A new Mac is in the pipeline and it will run on Apple Silicon - that's the name Apple is using for its custom made ARM-based chips that it will be transitioning to over the next two years, with the first Apple Silicon powered Mac launching before the end of the year.
Apple's already revealed that a Mac mini will provide the case for the first such Mac, but this will be available only for developers. You are no doubt wondering when this Mac will be available for you - enticed no doubt by the promise of being able to run iOS and iPad apps natively on the new Mac.
Apple's said that the first Mac with the A12Z chip will arrive by the end of 2020. It might seem likely that this new Mac will also take on the form of the Mac mini - but as you will see if you read on, it could also be found in a new MacBook laptop capable of running iPhone and iPad apps alongside Mac apps. And wouldn't it be great if it also had a touch screen!
Read on to find out more about Apple's plans to start using ARM rather than Intel chips in its Macs. We'll address the release date of this new Mac that could be capable of running both iOS and macOS, its price and what we know so far about these next-gen Apple-made processors.
What is Apple Silicon?
We already knew that work was underway at Apple to create a Mac that uses an Apple-made processor, and now we know this to be the case.
This is the first major transition since Apple moved from PowerPC chips co-developed with IBM and Motorola to Intel in 2006. We have everything you need to know about Apple Silicon here, plus why Apple now needs to ditch Intel here.
ARM Mac launch date
Apple has confirmed that the first ARM Mac will arrive before the end of 2020. That backs up the prediction of reliable analyst Ming Chi Kuo from TF International Securities who said in March 2020 that this new ARM-based Mac could arrive before the end of 2020.
However, Apple doesn't expect to have completed the transition by the end of 2021 - it said that it would take two years during the WWDC presentation.
Kuo previously said that the new Apple-powered Mac wouldn't arrive until 2021. In a research note on 24 February 2020 Kuo suggested that Apple has ramped up research and development relating to a home-made processor that could be used in a Mac as soon as the first half of 2021.
Kuo said: "We expect that Apple's new products in 12-18 months will adopt processors made by 5nm process, including the new 2H20 5G iPhone, new 2H20 iPad equipped with mini LED, and new 1H21 Mac equipped with the own-design processor." Via 9to5Mac.
The rumours of a ARM based Mac have been rolling for a few years now and Kuo and others had previously suggested that we could see the new Apple-powered Mac in 2020.
Kuo and Bloomberg's Mark Gurman have been making predictions about Apple's plans to switch to home-made chips for some time. An April 2018 Bloomberg report made the prediction based on word from "people familiar with Apple's plans". Kuo, who's usually pretty accurate, suggested in October 2019 that 2020 could be the launch date for Macs with custom processors.
In the initial Bloomberg report Gurman revealed details of the initiative, codenamed Kalamata, that could see Apple "able to more tightly integrate new hardware and software, potentially resulting in systems with better battery life."
In the April 2020 report Bloomberg sources suggest that work is underway on processors with eight high performance cores, codenamed Firestorm. While four of these Mac cores will be energy efficient cores, codenamed Icestorm.
There are various reasons why we may have to wait a while for all Macs to transition. One reason is the Coronavirus Lockdown: this will delay the project as Apple needs software and hardware teams to work together on the transition, which is difficult in the current climate of social distancing.
Also, while consumer focused Macs may adopt the new silicon soon, more high-end pro-focused Macs will need more powerful chips and these will inevitably take longer for Apple to finesse.
The WWDC keynote suggested that rather than running iOS on a Mac it will be possible to run iOS apps on the Mac.
A 9to5Mac report back in May 2018 revealed details of an in-house project as Apple codenamed 'Star' that suggested that Apple was creating an ARM-based processor to be used in a "brand new device family" that would run a derivative of iOS on a Mac.
That the 'Star' project related to a product with that has "a touchscreen, a SIM card slot, GPS, compass, is water-resistant and also runs EFI," according to 9to5Mac. EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) is the boot system used by Macs.
Mac or MacBook?
For while we've thought that the MacBook would be a good contender to be the first Apple Silicon-powered Mac, but now the Mac mini looks like a possibility (since it's the Mac that Apple is shipping to developers who want a Mac with the A12Z silicon installed).
The reason we thought the MacBook would be a good candidate is that it will soon be three years since Apple's 12in MacBook was last updated (back in June 2017), and the company officially discontinued it in July 2019.
