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Should you Buy an Intel Mac Now or an Apple Silicon Mac Later?

At WWDC 2020, Tim Cook announced that the Mac was leaving Intel and transitioning to Apple Silicon — made by the same team responsible for the A-Series chipsets that have been powering iPhones and iPads for a decade.

Now, Cook said the transition would take roughly two years but that the very first Apple Silicon Macs would be release later this very year.

So, if you’re in the market for a new Mac, do you buy now and get the Intel you know, or do you wait and get the Apple Silicon that’s next?

Design

We know all the current Intel Mac designs. Most of them haven’t really changed in years. The MacBook Air is still a wedge. The MacBook Pro is still squared off. The Mac mini is still a little rounded box. The iMac is still a giant display on a stand and the iMac Pro very much the same. Only the Mac Pro is new and, even then, a bit of a throwback to cheesegrators past.

They’re known quantities. Sleek, elegant, if a little too long on the shelves now to truly still be considered inspired.

Apple Silicon Mac design, though, is an unknown quantity. Mostly.

Based only on what we know about Apple Silicon and how it’s been reflected in iOS device design over the years, we can make some educated guesses.

First, that it could well be thinner and lighter. Unlike Intel, which has been struggling for years to get down from a 14 nanometer process to a 10 nanometer process for its chips, Apple’s already shipped a very similar die-shrunk design on TSMC’s 7 nanometer process and is rumored to be Ant-Man’ing their way down 5 nanometer already. That means less power consumption and less heat.

To compensate, Intel’s reverted to throwing cores at their problems, which means more power consumption and more heat. In enclosures that were designed expecting the exact opposite.

Which is pretty much why you see so many thumbnails with fire emoji complaining about Mac thermals. But not about iPad Pro thermals, which can be just as fast and in an enclosure not even half as thick.

There’s a lot of apple’s to Apple’s… other apples in what I just said, but the bottom line is if you’re fine with Apple’s current Intel Mac designs, if they fit your desk or your bag, and you like the classic, sleek look, you absolutely know what you’ll be getting.

But, if you’re itching for something that’s likely to be even sleeker, and you’re not concerned about it potentially being even thinner, then new Apple Silicon Mac designs are probably right around the corner.

And, if you can’t wait for an iMac as retro future cool as the iPad Pro, go ahead and drop a like below.

Hardware

The displays on the current Intel Macs range from good on the MacBook Air to great on the MacBooks Pro and iMacs to… obscene on the Pro Display XDR.

With the Apple Silicon Macs they may get even better. Partially, because Apple won’t have to work around Intel’s limitations anymore with custom timing controllers and the like, and do what they’ve been doing with iOS devices for years now, and that’s build chipset features to directly support and optimize display features.

Partially because technologies like mini LED are also rumored to be on the way that’ll give some of the higher contrast ratios of OLED without the uniform brightness and other problems that come with OLED on Mac-sized screens.

It’s possible Apple will sneak mini LED into one of Intel Macs they’ll still ship before the transition is over, but it’s not in any Intel Mac they’re shipping now.

Ports remain part of the great unknown when it comes to Apple Silicon Macs as well. Current Intel MacBooks have USB C with Thunderbolt 3 ports and headphone jacks, while desktop Macs retain some mix of USB-A, HDMI, SD-Card, and ethernet.

Apple Silicon devices currently max out at USB-C, with no PCIe lanes for Thunderbolt 3.

Apple Silicon Macs could license Thunderbolt from Intel or could go with USB 4.0 which can also support Thunderbolt, but will they support the same older ports as current Intel Macs?

Aside from the iMac Pro, cameras on current Intel Macs are… a disgrace. Nowhere near the amazing cameras Apple ships on iPhones and iPads.

Could Apple Silicon Macs see an improvement there? Current Intel Macs have the equivalent of an A10 image signal processor and Apple Silicon Macs should have something closer to what Apple ships with the A14 later this year, but the bottom line is silicon alone can’t fix this. Apple needs better camera hardware in the casings and all we can do is wait and see if and how they deliver it.

So, if you have specific, especially legacy desktop port needs, like the current displays, and the cameras aren’t deal-breakers, the Intel Macs are again a known quantity for you.

