• December 2, 2020

ARMs Race | The era of ARM Macs and PC’s is here

 ARMs Race | The era of ARM Macs and PC’s is here

Apple’s strategy to move thier entire Mac lineup to their own ARM-based Silicon is risky business considering many Windows on ARM devices have been on the market for a couple of years now with marginal success. Perhaps with Apple’s 100% commitment to moving all Macs to ARM will be the recipe for success. Starting tomorrow Apple will help usher in a new era of ultra-powerful ARM-based Apple Silicon-powered MacBook laptops joining existing ARM-powered Windows PC’s such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro X leading the charge.

Apple’s ARM strategy

We can sum up Apple’s ARM strategy in two words, “All In.” If I’m a developer, which ARM platform project more confidence in their commitment to ARM and ARM apps? Yes, that’s right Apple.

Microsoft has always been a victim of its own success. It owns enterprise but that success makes it a prisoner to the legacy apps that enterprise depends on. Anything named “Windows” is associated with legacy applications that Apple’s new ARM Macs will never be shackled to. In fact, Apple Silicon-powered Macs will have light-weight iPad apps available to them, such as Adobe’s creative apps Photoshop and Illustrator with other 3rd-party Mac apps sure to come in time.

Apple needs developers on board for this transition to Apple Silicon-powered Macs and with the arrival of two or more Macs (new iMac), the message is supremely clear, there is no other path than to move forward with us, because in a few short years all Macs will be powered by Apple Silicon.

In Bloomberg’s recent report, they provide details about chips themselves:

  • Three Mac System-on-Chip (SoC) designs based on the A14 processor are currently in development, and work has also started on a Mac SoC based on next year’s iPhone processor. Bloomberg speculates that Apple is planning to keep both its laptop and mobile chips on the same development cycle.
  • The Mac chips will reportedly be manufactured by TSMC based on a 5nm fabrication process.
  • The first of these chips will feature eight high-performance CPU cores and at least four energy-efficient cores, for 12 cores in total. The A12Z chip used in the current iPad Pro has eight cores: four high performance and four energy efficient.
  • As well as a CPU, the SoC will also include a GPU.
  • ARM Mac computers will continue to run macOS rather than switching to iOS, similar to the approach taken with existing Windows laptops that use Qualcomm ARM processors.
  • Bloomberg speculates that Apple’s first ARM-based machines will be lower-powered MacBooks because its own chips won’t be able to match Intel’s performance in its higher-end MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pro computers.
  • Back in 2018, Apple reportedly developed a prototype Mac chip based on that year’s iPad Pro A12X processor. The success of this prototype is thought to have given the company the confidence to target a transition as early as 2020.

Bloomberg recently said that the first of the three Apple Silicon chips will be a 12-core processor with a unique mix of eight high performance cores called “Firestorm” cores and four energy efficient core called “Icestorm” cores. There is a clear Fire & Ice reference here that also relates to the cores that will be hotter and cooler. Apple is said to already be working Apple Silicon with more than 12 cores with the company designing second-generation processors for Macs based on the future unannounced A15 chip.

Let’s play out the scenario where Apple chose to only unveil one MacBook, the MacBook Air. The press would be hyper focused on that one product and it would be identified as the standard bearer for Apple Silicon Macs. Apple doesn’t want to sell just one ARM-based Mac, it wants to move the entire platform to its ARM-based Apple Silicon chips and unveiling just one device may not reinforce that strategy. By unveiling two or more Arm-based Apple Silicom-powered Macs, Apple is selling the future Apple Silicon platform to not only consumers but and perhaps more importantly, developers.

Microsoft’s ARM strategy

The first Surface came with a built-in kickstand, which meant it could be propped up by itself for watching movies or for Skype calls. It included a magnetic keyboard attachment for an impossibly thin and futuristic keyboard design, a full-size USB-A port, mini-HDMI and a magnetic power cable attachment called Surface Connect.

It came in two flavors one powered by Intel and the other powered by a chip architecture similar to the iPad. The Qualcomm Snapdragon powered Surface was paired with a new touch & gesture optimized OS called Windows 8 RT. Windows 8 RT was a gesture-based Windows OS that was ahead of its time and is better than current Windows 10 tablet mode by far.

