Thoughts on New Macs with Apple Silicon [u]

Posted on by Larry

[Updated Aug. 16, 2020, with additions and links in the closing section on “What Should You Do Now.”]

Last Monday, Apple announced that the Mac will be making a 2-year transition from Intel CPUs to systems based on new Apple silicon starting later this year.

Like any other Apple rumor or pre-announcement, we are still short many of the details of what these new systems will look like. And, truthfully, until Apple ships the hardware, we don’t really have any new decisions to make. Still, there’s lots to think about.

Apple’s announcements were focused on encouraging developers to update their hardware and software to support the new system. And, as you might expect, most will and some will not. That’s true of every transition to something new.

As end-users, our challenge is to be patient while Apple and the development community bring these revised products to market. Still, given what we know now, I am very, very excited about these new systems. Let me tell you why.

NOTE: Before I start, though, let me STRESS that you should not install beta software – like macOS Big Sur – on any system that you rely on for productivity. Beta software breaks. In fact, once Big Sur ships, you should still avoid updating until a .1 release is available. Just to be safe. Big Sur will be a big update – don’t rush into it.

BACKGROUND


(Click to see larger image. Block diagram of an Apple silicon chip. Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.)

Rumors of Apple developing new ARM processors for the Mac first surfaced in 2014. These new chips were, I suspect, the reason behind Apple’s move to all 64-bit applications in Catalina, as well as discontinuing support for 32-bit codecs at the same time.

A friend, who develops chips for a living once told me that creating a new CPU-grade chip from scratch takes 3-5 years. So Apple started planning this transition a long time ago.

This is why Apple had so much of the conversion foundation nailed down when they announced the change:

This level of support is not built quickly, nor without carefully thinking through what developers need to convert their programs.

NOTE: It is important to note that the A12Z chip in the Development Transition Kit is not the most current Apple CPU chip. The current iPhone 11 uses an A13. The upcoming iPhone will use something even newer. This is why I’m not worrying about performance specs for these development systems. They are nowhere near the Mac-optimized CPU that will ship with the first Apple silicon Macs.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Apple has been designing, building and improving custom silicon for over a decade, starting with the iPhone and expanding into the iPad. This kind of work is neither easy nor cheap, however the success and performance specs of Apple’s mobile devices proves that Apple has the skills to create world-class chips.

“Building upon this architecture, Apple is designing a family of SoCs for the Mac. This will give the Mac industry-leading performance per watt and higher performance GPUs — enabling app developers to write even more powerful pro apps and high-end games. And access to technologies such as the Neural Engine will make the Mac an amazing platform for developers to use machine learning. This will also create a common architecture across all Apple products, making it far easier for developers to write and optimize software for the entire Apple ecosystem.” (Apple press release)

Apple silicon is more than just a CPU, it is a fully-integrated system – CPUs, GPUs, and a ton of supporting systems – all located on one chip. The block diagram above illustrates all the different components in this integrated system; Apple silicon is far more than just a CPU.

As you know from your own personal projects, buying something ready-made is fast and inexpensive, but rarely a perfect fit.

Creating something specifically for you – whether it is a custom shirt or custom database – means that you get exactly what you need. It takes longer and costs more, but, ultimately, makes you more productive because it works the way you need it to work.

Apple silicon is the exact same thing. It takes longer to create and costs Apple more, but, in the end, we get computer systems where all the pieces are carefully designed to fit together to maximize performance.

WHAT’S TO COME

There’s still a lot we don’t know. The Developer Transition Kits are not Macs. They are iPad chips in a Mac housing. They are specifically designed so that developers can test their code before actual Macs ship. Even so, the reports I’m reading show these chips are already roughly equal to some Mac desktops.

I have no doubt the final shipping systems will be far superior.

The challenge, in this transition, isn’t creating new software, but in updating the old. Several apps couldn’t make the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit. I’m sure there will be other older software that can’t be converted, either because the development team that created it is no longer working on it, or because the developers don’t feel there’s enough of a market for it.

What I find reassuring is that some of the most important legacy apps – Word, Excel, Photoshop – have already been converted and seem, according to Apple, to be working great in beta.

THINGS I LIKE

I am totally in agreement with Apple’s focus on privacy and security, as well as performance.

