to Apple processors in Macs starts
this year and happens quickly, it will probably take a few
years before the entire lineup has an Apple processor inside.
During that time, the company should look to AMD to meet its
x86 processor needs. And if Apple doesn’t transition to ARM,
all the more reason to get behind the company making the most
exciting x86 desktop processors.