At WWDC 2020, Apple announced that its entire Mac product line will be transitioned to a new processor architecture within the next two years - those new processors being designed by Apple itself.

On 10 November 2020 Apple will present "One more thing" - or rather two or three new things - when it unveils its Macs with Apple Silicon. Here's everything you need to know.

What is Apple Silicon? (and why isn't it ARM?)

Apple is calling its architecture Apple Silicon, but it will be the same, self-developed Ax chips, that have featured in the iPhone and iPad for years.

At their core these processors are based on the ARM architecture, but that doesn't mean that Apple is using ARM processors in the sense that they were using Intel processors.

ARM provides Apple with the instruction set architecture, not the chip design. Apple's doing its own custom chip design. The ARM instruction set is a very small part of Apple Silicon - add to that Apple's expertise in performance and efficiency that Apple's chip design team has developed while designing chips for the iPhone and iPad (e.g. machine learning capabilities) and you get something far removed from an ARM Mac.

Apple's optimisations and improvements to the ARM architecture should ensure that the performance of an ARM Mac does not lag behind that of current Intel Macs.

To demonstrate this, Apple ran Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Lightroom on an Apple Silicone prototype. The Apple Silicon-equipped Mac executed the programs impressively smoothly. 

The big advantage for Apple of moving from Intel to its own processors is obvious: Apple will have the hardware of all of its platforms (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV and Mac) completely in its own hands and will be able to tailor it to the respective requirements. We have examined the reasons why Apple's move to Silicon makes sense here: Apple Silicon vs Intel.

Will Apple Silicon be fast?

Apple hasn't yet revealled benchmarks, but that's not stopped them from emerging.

Ahead of Apple's Mac event, leaked benchmark speed scores suggested the new ARM models will be able to thrash any current models. Read more about that here: A14X Bionic benchmarked.

The benchmarks for the developer Mac mini also emerged shortly after it was seeded. We discuss that here: Mac mini with A12Z chip benchmarked.

Will Apple Silcon be cheaper?

The new ARM CPUs should be cheaper. According to the analyst Ming Chi Kuo, Apple could save around 60 percent compared to what it spends currently. For now we don't know if Apple will charge less for the new Macs.

Which apps will work on Apple Silicon?

The operating system itself, as well as all Apple programs, will be available natively on the new platform from day one. We mentioned already that Apple ran Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Lightroom on an Apple Silicon prototype.

Adobe is also already working on converting its Creative Cloud and Microsoft's Office will also run natively. This is good news because it shows that Apple is serious and the big software houses are getting involved right from the beginning.

In addition the new Silicon Macs should be able to run iOS apps natively. However, so far few developers are intending to make their iOS apps available on the Mac App Store, with Facebook, Google and YouTube absent. Read more here: New Macs will run iOS apps - but not Facebook, Google Maps or YouTube.

Most apps that work on the Intel Mac should work on Silicon. Apple will include Rosetta 2 - a tool for translating code intended for Intel processors so that Apple Silicon understands it, however, it appears that it won't be able to translate everything.

Apple has outlined the limitations to Rosetta 2 in a support document.  The document reveals that Rosetta is unable to translate kernel extensions, but perhaps more concerning: Rosetta will not be able to translate x86_64 virtualisation apps.

Will Apple Silcon run windows?

Boot Camp is not supported on the ARM-based Macs. The virtualization of Windows with Fusion or Parallels will probably only be possible once there is an ARM version of Windows. However there are currently no ARM versions of Windows commercially available. It may be the case that Windows will not run on the new Apple Silicon Macs. Read more here: Will Windows run on Apple Silicon and Windows on the Mac is dead (probably) but it doesn't matter

Virtualization tools such as Parallels Desktop should continue to be  able to run other operating systems though. Apple showed a Debian Linux running as a virtual machine in Parallels Desktop. However, it was not clear whether the Linux system itself was compiled on ARM chips. Linux has long been available for different processor architectures. Apple has not yet shown Windows 10 running on Apple Silicon.

However, hopefully there will be a solution in the future. Senior Vice President of Engineering and Customer Support at Parallels, Nick Dobrovolsky, said back in June 2020 that: "Parallels is proud to be working closely with Apple during this exciting transition, and we're looking forward to launching support for future Macs with Apple Silicon."

Linux running in Parralels on a Mac

What to expect from Apple Silicon

The change not only bring with it completely new software, but also many innovations at the hardware and system level. A lot of information was shared by Apple at WWDC, but more information has been revealed since then. We'll run through some of the new features in Apple Silicon that could result in more powerful, faster and even cheaper Macs.