It is not in Goodle’s self-interest to enforce privacy. Microsoft is late to the privacy party and under EU scrutiny over privacy in Office 365. Apple’s focus on this is critically important. Just as an example, the latest reports this week of apps that surreptitiously copy clipboard data from iPhones – or even nearby Macs – bring the need for system-level privacy and security forcefully to mind. There is no reason apps like TikTok, CBS News, or the New York Times need access to our clipboards.

As well, Intel security flaws like Meltdown, Spectre or the unfixable CPU flaw of 2019, all point to the continued need to focus on security and privacy in hardware as well.

I also like multi-threaded CPUs, as well as multiple GPUs on the same chip. While less helpful in video compression, both these features will significantly benefit both audio and video editing.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO NOW?

For now, all we can do is wait. However, don’t get too worried – yet – about reports that the new system “will never be able to do [X].” A lot of this is click-bait reporting or political posturing. No one knows – outside of Apple – what these new chips can do. And, given Apple’s track record, they tend to under-promise and over-deliver.

NOTE: Remember, Big Sur runs on both Intel and Apple CPUs. You won’t need to worry about Apple silicon compatibility until new hardware is released and you decide to buy it.

The Mac is a vibrant market for creative applications – developers have no reason to abandon it. For now, I fully expect media software from Adobe, Blackmagic Design and Apple to support the new system at the same time as, or closely thereafter, to the launch of new hardware. Avid will support it eventually, but they have a lot of legacy code to convert first.

This new system architecture will show up first in laptops, a few months later in iMacs, then, finally, the Mac Pro. Systems that need more CPU power will take longer to develop. While laptop upgrades are rumored for the end of 2020 to early 2021, new CPUS for iMacs or the Mac Pro have not even appeared on rumor sites.

If you need new hardware now, buy it. Intel systems are proven, solid, high-performance and will last for years. If you don’t need new hardware, you are better off waiting until the new systems with Apple silicon in them ship. Then you can make an informed decision on which CPU architecture is best for your work.

NOTE: An interesting observation that several engineering sites make is that Apple silicon runs Windows better in emulation than many Windows systems run it natively. Here’s a report, from the Electronic Engineering Journal, that goes into this in more detail.

In all cases, we don’t have anything to decide today. Apple silicon is not shipping. However, truthfully, I’m already saving my pennies for the new hardware. The Macs I currently own have stood the test of time. I fully expect the new systems to do the same thing – and take us places we’ve never gone before.

Brave new worlds, indeed.


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18 Responses to Thoughts on New Macs with Apple Silicon [u]

  1. Nick says:

    I just spent 20K on a new Mac Pro system couple months ago. It now feels like a bad purchase in the light of this news about new chips. Can the Apple silicon be fitted to the current Mac Pro or do I need to consider selling this system sooner than planned in order to get on the new chipset? Seems like Apple Silicon is the future and we all need to embrace it….?

    • Larry says:

      Nick:

      As far as I know, Apple has not indicated whether the new Mac Pros can upgrade their CPUs. Given the flexibility in those system, my hope is that they can.

      For now, I’d hold on to your system until we learn more.

      Larry

    • Patrick says:

      If the system works for you today, it is not a bad investment.

      • Larry says:

        Patrick:

        I agree. Any modern computer will last for years and perform as well then as it does now. If the gear you have today delivers the projects you need on spec and on-time, then there’s no reason to worry about replacing it until something SERIOUSLY better arrives to take its place.

        I talk with editors daily who are still producing quality work with Mac Pros that are ten years old. New hardware is fun and exciting to talk about. But the reason we buy the hardware is to get our work done. Nothing has changed that in any way slows down or prevents our current gear from working as well as it ever has.

        Larry

        • David Morgan says:

          yes but how long will it be before Apple releases a new OS that won’t run on Intel processors? Seeing the way Apple operates, it will be sooner than later. Forces people to keep buying the hardware

          • Larry says:

            David:

            Here I disagree. Apple still releases macOS versions that run nVIDIA GPUs, which Apple hasn’t shipped since 2013. I know, because I own a computer that I use every day with nVIDIA GPUs.

