ARM Powered Macs? By Josh Blagden | JB - Mac Help | JBlagden

ARM Powered Macs? By Josh Blagden

For years, there have been rumors that might switch from Intel to ARM processors in its Macs, or at least its MacBooks. From the perspective of processing power and energy efficiency, MacBooks could certainly benefit from ARM CPUs. Admittedly, we would lose Thunderbolt in the transition to ARM as it can only be used by computers which have Intel CPUs, and without Thunderbolt, we won’t be able to use eGPUs - though I have to admit that ARM CPUs have impressive graphics computing capabilities for being as small and power-efficient as they are.

Aside from the performance and upgradeability difference, another major concern is software compatibility. Apple would need to make a compatibility layer like Rosetta to bridge the gap between Intel and ARM software during the period of transition. During that period of transition, Apple would need to work on getting big software companies (i.e Microsoft, Adobe and Blizzard) to compile their software for ARM CPUs. The other issue with companies having to compile software for ARM is that it might force Mac owners to re-buy their software, or at least the software which they installed from optical media. Game developers could give away the ARM versions of their software to people who already paid for the Intel version, but they might charge for them because the OpenGL code would need to be converted to Vulkan, which in turn would need to be converted to Metal.

It’s possible that Apple has been slowly working towards this goal. For starters, Apple’s latest ARM CPU, the A9X is a dual-core 2.26 GHz CPU, which would be pretty good for a laptop, especially if Apple put two of them in each ARM-equipped MacBook. Here are some other things which could signal a move to ARM CPUs:

1. Switching from hard drives to NVMe Solid State Drives - Apple’s A9 and A9X CPUs have a NAND interface which uses an NVMe-based controller

2. Removing optical drives

3. Moving away from dedicated GPUs - ARM Macs wouldn’t need dedicated GPUs because ARM CPUs have very capable built-in GPUs 

I suppose the 12-inch MacBook could also be a move towards ARM Macs as it has only two connectors: a USB-C port which can be used for charging and data transfer, and a headphone jack. Though, I don’t like the idea of a computer which only has one port.  I can appreciate Apple’s attempts to make its MacBooks more mobile and power-efficient, but those goals should not be achieved if functionality is to be sacrificed. Can you imagine having to use an adapter to be able to plug a flash drive into your MacBook? Or having to use an adapter to be able to charge your MacBook and plug in a flash drive at the same time? It’s one thing to have a single port on an iOS device, but you just can’t do that on a Mac; it’s just too much of a loss of functionality. This is the sort of thing which is why Apple should not switch to ARM processors. Apple definitely should not switch to ARM processors on its desktops, but it also should not switch to ARM CPUs on its laptops. While it’s true that ARM CPUs would provide a huge power savings on laptops, the loss of functionality just isn’t worth it for many of us. There are some who can live with a single port, and Apple makes the 12-inch MacBook for those people. But most folks can’t live with a single port for charging and data transfer. If Apple was to transition from Intel to ARM CPUs, they should only do so with the 12-inch MacBook so the rest of us won’t have to suffer from the potential issues ARM-equipped Macs would present.

© Joshua Blagden & Justin Barczak 2013-2015