Ever since WWDC, we’ve been eagerly awaiting Apple’s first Macs running on Apple Silicon. Will they be drastically redesigned? How well will Apple Silicon Macs perform?
Along with announcing the transition in June, Apple provided a Developer Transition Kit to help developers prepare for building their apps for the new architecture. It was provided as a Mac mini enclosure running an A12Z chip, the same in the latest iPad Pro models. While (presumably) designed just for the iPad, the chip worked well enough to run macOS Big Sur. From developer chatter on Twitter, it seems to run fairly well. The benchmarks were decent, outperforming the MacBook Air in a device that isn’t intended to showcase the power of Apple’s Mac-intended silicon.
Apple builds a lot of custom silicon. Even the S-series chips used in the Apple Watch are based on A-series designs. Might this basis allow for a clearer understanding of macOS support on Macs?
This morning, a post by MacRumors shared information about an iMac coming in 2021 running an “A14T” chip. If true, what might this mean for Macs on Apple Silicon? While we are less than a month away from knowing details about the first available Macs with Apple Silicon, here are some thoughts I have.
Stronger Tie to iOS Devices
When Apple announces a new version of iOS, by announcing the devices that support it, they also clearly signal what devices can’t. Occasionally, a release will drop support for one or more devices, typically devices with the same chipset. For instance, iOS 11 dropped support for the A6, and iOS 13 dropped the A7 (and devices with 1GB of RAM running on an A8). If Mac chips are based on A-series designs, we may see similar drop offs with devices. Instead of saying an OS release requires Macs from some year and up, they could just say Macs with a particular chip.
With this change, I also suspect that we will see Macs and iOS devices from a particular year, running on the same chip, to lose new OS support at the same time. For instance, should iOS 20 drop support for the A14 (announced this year in the iPad Air 4 and iPhone 12), the macOS release of that year could also drop support for the Macs running the Mac-equivalent chip.
Now, why would that happen? Why can’t Macs, with higher specs, support OS releases for longer? They technically could. But I think one thing to consider is a big feature of running Big Sur on Apple Silicon: Running iOS and iPadOS apps natively on a Mac. When an iOS app is built with a minimum supported version of iOS 14, for example, the Apple Silicon Mac must also support the APIs required to run that app. That means a stronger tie between macOS and iOS. It also implies a strong connection between the hardware.
Apple devices already are known for incredible support when it comes to OS updates. No other manufacturer ensures their smartphones get as many major releases as iPhone. And this isn’t anything new. Even the second generation iPad supported 6 major versions of iOS during its lifetime! Right now, the average for iOS devices seems to be between 5 and 6 years. However, macOS Big Sur is available for some Macs that are 7 years old. So, I see this tighter relationship between Macs and iOS devices to culminate in one of two changes:
- Macs start supporting only 5-6 major OS releases, in line with iOS/iPadOS devices – I don’t see this as likely, as Apple would not want to be seen as reducing support of their most expensive computing product line. Then people might say, “When it ran Intel, they would support 7 year old Macs. Now they barely can last 5 years!” I think Apple would want to show that their Macs have better support on Apple Silicon than Intel.
- iOS/iPadOS devices start supporting OS releases for more than 6 years – Should macOS stay at supporting Macs that are 7-8 years old, perhaps one day we’ll have an iOS device that can be said to have supported 7-8 major OS releases now. They support 5-6 now, and the A14 in this year’s products is so far ahead of the A8 and A9 currently supported at the low end with iOS 14 that I can see it easily lasting to iOS 21, 22, or beyond.
Performance vs Battery Life
Already, Apple is comfortable with making variants of their chips for different products. This has been true ever since the A5X in the third generation iPad. Apple continues that trend to this day, with the iPad Pros running the A12Z (virtually identical to the A12X, with one additional core). These improvements typically are for the benefit of the iPad while retaining great battery life.
General expectations are that Macs running on Apple Silicon will have better battery life and better performance than their Intel counterparts. How will that be delivered?
I’m curious if we’ll see trade-offs made between the portable and desktop lines. For instance, perhaps we would find the A14T (the rumored Mac chip) in both the MacBook Pro and iMac. This chip might be the Mac-specific version of the A14, given additional cores to power what people expect from a Mac. It may even be an offshoot of the A14X (if one such chip launches later this year). So you would see an A14, A14X with improved graphics, and A14T with additional changes for the Mac.
This same chip might be able to scale across Apple’s entire Mac line. On the MacBook Pro, it would be tuned for better battery life with moderate performance. But for the desktop, with constant power and better cooling, it might be tuned for higher performance. Pair it with additional RAM and Apple’s custom GPUs, and you’d have a singular chip to track for Apple’s Macs during any given generation. Gone would be the days of choosing to buy a new MacBook with an i3, i5, or i7 processor. Instead, you’re buying a Mac with an A14T. You just are choosing how it’s tuned.
Is this how it’ll all turn out? Again, we will have to wait and see. But however it ends up, I’m excited to see what this new generation of Mac will bring.