Hardware

New MacBook Pro is an Intel/ARM hybrid, and here's why it's a big deal

The new MacBook Pro has an Intel chip powering the main computer, and an additional ARM processor for the Touch Bar and Touch ID, which are essentially run by watchOS.

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Image: James Martin/CNET

When Tim Cook and company took the stage in late October to announce the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro line, the most alluring feature was the new Touch Bar and Touch ID integration. The Touch Bar is multi-touch retina display that replaced the area normally reserved for the function keys, and allows for customization.

However, the Touch Bar brings with it another new feature of the MacBook Pro—an ARM processor. The core computing functions in the MacBook Pro are handled by a standard Intel chip (core i5 or i7), but a standalone T1 ARM chip handles the security for the Touch Bar, Touch ID, and the camera, implementing Apple's Secure Enclave.

So, what exactly is the T1 chip? As noted by developer Steven Troughton-Smith on Twitter, the T1 is "very similar to S1," which is the chip that runs the Apple Watch. However, what may be even more interesting, Troughton-Smith wrote, is that the Touch Bar seems to be running the watchOS, or a variant of it.

SEE: Apple's new MacBook Pro: 4 things professionals need to know

Additionally, there may also be some evidence that the Touch Bar itself is independent from macOS Sierra, and could potentially run while the machine is turned off, as reported by The Verge. Although, that doesn't mean they don't work together.

Currently, the two operating systems send data back and forth, which allows macOS to relay relevant information about touch events back to the Touch Bar, Troughton-Smith wrote. Regardless, the addition of the ARM processor to handle certain functions frees up the traditional Intel processor for more compute-intensive tasks, so the processor won't be bogged down by the Touch Bar and Touch ID.

The inclusion of a secondary processor opens up a lot of possibilities for the future of the MacBook line. Of course, we could potentially see ARM-powered peripherals, such as a wireless keyboard with Touch ID. If the technology advanced enough, though, it might even be possible for us to see a fuller version of iOS embedded within a MacBook Pro, furthering the productivity of tools such as Continuity, which Apple introduced with Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.

SEE: Apple MacBook Pro 2016: The smart person's guide

Despite the hype Apple built around the Touch Bar, the guidelines for developing with it are somewhat limiting. According to Apple's official documentation, "The Touch Bar shouldn't display alerts, messages, scrolling content, static content, or anything else that commands the user's attention or distracts from their work on the main screen." That could kill some of the potential productivity provided for business users, but Apple could eventually back off of that if it receives enough pushback.

As of the time of this writing, the Touch Bar hasn't hit the public market yet, so it is unclear how it will be received. While some have lauded Apple for the design, others have questioned why the company didn't simply introduce a full touch screen Mac.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. The new MacBook Pro has both an Intel core processor and an ARM processor to help handle the Touch Bar and Touch ID functions.
  2. The secondary ARM processor could open up new possibilities for MacBooks in the future, with additional features for continuity and peripheral devices.
  3. It is unclear how the market will respond to Apple's Touch Bar, as many called for a full touch screen Mac.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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