Apple switches to ARM chips for Mac and aims to complete transition in two years

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Apple is moving to its own ARM chips for Mac systems. With that, the company says goodbye to Intel and the x86 architecture. For developers, a Mac mini with A12Z-soc is available. A Mac with an ARM chip will be available for consumers at the end of this year.

It is not yet known which Mac will be the first to receive an ARM chip. It is unclear whether it is a PC or laptop. Apple plans to transition its entire lineup of Macs to its own ARM chips and design a new line of processors based on current socs. The transition will take two years. That is, all Macs must have an ARM processor version within two years.

Apple will continue to support Macs with Intel hardware in the coming years, and new models with Intel CPUs are also coming, says CEO Tim Cook. MacOS 11 Big Sur will receive support for the ARM hardware, but will also run on x86 systems.

At its WWDC conference, Apple demonstrated macOS 11 Big Sur running on an A12Z soc, which is also included in the iPad Pro. The soc is combined with 16GB of memory in the test system. The same hardware will be available to developers in the form of the Developer Transition Kit. That system runs macOS 11 Big Sur and will be sent to developers on loan from this week. Participation in this Universal App Quick Start Program costs $500.

Apple has ported all of its own apps to run on the ARM architecture, including Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. Apple is also working with Microsoft and Adobe to convert their software. Microsoft has made its Office package suitable, Apple showed Word, Excel and PowerPoint on the Mac system with A12Z-soc. Adobe translates its Creative Cloud package and Apple showed demonstrations with Lightroom and Photoshop.

The move to the ARM architecture will allow apps made for iPhones and iPads to run natively on Macs with the chips. Most apps, according to Apple, work without modification and are available directly from the Mac App Store.

With macOS 11 Big Sur, a new version of Xcode is released, which allows developers to make their apps suitable for ARM systems. According to Apple, most programs can be built in a few days. In addition, the Universal 2 binary appears, a method of releasing apps that work on both Intel and ARM Macs.

Apple is also breathing new life into its Rosetta emulation software. With Rosetta 2 it is possible to run x86 applications on Macs with ARM chip. Apple claims that this works with good performance and that there are few compatibility issues. The company showed 3D program Maya that ran via emulation on the test system and according to Apple, Rosetta 2 is also suitable for emulating games. That was demonstrated with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. That game ran smoothly in 1080p resolution with emulation, though Apple didn’t give any details about graphics settings or framerate.

There will also be options for virtualization to run Linux, for example. Apple didn’t mention the ability to run Windows with Boot Camp. Microsoft does have an ARM version of Windows 10.

Apple released its first product with an in-house designed soc in 2010. That was about the iPhone 4 with the A4 soc. Two years earlier, Apple had acquired chip designer PA Semi. Later, Apple also incorporated Intrinsity. In recent years, Apple has increasingly made its ARM processors its own. Initially, Apple used Arm’s Cortex cores, but since 2012 that has been its own design. Since 2017, Apple socs also have a GPU designed by the company itself.

It is not the first time that Apple has switched architecture for its PCs. Before 2006, Apple used hardware based on the PowerPC platform from IBM and Freescale. In 2005, Apple announced its move to the x86 architecture and Intel processors. The manufacturer also did that during a WWDC event. A year later, the first MacBooks and iMacs with Intel CPUs appeared. Within a year, the transition from PowerPC to x86 was completed and the entire lineup of Apple PCs was refreshed with Intel hardware.

The reason for the switch at the time was that PowerPC’s roadmap didn’t look rosy. Intel had better papers at the time, especially when it came to performance per watt. This time too, Apple gives that as the main argument for the switch.

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