Apple’s first Macs with custom ARM chips could arrive in 2021

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2020-MacBook-Air
Look out, Intel.
Photo: Apple

Apple plans to start selling new Macs powered by custom ARM processors in 2021, according to a new Bloomberg report, citing sources familiar with the matter.

The company is said to be working on three of its own chips — all based on the A14 processor than will ship inside the next-generation iPhone lineup this fall. The first version will reportedly be “much faster,” according to sources.

“The initiative to develop multiple chips, codenamed Kalamata, suggests the company will transition more of its Mac lineup away from current supplier Intel Corp.,” reads the report, published Thursday.

Intel’s silicon has been baked into every Mac that Apple has released since it switched away from PowerPC processors in 2006. In recent years, however, many feel Intel has been holding back the Mac.

Apple’s custom chips for iPhone and iPad have improved significantly, and are considered to be superior in a number of key aspects. It has seemed like only a matter of time before they expand their reach.

Custom chips coming to Mac

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which already builds Apple’s custom chips for iOS, will also be tasked with building ARM processors for the Mac, Bloomberg claims.

“The components will be based on a 5-nanometer production technique, the same size Apple will use in the next iPhones and iPad Pros, one of the people said.”

Apple is said to be making the switch to gain greater control over the performance of its devices — and to differentiate them from rival machines powered by Intel and AMD processors.

The transition will also allow Apple to better unify its app ecosystem and update its desktop operating system more frequently, the report notes.

‘Firestorm’ and ‘Icestorm’ up first up

The first ARM chip for Mac is said to have eight high-perfomance processing cores — twice as many as the A12Z Bionic chip in the 2020 iPad Pro — known as “Firestorm.” It is expected to feature four energy-efficient cores dubbed “Icestorm.”

Apple is also believed to be exploring 12-core custom chips for future machines. In some Mac models, the company could offer double or even quadruple the number of cores that Intel currently provides, sources claim.

It is believed Apple will begin the transition first with a Mac notebook, where a custom ARM chip will really shine. Apple’s own CPUs are better placed to compete with notebook processors initially, while Apple works to catch up with desktop chips in performance.

Like its A-series silicon for iPhone and iPad, Apple’s custom chips will incorporate both CPUs and GPUs. Eventually, they may also replace AMDs dedicated graphics chips, which are found in pro-focused Mac models.

Years in the making

Bloomberg notes that the Kalamata project has been ongoing for “several years” inside Apple. A machine powered by the A12X Bionic processor made for iPad Pro was put together for internal testing in 2018.

“That gave the company’s engineers confidence they could begin replacing Intel in Macs as early as 2020,” the report adds. Reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has also reported that Apple is on the verge of making the switch.

Apple computers powered by custom ARM chips will continue to run macOS. The company is said to be exploring tools that will allow developers to easily port their apps to the new architecture, similar to Catalyst, which was designed to bring iPad apps to Mac.

It will be a challenge for all parties. Switching CPU architectures can be incredibly difficult, and Apple will be aware that Microsoft has already attempted a transition to ARM with little success.

Given developers’ strong support for Apple’s plans, however, Cupertino is likely to have the upper hand.

Ditching Intel

Switching to Intel in 2006 made a lot of sense for Apple. At the time, Intel was the biggest name in the processor industry, and way ahead of its rivals. It was also making significant leaps in performance and capability year after year.

Things have changed over the years. Those leaps have gotten smaller, and Intel has stuggled the keep up with the advancements being made by AMD — and indeed by Apple.

This has led to lengthy waits in between refreshes for most Mac models, and criticism for the small improvements each chip upgrade brings. Intel has also been knocked for slow improvements to thermals and efficiency in its mobile products.

Apple, meanwhile, has been delivering chipsets that are incredibly power-efficient, don’t require fan cooling, and exceed many mobile CPUs in performance. It is also able to offer graphics unmatched by integrated laptop and desktop GPUs.

The right move

Apple’s chips offer advantages in other areas, too, and give Cupertino complete control over things like security — an area of great focus for Apple. The company already builds custom security chips that can be found in its latest Macs.

Despite the challenges it will bring, then, many feel a transition to ARM chips for the Mac will lead to huge benefits in the long run. At this point it seems inevitable, but it is not a move that can be executed quickly.

Bloomberg notes that it will require close collaboration between Apple’s software, hardware, and component-sourcing teams. Given that the majority of them are working from home during the pandemic, the shift could be pushed back.