Windows Phone OEM Nokia built the Qualcomm Snapdragon powered Lumia 2520 a year after the first-generation Surface was announced. Both the Microsoft Surface and Nokia Lumia 2520 could be found at carrier stores offering an always-connected computing experience that some of us are just starting to experience today.

Microsoft’s Surface introduced a brand-new form factor to convertibles. While many other convertible designs have been tried, abandoned or refined, it is the Microsoft’s Surface design that has withstood the test of time. The kickstand enabled the tablet to adjust viewing angles and the ‘Type Cover’ keyboard utilized a low-profile butterfly design.

While the ARM powered Surface was before its time, it would struggle to find market success, even with the introduction of the Surface 2 it was later was replaced by an Intel Atom-powered Surface 3 in March of 2015. Microsoft seemed to put Windows on ARM on the back burner for a time.

In 2017, Microsoft re-introduced Windows on ARM with some significant advancements. This time Windows 10 on ARM was able to emulate 32-bit code which means you could install 32-bit .exe (x86) programs like your favorite web browser, or PC software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Those programs would run a little slower in emulation but was an amazing feet none the less.

Like the original Windows on ARM, the new generation devices unveiled in 2017 were powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 and featured built-in cellular connectivity and could used with most mobile carriers. The HP Envy X2 was especially remarkable, ultra thin, 1080p display, all-day battery life, an ingenious keyboard case with an included kickstand that doubled as a cover and an included pen.

There were two drawbacks with Windows 10 on ARM in 2017, the Snapdragon 835 and the fact you could not install 64-bit applications. The 835 was a phone processor and when compared to a PC was similar to an Intel Atom powered laptop. If you were using apps designed for ARM you never noticed any performance limitations. The problem was that while 64-bit applications only accounted for a small number of apps, for some people that needed specific apps, they couldn’t make the jump to an ARM-powered PC’s…yet.

Even in 2018 with the introduction of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 and devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Book 2 the x64 app limitation remained. But the 855 boosted performance which made emulation of 32-bit apps faster and improved the Always Connected PC experience overall.

The Galaxy Book 2 is Samsung’s answer to the Surface Pro - The Verge

In 2019 Microsoft returned to the first-party ARM powered tablet space with a new Surface, the Surface Pro X. This time Microsoft had laid the foundations a few years prior to unveiling Surface Pro X.

Microsoft had worked with Qualcomm to design a custom Snapdragon 8cx chip and called it ‘SQ1’ (Surface Qualcomm 1). It featured an 7nm octa-core processor running at 3.0 GHz with a 2 teraflop capable Adreno 685 GPU, with RAM options started at 8GB with up to 16GB available.

Surface Pro X was impossibly thin, featured an ingenious pen charging cradle on the keyboard, a 13″ PixelSense display packing 2880 x 1920 pixels with slim bezels and gigabit LTE. The true pinnacle of what Windows 10 on ARM offers embodied in one device.

But still the 64-bit app limitation remains. To put that in context, we recently picked up a Surface Pro X and featured it in our recent article about Microsoft’s XCloud App for PC’s, running on our Surface Pro X. We would like to utilize Affinity’s Photo and Designer apps on it but they are only offered in x64 flavors.

Yes it is true that we could utilize Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator as they make 32-bit versions of their apps available but their subscription model is quite expensive when you consider each Affinity app is only $50, or if you get it at 50% off like it is now, it is much cheaper than Adobe’s monthly subscription. There are other apps some people need that are only offered in the 64-bit flavor, so for them Windows 10 on ARM is not an option yet.

See the source image

Fast forward to today, Microsoft recently announced that via a blog post that Microsoft is expanding their efforts with Windows 10 on ARM. OEM’s continue to build Windows 10 on ARM PC’s with a wider variety of chips available like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx, 8c and 7c. The 8cx is currently utilized in a handful of devices like the Samsung Galaxy Book in the image below.

The 7c in particular could enable low cost always connected LTE PC’s and all-day battery life to help bridge the broadband gap during and after the pandemic.