            There’s no reason for Apple to discontinue Intel support quickly – it would cut off all their existing base. I take them at their word that they will support Intel for many years.

            Larry

      • Nick Syrett says:

        Larry and Patrick,

        Good points. Thanks for responding. You are right, my new MacPro performs fantastically and will do for many many years to come.

  2. Gloria Messer says:

    Hi Larry, Just realized that we have known each other for over 20 years.
    I have the new mac pro tower and I am very upset bout this announcement.
    Concerned about upgrading or trading in. Appreciate your opinion and any info on the new chipset. Hope you and your family are well. Stay safe.

    • Larry says:

      Gloria:

      Wow, it doesn’t seem that long!

      As far as I know, Apple has not indicated whether the new Mac Pros can upgrade their CPUs. Given the flexibility in those system, my hope is that they can. For now, I’d hold on to your system until we learn more.

      Nothing will happen quickly and, in the meantime, you’ll be able to use all the power in your current system for your current work.

      Larry

  3. michiel says:

    In your lead-in (in the mail) you said something about the presentation (WWDC 2020). I so disagree with your statement about the moving camera. I think it was the best presentation I had ever seen. So entertaining and that for more than 1,5 hour. I hope they will do it every year this way.

    • Larry says:

      Michiel:

      I thought the keynote was great, too. I am just not a fan of randomly moving cameras. Movement for the sake of movement distracts the viewer.

      Larry

  4. I am not unhappy with my new MacPro but maybe I made 2 mistakes. I do video mostly.
    I have an 8 core machine, a single Radius Pro Vega II graphics card, 2 TB SSD storage, 48GB memory and a Promise Pegasus internal Raid.
    Rendering time is not speedy – what would make the biggest difference in speeding up rendering times (if I can do only one of the following):
    add 2nd Graphics card – moving project to internal SSD for rendering- adding memory or selling Mac Pro and ordering one with 12 or more cores?
    Thanks for any tip you can provide.

    • Larry says:

      Alan:

      You forgot to mention which software you were using for video editing. FCP X and DaVinci Resolve render using the GPU. Premiere renders using the CPU. The speed of your storage is not the gating factor for render speed.

      However, there is a very cool utility that allows you to test different hardware configurations using FCP X to determine the fastest render path. Here’s my review of the software:

      https://larryjordan.com/articles/first-look-chronox-1-2-from-evrapp/

      If you need an immediate fix, get a second GPU. However, I would not sell your system until we learn what Apple’s plans are to convert the Mac Pro to Apple Silicon. It may be that waiting is the best choice.

      Larry

      • Alan Feinberg says:

        I use Final Cut Pro and DaVinci Resolve- so a 2nd Graphics card seems like my path forward. Can you estimate roughly what the pick-up in rendering speed might be with a 2nd card?

  5. Clayton Moore says:

    Two things

    1.
    Though I would assume the modular aspect of the new Mac Pro and the huge cost of it has an “A” chip upgrade path built-in, I would also think that would have been a great thing to point out in the Keynote so it’s hard to tell. To announce a whole new A-chip Pro in even two years that runs circles around the one people just spent 5 figures on would be tone def for Apple.

    2. My iMac is too old now, so I wait to see when a new Intel version is announced. It that’s still weeks away, I would assume that iMac won’t be in the first wave of A-chip Macs. But again who the heck knows. I could just get a good deal on a 2017 and live with that for a while. Right now much of this will be about timing.

    • Larry says:

      Clayton:

      All good points. Since Apple Silicon was well into development when the Mac Pro was announced, I would find it very strange that Apple would not have plans for a processor upgrade for it. Especially because so much else of the system can be upgraded.

      And, like you, I’m saving my pennies to purchase a new Apple Silicon iMac. I look forward to what this new technology will allow us to do.

      Larry

  6. Shameer Mulji says:

    Given your long history with Apple and using its products, which Mac do you predict will be the first model with Apple Silicon?

    • Larry says:

      Shameer:

      Smile…. I’ve long ago given up when Apple will do something or what it will be. Apple will get these systems to market as fast as it can. Everything is complicated by COVID-19.

      Still, Apple tends to under-promise and over-deliver. I expect systems sooner, rather than later. But not immediately – developers still need time to test and tweak their software.

      Larry

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