Moving the Mac to Apple Silicon is exciting but, honestly, Apple Silicon isn’t even the most exciting thing about it. It’s the features that Apple Silicon will enable.
I’ll get to the specific Macs and features in a minute but, for years, Apple’s been able to deliver experiences on iOS devices, on the iPhone and iPad, that simply haven’t been practical or or even possible on the Mac.
Why? Because on the iPhone and the iPad, Apple’s owned everything from the hardware to the software to the interface, including the silicon.
And, on the Mac, they’ve been dependent on Intel.
And.. working around Intel.
For example, when Intel failed to support the 5K displays Apple wanted for the Retina iMac, Apple built their own custom timing controller. We all lost target display mode, but they fused the bandwidth together to support pushing that many pixels, if only internally.
When Intel failed to deliver HEVC — H.265 — support, and shunting it off to the GPU just wasn’t good enough, Apple used custom encode/decode blocks on their own T2 chips, essentially a variant of the A10 in the iPhone 7, to handle it instead.
Same with the Secure Enclave for Touch ID and Apple Pay, the always-on processor for voice activated Siri, the storage controller and real-time data encryption, and the list goes on and on.
But, building that much scaffolding is just… inefficient and, I imagine, exhausting. Especially when you’re still with Intel’s increasingly hot, increasingly power hungry CPUs continuously trying to just burst out of the bead-blasted unibody enclosures you’re trying to fit them into.
And every YouTuber is just face-palm thumbnail fire emoji fire emoji fire emoji.
And… just none of that happens with the iPad.
So, the Mac is moving to Apple Silicon, and we should start to see features more in line with, and more on pace, with the iPad.
We’re even seeing some of them already.
Apple’s shown the new restore system, which will let you recover your Mac using a hidden container, and the new full and reduced security modes for casual and hobbies users respectively, things that weren’t possible before Apple Silicon.
Likewise, hypervisor acceleration for virtual machines built into the Silicon, and all of it just showing that, now fully in control of their destiny, Apple pretty much can and will design the chips specifically to support and accelerate the features they’re putting into the operating systems.
So, when you take the features Apple’s already been able to deliver on the iPhone and iPad, the workaround they’ve already provided for the Mac, and the new stuff they’ve hinted at for the new silicon, it sets up just a huge amount of potential for the next generation systems.
Of course, Apple hasn’t said what’s coming or when. And it’s fair to assume things will start off more conservatively, more slowly, just to keep the transition as rock-solid as possible, but over the next few years, I have a really strong feeling the sky really is the limit.
Apple announced the 12-inch MacBook the same year they the announced the iPad Pro.
Both were ultra-thin, ultra-light, and ultra-silent with not a fan in sight, but while the iPad Pro was also ultra-powerful, the 12-inch MacBook was… most decidedly not.
And that came down to the differences between Intel’s anemic CoreM Y-Series and imbedded graphics and Apple’s increasingly performant A-series system-on-a-chip.
So, now, imagine something in between that 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Air today, but instead of CoreM, it’s got one of Apple’s new family of Mac SoC’s.
You’d have something every bit as powerful as a current iPad Pro — more, even, if the SoC is on the new ARMv9 instruction set and 5 nanometer process like the A14 series might just be this fall, and its not as constrained by the size and power envelope of the iPad.
10 hours of battery life maybe? More if Apple decides to prioritize it over weight?
And, like the iPad Pro, maybe a smaller one at 12-inches, edge-to-edge, and a bigger one at 14-inches.
With more than the iPad Pro’s current limit of 6GB of RAM, and the traditional clamshell form factor traditional laptop users know and love…
It wouldn’t be a workstation, wouldn’t be meant to be anything even in the same universe as a workstation, but if you have a workstation at home or in the studio and want to travel with an ultra-light, Apple could build in acceleration for Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro and Xcode, and for 3rd party pro apps, beyond anything Intel has been capable of to date.
Remember, that 12-inch MacBook on Intel choked on a single stream of 4K while the iPad Pro could handle multiple streams like a boss. And that was 3 to 5 years ago.
Another option the iPad Pro’s had… forever… that the MacBook’s just never gotten at all is cellular networking.
It’s 4G LTE right now but expected to go to 5G Sub-6, maybe Sub-9 at the low end and mmWave at the high end this fall, when Apple’s… renewed partnership with Qualcomm kicks back in… after they take care of the much higher priority iPhone of course.
