Apple planning to replace Intel CPUs in Macs with custom ARM processors by 2020

The Cupertino giant is in the early stages of planning the third major architecture shift of Mac systems.

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Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • The plan, called "Kalamata," would transition Mac systems to ARM-based CPUs developed in-house at Apple, much like the processors found on iPhone and iPad devices.
  • Apple is also working on a software platform that would enable iOS apps to run on iMac and MacBook computers.

Apple is working on a long-term strategy to migrate iMac and MacBook products from Intel processors to ARM-based processors developed in-house, similar to the processors currently used on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV products. The report--which first appeared in Bloomberg--indicates that the plan called "Kalamata" would likely be a multi-step transition starting in 2020.

Apple already ships iMacs and MacBooks with ARM co-processors. The T1 co-processor was introduced to manage the Touch ID sensor in the 2016 and 2017 models of MacBook Pro, as well as act as an intermediary between the microphone and webcam, to prevent hackers from accessing that hardware.

Similarly, the T2 used in the iMac Pro is also used for image processing for the webcam. Both of these processors use a modified version of the watchOS used in the Apple Watch. The Bloomberg report indicated that similar ARM processors will be coming to new revisions of the MacBook for release later this year, and in iMac systems in 2019.

The capabilities of ARM-based processors are beginning to catch up to Intel designs in certain scenarios. Microsoft recently announced another attempt at releasing Windows for ARM, with laptops featuring LTE connectivity powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC. Unlike Windows RT, Windows 10 on ARM allows for inline emulation of x86 apps. For servers, both Qualcomm and Cavium have introduced ARM-powered servers that have significant power savings, with tests by CDN operator CloudFlare showing equivalent processing power at about half the power consumption of Intel processors. Ensuring performance continuity--particularly on Mac Pro systems, which are often used for photo/video editing and other creative use cases--is vital for the success of such a transition.

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This would be the third time the Mac has gone through an architecture shift. In June 2005, the company announced an intent to replace the PowerPC-based Macs with the now-current Intel platform. The first mass-market Mac systems with Intel processors appeared in January 2006, with the full hardware lineup being transitioned to Intel by that August. The final version of OS X to support PowerPC was 10.5 (Leopard), which was released in October 2007.

Similarly, Apple transitioned from the Motorola 68000 family of processors to PowerPC in 1994, with the introduction of the Power Macintosh 6100, 7100, and 8100 models. Both transitions included an inline emulator that allowed software written for older processors to be used on newer processors during the transition.

Apple's increased reliance on chips developed in-house may also be influencing the technology market in general. Google has introduced a custom image co-processor on the Pixel 2 smartphones, and Amazon is reportedly seeking to develop a specialized AI processor for the Echo, according to The Information.

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