5nm process

The new chip in the iPhone 12 was manufactured using the 5nm process, which was a first. This new process should enable higher performance with lower power consumption and will certainly also be used on Macs. The Intel processor in the MacBook Pro is still manufactured using the 10nm process, and dissatisfaction with Intel’s progress is said to have been a reason for the change. However, one should not forget that Intel also relies on a new technology called 10nm SuperFin from the Tiger Lake CPUs, which could also bring many improvements.

Fast and slow CPUs

The Intel CPUs in the current Mac have several cores, but these are equally fast. You save electricity by clocking down to lower clock rates. In contrast, Apple chips, such as the A14, contain two fast and several low-power, slow cores for background tasks.

The two high-performance cores (Firestorm) of the A14 clock at around 3GHz, while the the four energy-efficient cores (Icestorm) are significantly lower.

The high clock rate of up to 3.01GHz is only achieved for a short time as batteries will be drained in high performance.

This so-called asymmetric multiprocessing should ensure optimal runtimes for mobile Macs.

Note, the new M1 Macs with Apple's Silicon processors will not support eGPU - read more here: M1 Macs will not support eGPU.

Special chips for AI and video

Intel CPUs are, in a sense, general purpose CPUs that do just about any computing task. Apple's chips, on the other hand, have numerous special chips for certain tasks such as machine learning.

There is, for example, the Neural Engine, which is optimised for special calculations such as AI. It carries out tasks such as CoreML models faster and more energy-efficiently than the CPU.

In many newer Macs, the T2 chip already takes on tasks such as video decoding and encryption, but Apple will probably expand this further.

Neural Engine and "AMB Blocks"

On the board of the A14 the Neural Engine (with 16 cores) occupies the same space as the CPU cores. In addition, the A14 chip offers "matrix multiplication accelerators" or AMB blocks, which are specialized in machine learning tasks. Core ML is the interface for these highly specialized computing units.

Core ML offers an app developer access to frameworks such as vision (image analysis), natural language (text analysis) and speech (audio-to-text) and sound analysis. So far it is not known how Apple will implement in its Macs, but the new ARM Macs will probably receive these special chips.

As was shown during the iPhone keynote, for example, the Super Resolution feature powered by Apple’s Neural Engine enables an iPhone app such as Pixelmator Pro to have completely new functions.

In seconds, the tool can perform high-quality scaling functions that would take much longer if calculated by the CPU. As an example, it was shown how a greatly enlarged part of an image can be scaled up and smoothed in seconds - a task that desktop software such as Photolemur can take a long time to complete. Speech and sound analysis is also accelerated. The CPU can also perform such calculations, albeit with higher energy consumption and longer working hours. The advantage of the Intel CPU is its greater versatility.

Unified memory

Unified Memory or UMA technology is also new. Graphics card and CPUs share a common memory. The difference to the integrated graphics solutions from Intel: With these, the graphics card is assigned part of the memory permanently - this is referred to as shared memory, which is then no longer available to the system. For example, the CPU and GPU can access the same photo in memory during a task and process it faster.

New graphics cards

Thanks to its integrated graphics solutions, Intel is actually the largest graphics card manufacturer in the world, and many Macs also have integrated graphics solutions from the company. Not only will there be a new CPU - Apple is also going to be using its own graphics cards in the new Macs.

This won’t be the first time Apple has made graphics cards - the new iPhone Pro, for example, has a new graphics chip with four graphics cores. MacBooks should have even more powerful graphics cards.

Video encoder and decoder

HD or 4K videos can be played on mobile devices using specialized chips - this is the only way to stream 4K video on a mobile device for hours. The Macs will also receive this same hardware and will therefore be able to play videos or convert videos to another format without a high CPU load.

However, this assumes that the video is in a certain format such as AVC or HEVC. In a MacBook, the graphics card is currently doing this so-called hardware acceleration.

Improved safety

The innovations include new security functions. Apple is introducing a protected memory area with the new ARM architecture - for the so-called kernel, for example. This Kernel Integrity Protection prevents changes to the kernel. Pointer authentication and device isolation also secure the Mac. But the new Rosetta technology, which makes old Mac software usable, is also specially protected.

New boot process

EFI is not applicable, the boot process is based on iOS and iPadOS: The boot ROM starts, then the boot loader and then macOS. However, the system has been expanded for the Mac and continues to support multiple macOS installations, multiple versions of macOS and macOS recovery boot systems. Starting from external drives will also continue to be possible.

Apparently, every system can also be started in several security levels: At higher security levels, no kernel extensions are allowed, and only signed macOS versions.