Whether its a new Mac mini or a brand new MacBook powered by this Apple-designed ARM chip we expect it to be priced at the higher end of the scale. We'd expect it to cost more than the 2017 MacBook did, for example.
Prices for the 2017 MacBook were as follows:
- 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 Kaby Lake, 256GB, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 615: £1,249/$1,299.
- 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 Kaby Lake, 512GB, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 615: £1,549/$1,599.
Its main competition would come from the MacBook Air and now that the 2019 model's price has dropped from £1,199/$1,199 to £999/$999.
The new style MacBook is likely to start at about £1,349 we estimate.
However, the starting price of a Mac mini is much lower than the MacBook, so we could conceivably see a lower price if that is the first Apple Silicon Mac.
The Mac mini starts at £799/$799 and goes up to £1,099/$1,099 so we could see the Apple Silicon version retail at £1,099/$1,099 once it launches to the public.
Design & features
If the MacBook does return we are likely to see some significant physical changes. Slimmer bezels are likely, allowing Apple to increase the size of the display by an inch diagonally, without having to increase the size of the laptop significantly.
The MacBook was already incredibly thin at 13.1mm, and it weighs just 0.9kg, making it 24 percent thinner than the old MacBook Air - but in comparison to the redesigned MacBook Air that launched in 2018 the MacBook is only a fraction smaller (28.05cm x 19.65cm, 0.92kg compared to 30.41cm x 21.24cm, 1.25kg). So to compete with that it would need to shrink a bit more...
We wouldn't expect the design of the Mac mini to change.
Similarly the Mac mini size is unlikely to change for the same reason as Apple didn't change the design in 2018 because so many set ups accomodate the existing design.
However, we could see change from the MacBook, which was available in one size - a screen size of 12in, while the laptop itself measures 28.05cm by 19.65cm. It's possible that by shrinking the bezels Apple will be able to shrink the size of the laptop even more. Alternatively the screen size could be bigger - perhaps a 13in display.
The issue with reducing the size of the laptop is if it means the keyboard also shrinks. One benefit of the current dimensions is that it accommodates a full-sized laptop. Speaking of which...
If we are getting an Apple Silicon-powered MacBook we'd love a touch screen! Apple says that touch screens aren't right for Macs but we beg to differ (and so do all children who have grown up with touchscreen devices).
Apple already makes its own processors
A quick word on the Apple processors already in existence - these will, after all, give us some clues about what to expect.
Apple makes its own processors that are are used in iPads, iPhones, the Apple TV, HomePod, the Apple Watch, and AirPods. They are also already appearing inside Macs, although not as the main processor.
The Intel processors that Apple has used in its Macs since 2006 are x86 chips. The processors Apple makes in house are ARM-based. While x86 chips are better suited to more complex applications, for the majority of Mac-users ARM chips would be suitable for their needs. ARM has the benefit of being more power efficient and because they wouldn't require a fan for cooling switching to ARM processors could allow for smaller and thinner Macs.
This is why we consider the MacBook to be the most likely destination for this new processor. It's unlikely that the initial batch of Apple-made processors would be good enough to compete with the pro-focused Intel processors. But they are likely to do a great job against the Intel processors found in the entry-level Macs.
The first processor designed by Apple was the A4, which appeared inside the iPhone 4 back in 2010 (and subsequently the iPad, iPod touch and Apple TV). The latest A-series chip is the A13 Bionic that features in the iPhone 11 series.
Apple also makes S-series chips for use inside the Apple Watch, and W-series and H-series for use inside the AirPods. There is also a U-series chip used for Ultra Wideband technology in the iPhone 11-series.
The T1 and T2 are ARM-based security related chips that appear in various Macs. The T1 chip first appeared inside the MacBook Pro in 2016. It had the sole purpose of running the System Management Controller (SMC) and the Touch ID sensor. Its successor, the T2 adds an image signal processor, audio controller, a SSD controller, secure boot and encryption features, and "Hey Siri" support.
You might think that ARM processors aren't powerful enough to power a Mac, but the A12X chip found in the iPad Pro, for example, are almost as powerful as the processor inside the MacBook Pro from a couple of years ago.
The gap is closing between ARM and x86 and now we know we won't have to wait for long until a Mac ships with an ARM chip instead of an Intel processor.