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. You might think that there is no future for the petite super-slim laptop now that Apple is focusing its attention on the Air instead, but there is known to be work underway at Apple to create a Mac that uses an Apple-made processor, and it might just be the MacBook that this new chip premieres in.
It's likely that we will hear about these plans at WWDC 2020. This new MacBook could even arrive this year according to a normally-accurate Apple analyst.
In this article we round up all the rumours relating to a new version of the MacBook that could feature an Apple-made processor rather than an Intel processor. We'll also investigate whether the move to an Apple processor could mean that this Mac will run macOS and iOS.
This would be the first major transition since Apple moved from PowerPC chips co-developed with IBM and Motorola to Intel in 2006. Read about why Apple now needs to ditch Intel here.
Read on to find out more about Apple's plans to start using ARM rather than Intel chips in some of 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.
ARM-based Mac launch date
This new ARM-based Mac could arrive before the end of 2020, according to reliable analyst Ming Chi Kuo from TF International Securities.
In a March 2020 research note obtained by MacRumors, Kuo said Apple plans to launch MacBook models with its own custom processors in the fourth quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.
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.
That report suggests that the new Apple processor won't appear in a Mac until 2021. There are various reasons why we may have to wait that long. 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.
We might hear about the new Apple-powered Mac even sooner than 2021 though. Developer Steve Troughton-Smith tweeted that if the new Mac is due to hit the shelves in the first half of 2021 Apple could reveal its plans at WWDC in 2020 in order to give developers plenty of time to develop apps for the new platform. (Of course WWDC 2020 is now set to be an online only event due to Coronavirus).
That would make this WWDC the last WWDC before ARM Macs ship. If there is going to be a Developer Transition Kit this time round, now's the time. Apple gave a six-months heads-up for the Intel switch, provided SDKs and prototype hardware. What will happen this time? https://t.co/ASRVdQGOcM— Steve Troughton-Smith (@stroughtonsmith) February 24, 2020
It would make a lot of sense if Apple did alert developers to its plans some time before it puts them into action. It made a similar move with the transition to Intel. A lot of work will need to go on behind the scenes before the new Mac - and related software - is ready.
Along with the benefits of power efficiency and the fact that Apple would no longer have to wait for Intel to develop new chips - in recent years frustrating delays on Intel's part have no doubt meant we have waited longer for new Macs than we would have otherwise - there is another advantage to transitioning to ARM chips. Apple could conceivably run iOS on a Mac, or a least develop a new OS that would combine the best of both.
A 9to5Mac report in May 2018 revealed details of an in-house project as Apple codenamed 'Star' that could see Apple create an ARM-based processor to be used in a "brand new device family" that would run a derivative of iOS on a Mac.
Could this indicate that a future MacBook could run iOS alongside macOS? 9to5Mac believes this new Apple-made chip will be used for a brand-new device family that will run a derivative of iOS. That site points out that the 'Star' project relates to a product with that has "a touchscreen, a SIM card slot, GPS, compass, is water-resistant and also runs EFI." EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) is the boot system used by Macs.
At the time 9to5Mac suggested that we might see this new Mac as soon as 2020. The report suggested: "First ARM-based Mac, with a ship date as soon as 2020."
Apparently the 'Star' prototypes are being manufactured by Pegatron (who manufactures other Apple iOS devices). A small number of units have been shipped to Cupertino for testing by Apple employees.
We look forward to finding out if this new ARM-based laptop running iOS and macOS ever comes into fruition
A brand new MacBook running a combination of iOS and MacOS and powered by an Apple-designed ARM chip is likely 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 £1,099/$1,099.
The new style MacBook is likely to start at about £1,349 we estimate.
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...
The MacBook 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...
Apple's already transitioning its Mac laptops away from the problematic 'butterfly switch' keyboards so it's obvious that the new MacBook, if it transpires, will have the new style Magic Keyboard.
If you want to know more about the keyboard issues read MacBook keyboard issues.
Since its introduction in 2016, some models of MacBook Pro have had a Touch Bar along the top of the keyboard for shortcuts for everything from menus to emoji.
It would make sense for Apple to introduce this Touch Bar to the MacBook - keeping it to the MacBook Pro has made it such a novelty feature that there aren't many functions being developed by third parties, but if it was found on more Macs it might become more relevant.
Even if the Touch Bar doesn't arrive Touch ID is likely to, as it did with the MacBook Air.
The 12in MacBook currently has a resolution of 2,304 x 1,440 pixels at 226ppi.
It's possible that the new MacBook will gain True Tone, a technology that first appeared in the iPad Pro before arriving on the iPhone and the MacBook Pro. True Tone adjusts colour and white balance to better suit environmental lighting, so users should experience less eye strain, and colours should appear more accurate.
The new MacBook Air that launched in 2019 gained True Tone.
Apple is said to be considering an OLED display for the MacBook, at least according to sources at Korean ETNews back in 2016. We doubt this will materialise any time soon, though.
It seems that sharing your iPhone's cellular connection with your MacBook wasn't enough for Apple, if this patent approval is anything to go by. The patent, as described by the US Patent and Trademark Office, could allow the company to embed LTE hardware in the new MacBook, making it the first cellular-enabled Mac in Apple's range, past or present.
As well as LTE connectivity, the patent describes the use of Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth and satellite connectivity, and mentions ways to boost the signal without interference from the metal body of the MacBook. It's worth mentioning that this idea isn't new, though - it was originally filed on June 8 2015, and there was also talk of a 3G-enabled MacBook Pro back in 2008, but the idea was eventually rejected by Steve Jobs as he felt it would tie the user down to a particular carrier.
There's one final design change that we don't expect to see soon, but it's interesting that Apple has filed a patent outlining it. A patent discovered by Patently Apple suggests that Apple is working a hinge design that would allow it to make a clamshell MacBook.
According to the patent, the entire chassis of a MacBook would be made out of a single piece of material that bends in the middle thanks to a "flexible portion" which it refers to as a "living hinge".
In the patent application Apple describes how the flexible portion "may allow the rigid material to be folded in half and thus acts as a laptop clamshell".
That's all the rumours about the 12in MacBook out there right now. But if you're hungry for more speculation, you can read about the changes that could come to the Mac mini in 2019/2020.
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 it looks like we won't have to wait for long until a Mac ships with an ARM chip instead of an Intel processor.