It’s time for another transition. For Apple, this is the fourth major transition in its product history, beginning with the shift from Motorola’s 68000 chipset to IBM PowerPC processors in the 90s, to the major overhaul of Mac OS X from legacy Mac OS 9, and most recently with transition from PowerPC to Intel. This isn’t Apple’s first rodeo, albeit it could get messy, especially for consumers who likely aren’t familiar with the differences between Intel, AMD, and ARM processors (although the RISC instruction set is only a small piece of the Apple SoC story). While there has been much chatter from the pundits exclaiming the glory of the Apple SoC, the rest of the world remains unfamiliar with how important this transition is not only for Apple, but for the entire industry.
It is my feeling that the benefits of using Apple’s integrated System on a Chip (SoC) far outweigh translation limitations when porting over apps from Intel, and it feels like Apple really softened the blow with macOS 10.15 Catalina, which infamously removed 32-bit app support. There are few apps at this point I run that do not already run on iPadOS or iOS or at least could port over well with Universal 2, but I know this isn’t the case for everyone. Apple will seriously need to address recent performance concerns inherent with the Rosetta 2 translation process, but truly the best solution is for developers to recompile for the Apple SoC.
Tell me if you’ve heard this before—you’re running a slew of messaging apps, streaming video, checking email, and working on several documents at one time. Maybe you also have Photoshop or InDesign open. It may sound like a lot, but with many apps running on different desktops and in the background, this is a pretty common scenario for the typical Mac user. With a desktop Mac, such as my trusty 2020 quad core i3 Mac Mini, or even my 2019 A12 Bionic iPad Mini, this is nothing. They barely feel hot to the touch. But on any one of Apple’s current notebooks, be it the new MacBook Air or the 16” MacBook Pro, this is a thermal nightmare. I’ve felt more than acceptable burns on my legs and downstairs furniture, and while those of us more familiar with the cooling process know that using a notebook computer on your lap traps heat and throws a wrench in performance, most folks just don’t care.
And if you think that software could remedy this, why don’t you try out macOS 11 Big Sur on a 2014 MacBook Air? The six year old i5 runs hot, but it always did, even with its OEM-installed OS X Mavericks, often clocking in at over 90 or 100 degrees C with very few apps open. For the better part of a decade, Apple has tirelessly worked to adapt thermal designs to better fit customer desires, but Intel has held them back, and frankly, it’s held the entire industry back.
The buck does not stop with thermal improvements, because Apple’s SoC design is fully loaded with a cornucopia of features that Intel could only dream of designing without burning the chip like your clueless boomer parents roasting marshmallows on an open fire. What makes Apple chips so special is that they, through miniaturization, cram the components of a logic board into a single 7 nm package that includes CPU and GPU cores, and integrated RAM. With miniaturization like this, Apple is able to do what is quite frankly currently unimaginable from a performance standpoint, and that shouldn’t be shocking from the company that invented the ultrabook design we all use today.
Apple isn’t the first company to bring their desktop OS to ARM chips, with Microsoft delivering the Surface Pro X last year—but they will likely be the best at it, because their SoC is so tightly integrated with their software.
For everyone else not immersed in Apple’s ecosystem, this transition will inevitably affect you too, as more and more OEMs are realizing the performance issues associated with Intel chips, and the rise in popularity in AMD CPUs. And even for Intel, this transition should help push them to develop more efficient chipsets that fit into consumer desires for achieving a balanced performance-per-watt.
So this begs the question, should I purchase an Intel Mac right now? I asked myself the same question, considering this transition has been rumored for years now, and had been relying on the iPad Air 3 and iPad Mini to do most of my work, sometimes having to fall back on my 2014 MacBook Air. Three months ago, when COVID hit, it was reasonable to purchase the much-needed Mac Mini to get my work done in a full-fledged desktop OS, but the game has changed since then, and it's clear we will have much more ideal performance in Apple's soon-to-be-refreshed product line.
If your Mac is feeling long in the tooth (in particular 2014 or earlier MacBooks) I would bite the bullet and purchase your final Intel Mac, or consider one of Apple’s many iPads. However, if your Mac is from 2015 and you’re still able to comfortably get through your workflow, this strange moment of limbo is a good time to save up for an Apple Silicon Mac. Apple has said that they expect to support Intel Macs for years to come and still has Intel machines in the pipeline, but it’s hard to imagine these are intended for consumers.
Alright, so should I purchase an Intel Mac right now? Unless you're desperate, I would wait. This next year should have a lot of interesting new devices powered by Apple Silicon, and if all goes well, ones that won't double as a hot plate.