Apple could have added a cellular modem to the MacBook at any time. They’d have to figure out the antennas and give macOS the far more data-efficient features iOS has enjoyed for basically ever. But it costs a freaking fortune to license the modems and IP.
In other words, Qualcomm is famous for demanding a hefty share of the profits. The iPad option is already $120 and based on MacBook prices, it could go even higher.
Now, other companies are doing it, of course. Sure, it means paying for an additional cellular plan, with some 5G versions being just painfully expensive and other being truly excruciating. And 5G service still being largely mythical in most parts, but they’re doing it.
And that’s where Apple Silicon comes in. See, Apple didn’t just agree to buy Qualcomm chips, they agreed to license the technology. And then they bought Intel’s modem business, basically what they used to make iPhone modems before this new agreement with Qualcomm.
So, it’s also possible Apple could just wait a couple or few years until they’re ready to ship their own, custom, modems integrated right into the Apple Silicon.
Both for iOS devices and, who knows, maybe the Mac as well.
Would you want a cellular Mac? Let me know in the comments below.
Now, of course, with a MacBook or MacBook Air, you’re looking at an ultra-light device very much like the iPad. For a MacBook Pro, you’re looking at something quite a bit more…
Well, something… with a fan.
Given the bigger chassis, the better cooling, and the higher power draw that allows… Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what that kind of Apple Silicon SoC can really deliver.
Especially in terms of graphics where they’ll be trading in the dedicated AMD chips for integrated Apple chips… and even more dedicated accelerators and controllers.
Not just for hypervisors either, but for absolutely any feature Apple wants to make as absolutely high performance as possible. Whatever it takes to make the pro tools and pro workflows teams happy. And, yeah, us.
The goal should be every ounce of power Intel’s delivered to date, and more, with nothing like the power draw or thermal constraints.
Apple Silicon also houses Apple’s own, custom display controllers.
When it comes to displays, everyone pretty much has access to all the same panels from all the same same processes, whatever they’re willing and able to pay for.
But Apple has been demanding not just their own panel specs for years already on the iPhone and iPad, but building their own display controllers as well. Things that enable the 120hz adaptive refresh rates of ProMotion on the iPad Pro, and handles all the performance and mitigations of OLED on the iPhone.
Apple’s display team has already brought their DCI-P3 wide gamut pipeline to the Mac, their TrueTone dynamic color temperature adjustments, even adjustable refresh between 48 and 60 on the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
But there’s still more they can do. Maybe not with OLED, because of its quirkiness, but with miniLED that tries to better balance out some of those good characteristics, like deeper blacks and higher contrast, with less of the bad ones, like color shifting and sometimes less than consistent brightness levels across larger panels.
And, of course, if Apple ever decides to un-nope multitouch or Apple Pencil support for the Mac, all of that is already built to just work with all of this as well.
Drop a like below if those are things you want to see on the Mac.
With all of these next-generation systems, Apple’s going to be able to decide if they want to use the far greater efficiency of custom silicon to keep the same performance at even smaller weights and sizes, or boost performance at the same weights and sizes.
For something like the MacBook Air, portability is going to beat out absolute performance. For something like the MacBook Pro, the reverse is hopefully true.
But what about the desktops?
Apple could take the current Mac mini design and just power it up to perfect home server levels. Basically the all-in-the-box for anyone who doesn’t want a built-in display or a big old cheesegrator tower.
Though I’m sure I’m by far not the only Mac nerd still just begging for an expandable mini tower as well.
But, my fanfic budget for today goes only so far…
Now, Apple could also go the other way — maintain current performance levels, and just carve away so much casing the mini becomes more of an Apple TV-sized Mac… nano.
I mean, with an SoC, as long as you have the ports, you don’t really need much in the way of a box.
Especially considering, after Intel released the Thunderbolt 4 news last week, Apple sent me a statement, I shared on twitter, re-affirming their commitment to the technology, and that they’ll continue to support it with their custom silicon.
That’s something beyond what Apple does now with the iPad Pro, where there’s USB-C out, but no extra PCIe lanes, so no Thunderbolt out.
With USB 4 on the way, which keeps the the USB-C connector and basically supersets Thunderbolt, it could end up finally, finally delivering on the promise of one interconnect to integrate them all. Across the whole Mac lineup.
With the iMac, I think what’s exciting people the most is the rumors of a redesign. I did a whole video on that already, so, seriously, make sure you hit that subscribe button and bell so you don’t miss out.
