I failed to mention this in my introductory post, but I’m an Apple fan. Yeah, I know. Apple computers are more expensive than most Windows machines. But, my Macs have always been good to me and, usually, they last me A LONG time. What’s more, all of my Apple products work seamlessly with one another. Calenders, mail, notes, passwords, Apple Pay – everything just works. So, to me, it’s worth it. However, if you didn’t know, Apple is switching away from Intel processors in its computers. And that has many asking, should I buy a new Mac now, or should I wait?
What’s The Big Deal?
If you’re not a computer nerd, you might be wondering, what’s the big deal with Apple changing away from Intel processors? Well, Intel is the dominant processor supplier today. In fact a large majority of computers today ship with Intel processors. And, those that don’t, usually ship with AMD processors.
No matter if your computer has an Intel or AMD processor, both utilize an instruction set architecture (the language processors use to do their work) called x86. However, going forward, Apple plans to use its own chips based on the ARM architecture in their computers. And, as you can imagine, software programed to work with x86 processors don’t work on machines that utilize an ARM processor. Sort of.
What Does This Mean?
For its part, Apple says their next release of macOS, Big Sur, will include support for both Intel and ARM machines and will include an emulation program called Rosetta 2 that’ll allow apps made for Intel to work on their new ARM-based Macs. And while this happens seamlessly to the end-user (you and I), emulators doe take up resources and will slow performance compared to an application running without it.
That said, when Apple transitioned away from PowerPC to Intel in the early 2000s, they only kept this emulation support for about three years. After that? Your old software that didn’t get updated to work on Intel would no longer run. And Macs that ran on PowerPC wouldn’t be able to upgrade to newer versions of your favorite software. Not an ideal situation when you’re dropping over $2,000 on a new laptop.
Of course, aside from compatibility concerns, there’s also the question about how good Apple processors are going to be. After all, the only devices we see Apple chips in today are their iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. Yes, the most powerful of these are the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro, which uses Apple’s most powerful chip to-date is an impressive tablet. It runs Photoshop, can handle augmented reality, and many other pro-applicatiions, though it still doesn’t quite compare to Apple’s MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pros. But, for what it’s worth, Apple claims that their new chips will be about twice as fast as the best chips currently on offer from Intel, while also being far more energy-efficient, meaning your laptop will last longer on a single charge.
Naturally, I’m skeptical of Apple’s claims. But, developer kits began arriving with developers last week. These kits are basically a Mac Mini running the iPad Pro’s A12Z processor. And, you know what? Those developer machines run the same processes as fast or faster than a similarly spec’d ARM-based Microsoft Surface Pro X. That’s crazy! Especially when you consider Apple’s first computers won’t use the now two-years-old A12Z chip, but will likely ship with a derivative of the upcoming iPhone 12’s A14 chip.
What’s more, because Macs will use similar chips to iPhones and iPads, those Macs will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps natively. You can’t do that today.
So, Should I Buy Now or Not?
I hate to be that guy, but the answer to this question is going to depend on how you use your Mac and what your priorities are. For example, if you need a computer right this minute, go ahead and buy one now. The same goes for those of you that are considering a new computer and use Boot Camp to run Windows on your Mac. Why? Because Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, states that Boot Camp won’t be supported on ARM-based Macs. Instead, they say that your Windows software needs will be fulfilled via software emulation. And while that may be fine for relatively mild applications like Microsoft Word, this likely won’t work well for games. So, if you’re in this group, definitely look at buying an Intel-based Mac soon.
If you don’t need to run Windows on your Mac and/or don’t have a need for a new computer right now, I’d wait. The reason for this is that, if Apple does what they did in their previous transition and ends support for Intel a few years after the transition is complete, you don’t want to get caught in that. Sure, your computer will still work. But, over time, it’ll be harder and harder to find software for your machine. So, it makes sense to buy the newer platform if you can.
If I Wait, How Long Do I Have to Wait?
Apple states that the transition to its own chips will take two years to complete. The first of these new machines are slated to debut later this year. What will these be? No one really knows. But, rumor has it that the first ARM-based Macs will be a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or an iMac. So, you may not have to wait long if you’re in the market for those types of computers. Again, though, these are just rumors. And Apple does state that they have more Intel-based Macs that are yet-to-be-released. So, for all we know, these rumors could be misidentifying new Intel Macs as new ARM-based Macs.
I personally bought a mid-2018 MacBook Pro back in, well, 2018. It was insanely expensive, so I’m not looking to buy a machine anytime soon. But, if I were, I’d probably buy whatever the last Intel-based MacBook Pro ends up being. That’s because I do use Boot Camp to play Window games on my computer. However, I’m excited to see how these new ARM-based Macs perform, especially with all the preliminary data we’re already seeing. And, let’s hope that since Apple’s own chips will likely save them some, that they’ll pass some of those savings on to us as well.