No key commands at startup

If you hold down certain keys when starting a Mac, this triggers certain actions - such as starting the rescue system. This does not apply to the new Macs (due to the lack of EFI), but you can open a special menu with a long press on the start button - here you can then trigger special actions such as starting the rescue system - with the mouse and keyboard.

Target Disk Mode

The target disk mode is not applicable. A network release is intended to replace the useful function.

macOS recovery

For repairs there is also a rescue partition for repairs and reinstallation’s. But there is a second new version: This 'System Recovery’ is a mini-system in a hidden container, with which you can reinstall macOS - and macOS Recovery.

Future of Thunderbolt

What happens to technologies like Thunderbolt 3 (which comes from Intel) is still unclear. It is unlikely that Apple will license Intel's Silicon Thunderbolt. We speculate that it will adopt USB 3 or introduce another proprietary interface technology.

What will developers need to do?

The change from Intel to Apple Silicon will primarily be achieved by recompiling the existing source code for the new architecture. That means that developers will have to create new versions of their programs and upload them to the App Store. This should be a simple process: Apple said that most projects should be portable within a few days.

However, for best performance, developers may need to make adjustments to the way they use hardware resources. Apple recommends that developers should reduce dependency on hardware and, if possible, use higher-level technologies. Apple mentions Grand Central Dispatch as an example, which should be used with multithreaded apps instead of creating and managing the threads itself.

The central tool for porting is a new version of the Xcode development environment, which Apple always makes available free of charge for developers. When compiling, Xcode 12 now creates so-called Universal 2 Apps, which contain the code for both Intel and ARM processors.

How to comfigure app for Silicon

Despite this, programs that the developers cannot port immediately should still work on the new hardware platform right from the start. This is made possible by the inclusion of a translation unit that works in a similar way as Rosetta did when switching from PowerPC to Intel chips. The new system is called Rosetta 2.

Apple's Craig Federighi explained that the code was translated to the new architecture when the programs were installed. This suggests that it uses a type of cross compiler that is triggered via the Mac App Store. If you download a program from the App Store on a Mac that is already based on the new architecture, the machine code of the app is translated to ARM during the installation.

This will save a lot of time and computing power when the app is running. However, it suggests that Rosetta 2 might only be used for programs that are installed via the Mac App Store. Apps that are obtained from other sources either have to be translated at runtime or that Apple will offer a special tool for this.

What won't work?

Intel kernel extensions will probably not work. It is also said that not all Intel commands can be translated into the ARM architecture. Developers report limitations on so-called AVX, AVX2, and AVX512 vector instructions that cannot be translated. Intel programs that use these instructions will either not work at all or will be significantly slower.

As we mentioned above, it may also be the case that Windows will not run on an Apple Silicon Mac even via virtual machines such as VMware and Parallels.

Will iPhone and iPad apps run on the new Macs

A side effect of the new architecture that should not be underestimated is that iOS and iPad OS programs will run natively on the new Macs. This gives Mac users millions of new applications in one fell swoop, making the Mac the largest gaming platform in the world. A brilliant move. How special hardware features, such as multi-touch gestures, gyroscope, acceleration sensors and compass (which are often used as control functions in iOS games in particular) are to be implemented on Macs without this hardware is still unknown.

Details of the Mac mini for developers

Apple has not yet released a Mac product based on Apple Silicon - the rumour of a new ARM-powered MacBook has not come true. However, Apple is offering a special Mac mini equipped with Apple Silicon to developers.

This Mac mini will have the following specs: 

  • A12Z SoC
  • 16GB RAM
  • 512GB SSD
  • macOS Big Sur developer beta and Xcode

It will cost $500 as part of the Universal App Quick Start Program - but at some point Apple requires that the unit should be returned to Apple.

As for the consumer model of the Apple Silicon Mac, according to Tim Cook, the first Mac with Apple Silicon should come on the market before the end of the year. You can read what we know about the Apple Silicon/ARM Mac here: it's said to be a 13in MacBook Pro.

The transition period will take two years, according to Cook, until then Macs with Intel CPU will continue to launch.

Our collegues at Macwelt in Germany have run native benchmarks on the Mac mini developer kit and seen impressive results. More here: Apple Silicon beats MacBook Pro in speed comparison.

Which new Macs will feature Apple Silicon?

Apple's already offering a Mac mini with an Apple processor, but this will be available only for developers. You are no doubt wondering what is the first Mac with Apple Silicon.

You can read about the first Macs with Apple Silicon here:

Read more about how Apple's Silicon plans threaten Intel and AMD

This article includes multiple articles from Macwelt.