Beyond having a more iPad Pro-like design and a potentially a mini-LED display, Apple Silicon also opens up the potential for technologies like Face ID.
The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both have Touch ID. The first generation was essentially an Apple Watch system-in-package and display controller buried next to the Touch Bar. The current one is like an A10 chip buried under it.
But Apple has just never pushed the technology to the desktop Macs. Not even the keyboards included with the iMac Pro or Mac Pro.
It’s not a security issue. Apple figured out how to transit Touch ID authentication on the iPhone to the Mac years ago. Same with Apple Watch unlock. They even use time of flight to prevent relay attacks. It’s super cool tech.
But it’s expensive. They’d have to put a system-in-package or system-on-a-chip inside the keyboard, and that would bump up costs considerably.
Modern Apple Silicon, though, has the ANE, the Apple Neural Engine built in, and that’s what powers Face ID.
Sure, putting a True Depth camera system in an iMac would be expensive as well, but like Touch ID on the MacBook Pro, the expense would be in the computer, not a standalone keyboard.
Now, maybe no Face ID in the Pro Display XDR means its just not a technology Apple’s interested in shipping with the Mac, but I think that would be a huge missed opportunity.
Not just because having Face ID on the iMac, and all the MacBooks, frankly, would be incredibly convenient, not just because having a True Depth camera would finally bring the Mac at least partially into the world of Apple’s next big thing — augmented reality, but because it would also high-key help solve the ongoing embarrassment that is the potato cam problem on almost all current Macs.
Even if all some of you want to hear from me right now is Apple Pencil support and drawing board mode for an iMac Studio.
But that’s less about silicon and more about philosophy. Still, let me know your preference in the comments.
It seems… odd that Apple would release a Mac Pro last year and then a Mac to Apple transition plan this year.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Intel Macs won’t just remain useful for years to come, for pros specifically, who struggle to get the software they need supported even on Macs with Intel, they’ll likely remain table-stakes for years to come.
But, in a system-on-a-chip world, where does the ultimate system-spread-out-across-a-tower Mac even fit in?
And this is where my speculation really goes full-on fanfic.
But, Apple knew about the Intel transition when they were building this new Mac Pro. When they were spending those two or three long years in the desert with the Pro Workflows team figuring out what a modern, modular Mac really meant, really needed to be, and it’s hard to imagine the Intel to Apple Silicon transition wasn’t something they considered a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
Sure, it’s possible this was a last hurrah, the end of big iron, and the Mac Pro will be sent off to sit in a rocking chair next to the Xserve, Elvis, and Bruce Lee, and Bubba Hotep.
But it’s also possible the Mac Pro will just transition to Apple Silicon along with the rest of the lineup. Just, in its heart, instead of Xeon cores, it’ll have the monster of all SoC.
And maybe Metal and the various performance and machine learning controllers, which Apple designed to abstract away the hodgepodge of silicon that’s always lurked below the surface, the different CPUs, custom chips, and GPUs in any given Mac, any given year, will still enable a variety of options.
See, the dirty little secret about why there’s no Nvidia in modern Macs, I mean beyond the feuds of the past, is that they’re at absolute cross-purposes with Apple.
Nvidia wants to be the most important part of any machine, and totally commoditize the PC around it. Doesn’t matter what you buy or build, it just has to have Nvidia and CUDA cores and you’re set.
Apple, on the other hand, wants the most important part to be the machine, and totally commoditize the components inside. Doesn’t matter if one year it’s Nvidia, the next AMD, and the future, Apple Graphics. Just buy the Mac and you’re set.
And they’re both powerful and successful enough they neither sees any need to budge. AMD, though, seems happy to do whatever Apple needs.
So, maybe AMD can still exist in a post Apple Silicon world, abstracted away behind Metal as just another compute resource.
Or maybe Apple, with a bank even bigger than Nvidia, decides to spend the few years it takes to spin graphics chips every bit as good, maybe even better.
I mean, who would have thought 5 years ago we’d be seeing what’s happened to Intel?
Or, maybe it’s something entirely new and Apple sticks to the SoC but has a bunch of accelerator and expander cards available, re-programmable ASICs like Afterburner, but not just for ProRes, but for a wide variety of different needs, and like the storage expander, but not just for storage, for memory as well.
Maybe that’s what the next generation of massively modular Mac really means, and was really designed to be?