The Mac and ARM?

After a decade of rumors of Apple switching to ARM processors on their Macs, we get more rumors pointing toward a release date of 2021. Will it happen, and why would they make the switch?

Apple has experience with building their own ARM processors. The A-series chips found in iOS devices are built using the Advanced RISC Machine (ARM) technology, which has grown in popularity since first being introduced back in 1985.

The timeline of Apple releasing Macs with their own ARM processors has constantly changed since the rumors began. Many of the previous rumors pointed to a deadline of 2020, while new rumors published by Bloomberg point to a 2021 date.

It’s entirely possible, however, that Apple had an ARM machine already in the oven but had to push back release dates thanks to COVID-19, which put pressure on the entire tech industry.

But why would Apple want to switch to their own processors, and what would a transition look like?

First, it’s important to recognize that the Mac has already been through two other processor families. The original Mac released in 1984 used the Motorola 68000 family, which Apple continued to use until around 1994. In 1994, Apple switched to the PowerPC processor family, produced by the Apple-IBM-Motorola (AIM) alliance. In 2006, Apple then transitioned from the PowerPC family to using Intel processors.

The Motorola 68000 was the processor used in the original Mac. (Pictured is the processor found in the 1991 Macintosh Classic.)

By using their own processor designs, Apple would have greater control over what processors they use in their Macs as they no longer would be at the mercy of Intel’s timeline. Every new generation of Mac would have the latest generation of processors, instead of a previous generation because Intel didn’t have the newest processors ready yet.

ARM offers additional benefits, however. Apple’s A-series processors draw less power and produce less heat than their desktop counterparts made by Intel. The iPad Pro, which uses the A13 chip and is one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) tablets, has no fans inside – it is completely passively cooled. (None of the iPads have fans.) The lower power draw would improve battery life.

However, the transition – like the previous ones – will not be easy. Transitioning to a completely new architecture with a new instruction set will require rewriting or recompiling software, including macOS itself.

Honestly, I see a switch to AMD processors being more imminent, since AMD chips have creeped ahead of Intel in recent years.

If Apple does switch to ARM on the Mac, I see a slow transition happening. I see ARM coming to budget machines like the MacBook Air first. As ARM for desktop grows more powerful, they will expand it to other models. Just like previous transitions, I see them building in an emulation mode into macOS to allow older software to continue to work.

Rene Ritchie, a famous tech journalist who specializes in Apple, discusses the possibility of an ARM processor in more depth

However, remember one important factor: these are all rumors and speculations. The timeline on a ARM-powered Mac has been pushed back numerous times, and how it may occur may be completely different from what the rumors and speculations present.