After 15 years and approximately 50 failed predictions, Apple has finally announced its own ARM CPU for the Mac and MacBook product lines. The upcoming A12Z will transition Apple away from the x86 CPUs it adopted in 2005 and move the entire macOS and iOS software stacks to hardware Apple can control. As a side benefit, Macs will also be able to run iOS applications natively, once the ARM hardware actually ships.
Apple, true to form, didn’t release much in the way of technical data or performance metrics. But the company did talk about its plan for the ARM transition and what changes it is making to its macOS and software support to enable it.
In macOS 11.0 (Big Sur), all Apple-created applications will be native apps. There’s a new type of universal binary, dubbed Universal 2, that will run on both Apple and x86 hardware. Apple’s entire goal is to deliver desktop-level performance in notebook power consumption, which sounds impressive until you think about just how wide the range of desktop and laptop power consumption actually is.
The blue-highlighted area in Apple’s graph is larger than either the “Desktop” or “Laptop” box. The company is giving itself some wiggle room as far as where the new parts will fall, and how they’ll compare to previous chips, while still forecasting a general improvement. PCMag reports that the actual differential could be enormous. Analyst Ming-chi Kuo believes Apple will introduce a 13-inch MacBook Pro with performance 50-100 percent above an equivalent Intel CPU, powered by a 12-core processor. Cost savings are supposedly in the 40-60 percent range. Both of these would be enormous improvements, but the claimed gain is large enough to take with a grain of salt.
Apple showed off multiple application builds at the event, including Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Word, and Excel all running on Apple silicon. Developers will be able to port their applications seamlessly, but apps that aren’t ported will still run in emulation using a dynamic just-in-time system named Rosetta 2. No word on what the performance hit for emulating in this fashion is, but we don’t expect miracles.
Good emulators make running code written for a different architecture tolerable, even reasonable, but there’s an inevitable latency and performance impact when performing code translation. Apple’s 68k-PowerPC jump is legendary for providing faster emulated performance than native code could deliver, but the gap between x86 and ARM isn’t nearly wide enough for Apple to pull off the same feat.
Apple’s hope, obviously, is that as many developers as possible will port their code to avoid this problem, and the company did show Maya running fluidly via Rosetta 2. But it didn’t show the application actually performing any model loads or rendering final output — and those are the steps likely to hit the CPU the hardest.
Apple is launching a quick start program for developers that want to get working on the A12Z silicon. The dev kits will ship in a Mac Mini chassis with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. No data was provided on GPU performance, either, so the GPU is essentially a black box. Systems are expected to ship by the end of the year, but the transition period is longer than expected, at a full two years.
This isn’t a trivial delay, and it says something about how much additional work Apple still needs to do to fully transition its entire Mac product stack. At a guess, the company will handle the MacBook and iMac first, but the Mac Pro is going to be a heavier lift. If we had to guess — and at the moment, we do, because Apple isn’t giving out the details — we’d expect the company to try to take x86 out of the highest-end workstations after it pushes the technology out of mobile and desktop systems.
I didn’t expect Apple to give us more than it did, but I wish the company had. Right now, the performance question isn’t much clearer than it was before the keynote aired. Obviously Apple expects improvement or it wouldn’t have gone through with this initiative in the first place. The question is, how much?
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