Apple breaks up with Intel to switch to custom Arm chips for Macs

Apple has confirmed that it will replace Intel processors in its Mac computers with custom Arm-based processors, which it is already using in iPhones and iPads.

The announcement was made at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), which was for the first time an entirely virtual event with no in-person attendance.

“From the beginning, the Mac has always embraced big changes to stay at the forefront of personal computing. Today we’re announcing our transition to Apple silicon, making this a historic day for the Mac,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “With its powerful features and industry-leading performance, Apple silicon will make the Mac stronger and more capable than ever. I’ve never been more excited about the future of the Mac.”

Apple will stop using Intel’s x86 desktop chips – which it has been using since 2006 – and replace them with custom-designed processors based on architecture from Cambridgeshire-based Arm. These processors are already being used in Apple’s recent iPhones and iPads. Arm architecture has been widely adopted by smartphone manufacturers – with Qualcomm, Huawei and Samsung among the companies to use custom Arm chips – while Microsoft has experimented with incorporating Arm-based chips into its Surface PCs.

Cook said that Apple expects to ship its first Mac with Apple processors by the end of 2020, although it is likely to take two years for its full line of Mac laptops and desktop computers to switch over. A company statement said that Apple would continue to support and release new versions of macOS for Intel-based Macs for “years to come” and has new Intel-based Macs in development.

According to Apple, the transition will allow it to offer new features and enhanced performance, as well as making it easier to develop software for a consistent Apple ecosystem. Marking the shift, MacOS will move to version 11 (nicknamed ‘Big Sur’), having only been assigned iterations of version 10 (OS X) since the release of OS X Public Beta in 2000.

Most noticeably for users, Big Sur will feature a major redesign of the interface reflecting a convergence between Apple’s computers and mobile devices.

The system will support iPhone and iPad apps without any modification required. Among other changes, Apple will introduce a space for notifications and widgets (reflecting the iOS 14 design) and the introduction of the iPhone’s Control Centre to the desktop for quick settings changes.

Apple has already adapted its own software in preparation for the switchover, including professional apps like Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro.

The company will be under pressure to make it as simple as possible for developers to update their apps to ensure a smooth transition over the next two years; Apple’s VP for software Craig Federighi announced that developers should be able to adapt their apps “in a matter of days”. Apple will also automatically translate old apps at point of installation to run on the new system via an emulator called Rosetta 2, although this may limit some functionality.

Microsoft is reportedly already working on a new version of Office, and Adobe is working on a new version of Photoshop.

The move will give Apple significantly more autonomy in the design of future products. Geoff Blaber from CCS Insights commented: “Apple has made enormous investments in Arm chip design and it’s logical that it extends that capability beyond the iPhone and iPad. Its motivations for doing so include reducing its dependence on Intel, maximising its silicon investment, boosting performance, and giving itself more flexibility and agility when it comes to future products.”