The confirmation of Apple’s move from Intel-based processors to ARM-based processors across the Mac platform will impact consumers for years, if not decades, to come. This year’s ARM-powered MacBook Pro will be at the cutting edge of a transformative plan.
It is right to be excited about this move and its impact on Apple and the wider industry, but the transition will not be without risk. Here are three areas where MacOS on ARM is going to deliver… and one danger you need to be aware of.
The MacBook Is Going To Get Thinner
Even though this new MacBook Pro is going to have a keyboard and screen wrapped in aluminium with a glass trackpad and not enough ports (which MacBook has ever had enough ports?), the ARM-powered MacBook is going to be a new design.
Apple’s predilection for thin and light machines will be well served by the switch to ARM. I would expect that – much like the iPad and iPad Pro – there will be no need for a fan to help cool the laptop. Thermal design will still be important, but with less heat to draw away from the core Apple can pack the MacBook board as densely as the iPad Pro board.
Expect the ARM-powered MacBook to be one of the thinnest MacBooks yet.
There are going to be questions around the relative performance of the ARM processor compared to the Intel-powered Macs – as well as the comparisons to Windows 10 on ARM (although the initial benchmarks look to be in Apple’s favour). Eyes will be on MacOS 11 and how it optimises for ARM as well as continuing to serve the millions of Intel machines currently in use.
It’s not just the raw power where performance can be improved. The ARM processor should be more efficient in its use of battery power. That could see a laptop that will comfortably reach twenty hours of battery life while in use. That’s assuming Apple keeps the same size of battery. It could stay in the current endurance window and reduce the capacity, which would once more help with making a thinner and lighter machine.
The other area ARM offers better performance is on connectivity, especially LTE. A glance at the specs of the many ‘Pro’ styled Windows 10 machines and you will see cellular connections available. It’s not something that you find on MacBook Pro hardware, but it is on the iPad Pro. While Apple has not confirmed any specifications for the first consumer-focused ARM machine, the addition of LTE support should be under consideration.
MacOS on ARM has not appeared out of nowhere. Apple’s engineering team will have been working internally on this for many years, and some of the key third-party software will have been working with the the new architecture. The lack of ‘new’ features in MacOS over the last few years has left the MacBook range especially looking like Apple’s secondary team behind the iPhone and iPad families.
How much of that is down to Apple moving Mac from a powerful standalone computer to a cloud connected device, or more engineers allocated to ARM rather than Intel, is unlikely to have a clean answer.
But ARM is the future of the Mac platform. Apple will not want to top the ball on this one, in fact it will want not only to push the development heavily, it will want to be seen publicly to be pushing the development.
That means MacOS is going to get a lot more attention over the next two years, which should be of huge benefit to the platform and will build confidence in the new ARM world.
The Danger Of The Cutting Edge
From a practical point of view, MacOS on ARM is very much a brand new thing. It may have been tested inside Cupertino, it may be running on Developer Transition Units, and it may be with external app developers, but when the sales start both the MacBook Pro hardware and the MacOS on ARM software are going to be majorly tested.
It would be highly unusual if any product was perfect at launch, software bugs and unexpected use cases will always appear, even in mature hardware like the iPhone. With the move to ARM, everything is going to be new, and rough at the edges.
If you’re not ready to get your hands dirty and work round anything that’s broken, the first wave of MacOS on ARM hardware may not be for you. Let the geekerati test and break everything, and join in with the second wave later in 2021.
Apple’s decision to move the Mac platform to ARM should deliver a lot of benefits, and many of these will be immediately apparent on the first consumer laptops that go on sale. As with any significant move to a new architecture, it’s going to be a bit rocky at the start. Apple may have smoothed out as many bumps along the journey as possible, but the public have a way of pushing past the edge of the envelope.
This is ultimately a good thing, as it brings more stability to the platform, but it’s not an easy ride to get there.