Information Technology

Apple Officially Ditches Intel; Fully Commits to the ARM’s Race

Ring the gong; the Cupertino giant finally decided to drop the ole’ x86-based processors in favour of custom Apple-made ARM chips. The transition is going to affect all Mac users in a couple of years. But before we talk about that, let’s look at some history.

A Bit of Context and History

An instruction set provides specific commands that allow a processor to run a program.  In the early day of computing, there were many competing processors with instructions set that were incompatible with one another. Over time, the market settled for a few instruction sets.

Intel’s x86 is the instruction set of the Intel 8086 and 8088 processors that were released in 1978 and 1979 respectively.  In 1981, IBM picked the 8088 as the processor of their famous IBM Personal Computer Model 5150; the computer that launched the PC revolution. To maintain compatibility, all successors had to come with a processor based on the same instruction set.  As such, all modern PCs still use an expanded version of the x86 instruction set. Obviously, X86 processors also include processors made by AMD such as the Ryzen, A-series and Athlon Processor.

The original IBM 5150 in all its beige glory.

Macintosh’s many transitions  

While early Macs boasted Motorola chips, Apple transitioned to PowerPC CPUs in 1992 before switching again to Intel x86-based processors in 2005.     The switch to Intel silicon not only enabled Windows to be installed on Mac hardware, but also provided Apple with an invaluable partnership with the giant. At the time, Intel was king of the hill, and nobody came even close. Only, the tables have turned and in the last couple of years, the ageing instruction set started to show some wrinkles.

So what’s with that ARM thing?

The Arm instruction set is nothing new; it was introduced in 1985.   It is also extremely common- If you own a modern smartphone, you already have a microcomputer running on ARM. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Apple’s A-series processors are notable examples. What makes ARM special is that it is extremely energy-efficient and flexible. Now that the gap in performance between ARM and power-hungry x86 processors is closing, there is no reason to keep the resource hog alive. In fact, Arm chips are expected to outperform Intel CPUs very soon. Even Intel processors are no longer competitive with AMD X86 offerings.

Transition Means Emulation… And Headaches

As I mentioned earlier, an architecture can’t natively run applications conceive for another architecture. Since developers aren’t expected to churn out new versions of every app overnight, the Arm-based Mac OS will need to be able to run x86 applications. This requires software emulation, which enables a computer to imitate another program or device.  Meanwhile, giants like Apple, Microsoft and Adobe already have natives ARM versions of their programs ready. Obviously, running programs natively means better performance.  

 If you buy one these new Mac, make sure to download native ARM versions of your programs as soon as they’re available. If you own an older Mac, developers might drop the x86 versions of their program at some point. However, unlike their Intel Predecessor, ARM Mac won’t support Windows on Boot Camp. Still, the good news is that Apple is no stranger to transitions, and, with any luck, it should be relatively smooth for users.

Windows is also transitioning. Somewhat…

You can already buy a Windows laptop with an ARM-based CPU;  Microsoft already has an ARM version of Windows 10. That version of Window can also emulate 32-bit applications that run on classic x86 Windows, once again at the cost of performance. Expect to see emulation 64-bit applications by 2021. The sooner programmers churn out the native version of your favourite program, the better.

However, given the almost infinite amount of Windows software available, I wouldn’t expect the transition to happen overnight. I don’t own a crystal ball, but I suspect gamers will have a hard time dealing with compatibility issues and performance drop, as games often rely on specific instructions. Not to mention that businesses can’t be expected to replace their entire fleet in the span of a few months, especially if their old computers meet their needs. As such, I expect that both ARM and x64 Windows will coexist for quite a while…

Final Thoughts

It’s going to be interesting for developers, IT specialists and technical writers to see how that transition unfolds. It also means more work opportunities, which is good news in that stagnant market. It’s also too early to tell if you should upgrade. I suspect it might take a while to see machines that significantly outperform their predecessors.

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