Recently after Apple announced their November 10th event believed to be the event where Apple will finally reveal their new Apple Silicon-based Macs. As we have stated before, it is widely believed that both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro will be unveiled together.

What’s behind the strategy of unveiling two ARM MacBooks together?

Let’s play out the scenario where Apple chose to only unveil one MacBook, the MacBook Air. The press would be hyper focused on that one product and it would be identified as the standard bearer for Apple Silicon Macs. Apple doesn’t want to sell just one ARM-based Mac, it wants to move the entire platform to its ARM-based Apple Silicon chips and unveiling just one device may not reinforce that strategy. By unveiling two or more Arm-based Apple Silicom-powered Macs, Apple is selling the future Apple Silicon platform to not only consumers but and perhaps more importantly, developers.

Apple needs developers on board for this transition to Apple Silicon-powered Macs and with the arrival of two or more Macs (new iMac), the message is supremely clear, there is no other path than to move forward with us, because in a few short years all Macs will be powered by Apple Silicon.

ARM-powered Mac Pro

We recently reported on Bloomberg’s report of a smaller of a smaller ARM-powered Mac Pro. The report says that Apple engineers are working on a design that is roughly “half the size.”

Apple engineers are currently developing a new ‌Mac Pro‌ that looks like the current design at about half the size. It’s unclear if that Mac will replace the current ‌Mac Pro‌ or if it’s an additional model. Apple’s chip designs could help the company reduce the size of its computers due to increased power efficiency, but the current ‌Mac Pro‌ is large, in part, to fit components like additional storage drives and graphics chips.

Are there ARM chips that can replace i7 and i9 processors in development?

Bloomberg recently said that the first of the three Apple Silicon chips will be a 12-core processor with a unique mix of eight high performance cores called “Firestorm” cores and four energy efficient core called “Icestorm” cores. There is a clear Fire & Ice reference here that also relates to the cores that will be hotter and cooler. Apple is said to already be working Apple Silicon with more than 12 cores with the company designing second-generation processors for Macs based on the future unannounced A15 chip.

In Bloomberg’s report, they provide details about chips themselves:

  • Three Mac System-on-Chip (SoC) designs based on the A14 processor are currently in development, and work has also started on a Mac SoC based on next year’s iPhone processor. Bloomberg speculates that Apple is planning to keep both its laptop and mobile chips on the same development cycle.
  • The Mac chips will reportedly be manufactured by TSMC based on a 5nm fabrication process.
  • The first of these chips will feature eight high-performance CPU cores and at least four energy-efficient cores, for 12 cores in total. The A12Z chip used in the current iPad Pro has eight cores: four high performance and four energy efficient.
  • As well as a CPU, the SoC will also include a GPU.
  • ARM Mac computers will continue to run macOS rather than switching to iOS, similar to the approach taken with existing Windows laptops that use Qualcomm ARM processors.
  • Bloomberg speculates that Apple’s first ARM-based machines will be lower-powered MacBooks because its own chips won’t be able to match Intel’s performance in its higher-end MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pro computers.
  • Back in 2018, Apple reportedly developed a prototype Mac chip based on that year’s iPad Pro A12X processor. The success of this prototype is thought to have given the company the confidence to target a transition as early as 2020.

The road to success

As with Microsoft, simply just getting your desktop OS to run on ARM is not enough to make it a success. App compatibility is a very important factor. It is possible that because of the proliferation of PWA’s and Apple own efforts with iOS app code base, apps on Macs could be a good foundation that could lead to future success.

With this move Apple will no longer be held back by a company like Intel, but instead “Apple in control of chip design and manufacturing, the company will be able to introduce new Mac models at peak market demand, Kuo says. Switching to in-house designs will “reduce processor costs by about 40% to 60%”, Kuo estimates.

Apple has been rumored to move its Mac platform to ARM for almost a decade. Iinitial rumors coming after Apple debuted its first A-series chip with iPhone 4’s A4 in 2010.

New rumors of an ARM-powered Mac arrived in February, when Kuo said hardware was to debut in early 2021. Now he has moved up that timeline, with an A-Series powered Mac would reach market by the end of 2020. Now we know exactly when in November this would happen, tomorrow the 10th at 10am PT.

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