If you’re waiting on a better display, praying for better cameras, and don’t care so much if the Mac deletes or changes even more ports, you can wait on Apple Silicon.

Either way, let me know your specific port and camera needs in the comments below.

Performance

We’ve already seen some benchmarks leak out about Apple Silicon performance, probably because people don’t realize benchmark apps suck up whatever they run and post it online without even asking permission first. But they’ve been based on a chipset that will never ship for the Mac, run on emulation, with an app not all designed to work with that chip.

So, they’re far more noise than signal.

What we do know is that iPad Pro silicon is already competitive with Intel silicon, without consuming anywhere nearly the power or generating anywhere nearly the heat.

In other words, for MacBooks, they should stay cooler and get way better battery life at the same size, or the same battery life at an even smaller, lighter size.

My guess is that’s what we’ll see with the first few Apple Silicon Macs — slightly better, much more Mac-specific variants of the current A-series versions for iPad, that impressively out perform at their size, power, and temperature, and it’s just going to go up from there.

How Apple scales silicon is also an open question. Some think they’ll start small and stay iPad-like with a new 12-inch. Other rumors suggest they dive right in with a new MacBook Pro and iMac.

Last time, it took until the end to get to the Mac Pro.

If you need what you need now, and you’re ok with the amount of cores, the power, and the heat, then you’ll be ok with Intel.

If you’re hoping for something better, cooler, and longer lasting than what Intel currently provides, you probably want to wait on Apple Silicon Macs.

I’ll be covering all the new Macs, Intel and Apple Silicon, as they come out, so seriously, make sure you hit that subscribe button and bell.

Software

Not everything is going to be optimized for Apple Silicon at first.

Apple’s stuff will be, of course, as well as indy developers who always seem to code rings around the giant internet and software houses.

But, there’s already software on Intel Macs that’s barely supported and takes forever to update, and that probably won’t change.

So, if you work in production and depend on mission-critical workflows, you probably want to stick with an Intel Mac for as long as you possibly can and see just how much of the software you depend on gets updated to work with Apple Silicon and how fast… or if not at all.

That includes Windows, since Bootcamp won’t exist on Apple Silicon Macs and neither Apple nor Microsoft have announced anything in terms of Windows for ARM, much less good old-fashioned Windows for Intel being available for emulation.

We’ll hear something, it just might take a while.

If you’re a hobbyiest, you also know what you can and can’t do on an Intel Mac, including home brew and booting into alternate operating systems.

Apple has said you’ll be able to go into reduced security mode on Apple Silicon Macs and do things like run versions of macOS that are no longer signed, and the open source community will work on updating tools and the like, but we still don’t know how all of that is going to play out.

So, if you depend on software the way it currently works for you, get a Mac that can run it for as long as possible and wait and see how everything else sorts itself out.

If you mostly use Apple apps and web apps and are fine with computers just being the boxes you do that stuff with, you should be fine with an Apple silicon Mac. And if you’re an early-adopter, you should be thrilled.

Let me know which way you’re leaning in the comments below.

Pricing

We have no idea what Apple Silicon Macs are going to cost. If we draw examples from iOS, the cost savings when Apple makes their own silicon compared to when they have to buy it from Intel has been considerable.

Intel chips alone can cost what a base level iOS device cots. How much of that gets passed along to customers we’ll have to wait and see.

My guess is, on high end Macs, Apple will spend that budget on adding extra and batter features, so the costs stay about the same.

My hope is, on entry level Macs, Apple does what they did with the iPad, iPhone SE, and Apple Watch 3, and that is introduce versions that cost considerably less than what the standard products have traditionally cost.

Additional memory, storage, IO — things like that will raise the prices somewhat, but we could get to a point where Macs don’t cost that much more than iPads for similar performance.

And that would be incredibly disruptive.

Advice

So… All this to say, wait as long as you possibly can to buy, then buy when you absolutely need to buy, buy the best you can afford at the time, and then enjoy the hell out of it, because there will always be something new and something next.

In other words, if you really need a Mac now, get an Intel Mac now. If you don’t, wait and see how the Apple Silicon Macs compare and, when you need to buy, buy the one that best suits your needs.