5 reasons Apple should dump Intel processors [Opinion]

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Intel processors have overstayed their welcome in Macs of all types, but especially MacBooks.
Intel processors have overstayed their welcome in Macs of all types, but especially MacBooks.
Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac

It’s past time Macs stopped depending on Intel processors. There’s new evidence to show they’ve outlived their usefulness. A switch to Apple-designed chips will make macOS devices better for a variety of reasons, including increased speed and battery life.

iPads and iPhones already use processors designed by Apple. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the company is pushing forward with plans to ditch Intel’s processors in Macs, too. The first MacBook or iMac with an Apple processor could be out as soon as 2020.

Apple A-series processors will soon be faster than Intel Core

Intel’s Core chips used to be vastly faster than Apple’s A-series ones, but the latest iPads demonstrate that Apple has nearly caught up to Intel-based MacBooks. And the trend lines indicate that iPad performance will soon pass what’s available in MacBook Pros.

iPad performance vs. MacBook Pro 2019 2020
iPad performance will surpass MacBook Pro sooner than you think.
Chart: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

We compared the Geekbench 4 scores of the top performing MacBook Pro and iPad Pro for four years. Then we projected how these two will compare over the next two years.

The chart on the left uses the four-year average annual percentage increase in performance to predict the future. For MacBook Pro, the average annual improvement is 18.9 percent. For iPad Pro, it’s 58.9 percent.

Because there was a big jump in MacBook Pro performance between 2017 and 2018, the chart on the right just uses that performance improvement to make two-year estimates.

No matter which method is used, our projections show the 2019 iPad Pro will be faster than the best MacBook Pro, and the 2020 tablet will much, much quicker than Apple’s top notebook.

That’s assuming the 2020 MacBook Pro uses an Intel processor, of course. A switch to an Apple chip, as is rumored, would apparently bring far better performance.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Maybe Intel will make a breakthrough in 2020 that will lead to vastly faster consumer Macs. But the odds would seem to be against it.

How this will affect professional users who need extreme performance isn’t yet clear. It’s possible Apple will make the move from Intel chips to A-series ones in phases, with nothing changing for pro graphics users until Apple has a chip with the performance they need.

No more Intel processor shortages

It doesn’t matter how fast a processor is if it’s not available. And that’s been a problem for the Mac maker lately.

Apple isn’t Intel’s biggest client by a long shot. Macs made up just 6.8 percent of the global PC market in the first quarter of this year, and there are three companies with significantly higher shares. That’s important because Intel has been struggling to producing enough processors to meet demand, and bigger customers almost always get higher priority.

The result is that Apple isn’t receiving all the chips it needs. CEO Tim Cook said this week, “For our Mac business overall, we faced some processor constraints in the March quarter, leading to a 5 percent revenue decline compared to last year. But we believe that our Mac revenue would have been up compared to last year without those constraints.”

This means Apple didn’t take in at least $263 million from Mac sales because Intel couldn’t get its act together. And Cook says the company probably lost out on more money than that.

What’s even more important is all the customers who didn’t get their Macs because Apple didn’t have a chip to put in them. According to market research firm Gartner, Apple sold about 100,000 fewer desktops and laptops in Q1 than it had in the same period of 2018. Again, Cook thinks his company probably would have sold more Macs in Q1 than it did last year, so there were a lot of people left in the cold because of Intel.

This situation would change considerably if macOS computers used Apple processors. Apple designs its own A-series chips but outsources production to Taiwan’s TSMC. And because there were over 200 million iPhones shipped last quarter, Apple is believed to be TSMCs biggest customer, and therefore the least likely to be affected by any production problems.

Not that TSMC is known for its problems. Instead, in collaboration with Apple, this company has produced improved versions of the A-series every single year since the launch of the original iPhone.

Apple processors might be cheaper

This is more speculative, but being TSMC’s biggest customer gives Apple more weight in negotiations over chip prices. On the other side of the coin, because it buys fewer processors from Intel than other PC makers, the Mac maker probably can’t get the best deals.

That would change if TSMC is also making the processors for macOS devices.

Better battery life for MacBooks with Apple chips

The most recent 12.9-inch iPad Pro already enjoys faster performance than the 13-inch MacBook Pro also released last year. Their screens are almost the same size but the rest of the tablet is a lot smaller. Despite all that, the tablet has a vastly longer battery life: about 13 hours compared to about 9 hours.

The primary difference is the processors. Apple’s 7nm A-series chip is a lot more energy efficient than the 14nm Intel Core chip in the notebook.

As a result, the iPad generates a lot less heat — another name for heat is wasted power. The tablet doesn’t even have a fan because it never needs one. The MacBook Pro definitely has a fan and it certainly needs it. To add insult to injury, running the fan to get rid of waste heat also takes power.

A MacBook Pro running an Apple-designed processor also might be able to forgo a fan. Or at least use it a lot less.

Mac, iPhone and iPad would be more cross-compatible

This hardware change would bring significant changes in software, too, bringing apps for Mac and iPhone/iPad closer together.

Let’s be clear: Apple is not merging maOS and iOS. However, the company is making it easier for developers to create applications that can run on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. That job would get easier if all three types of computer ran on the same type of processor.

The main beneficiary of this move — supposedly code-named Project Marzipan — is going to be Mac users. They should expect droves of iOS apps to eventually be ported to macOS.

Still, a transition from Intel to Apple processors is going to be a hassle. But there are two things to remember. One is that Apple has done this multiple times before. As recently as 2005, the company transitioned Mac from PowerPC to Intel.

The other thought to hold on to is that the switch to Apple processors is going to bring loads of improvements. Faster performance, better battery lives, maybe even lower costs. All that’s worth some hassle.