Transitioning macOS to ARM will take years. In the interim, AMD should provide Apple with x86 hardware.
According to rumors, Apple intends to manufacture its CPUs and GPUs for Macs. Today’s T2 processors are merely a small first step; the real leap will occur when a MacBook is built around an A12X processor. It makes sense from both a power-to-performance ratio and a cost-to-performance ratio standpoint. Perhaps most importantly, it gives Apple complete control over its entire platform and enables the company to innovate in ways it cannot when it outsources the very core of its computers.
For these and other reasons, I believe it makes sense for Apple to begin transitioning macOS to ARM and to produce computers with its CPUs and GPUs. However, this transition will take decades. Apple should abandon Intel in favor of AMD while this is taking place.
Improved performance with less energy
The consumer chips AMD will ship this year — new third-generation Ryzen chips based on the Zen 2 core and Ryzen Threadripper high-end desktop and workstation chips with the same technology — will do more than challenge Intel. The current generation of these processors already matches or surpasses Intel in almost all tasks, except high-end gaming. And let’s face it, even though I adore Mac games, gaming is simply not a strong Mac market.
We have only seen small glimpses of the new 7nm products that AMD will ship this year, but the company is dominating. During its keynote address at CES, AMD displayed an engineering sample of the new third-generation Ryzen processor operating at a slower speed. Despite this, it outperformed a Core i9-9900K in a Cinebench test. Given that both chips contained 8 cores and 16 threads, this is a remarkable achievement.
However, when AMD’s Lisa Su demonstrated a Ryzen chip, the layout was readily apparent. It appears that space was intentionally left for a second 8-core, 16-thread “chipset,” leading me to believe that the company played it close to the vest by revealing only its 8-core model. If AMD can match or surpass Intel core-for-core and release a 16-core, 32-thread regular desktop CPU, they will almost certainly take the overall performance crown this year, despite Intel’s improvements.
AMD’s CES demonstration was also significant in another way. The Ryzen test system of the third generation consumed approximately 25 percent less overall power than the Intel system. If the final chip is clocked a bit higher, the gap may close, but it’s a huge deal that AMD’s early silicon matches or exceeds Intel’s performance while consuming much less power.
The third-generation Threadripper processor is a perfect match for the forthcoming Mac Pro. As with the first two Threadripper generations, we can anticipate that these chips will be comparable to AMD’s Epyc server chip family, with up to 64 cores and 128 threads.
Can you envision a Mac Pro shipping by the end of the year with up to 64 cores and 128 threads and per-core performance on par with Intel’s most recent processors?
Oh, and AMD is also ahead of the curve when it comes to PCI Express 4.0 support. Apple loves to pack its Pro desktop computers with fast I/O, so this is just another feather in AMD’s cap.
Valued to sell
Apple has never been a price leader, but it will never pay more than necessary for its CPUs. Since the introduction of Ryzen in 2017, AMD has provided exceptional performance for the dollar. Even its most powerful desktop chips (which are frequently faster in many tasks than Intel’s) can be purchased for hundreds of dollars less.
Apple, a massive and prestigious manufacturer, does not pay street prices. However, it seems unlikely that AMD would not be able to undercut Intel’s pricing, allowing Apple to pass on some of the savings to customers. AMD is already the sole provider of Mac GPUs (for those Macs with discrete graphics), and it would be a huge “get” if Apple moved its desktop CPU business away from Intel.
The increase in AMD’s stock price alone would likely justify taking almost no margin.
Simple for developers
It could be problematic to switch CPU vendors…
Why bother if it will only be a few years before all Macs contain Apple’s CPUs? However, this transition has more in common with the transition from Nvidia to AMD. For the majority of developers, it would be nearly invisible.
The broad compatibility between Intel and AMD CPUs reduces the amount of effort required by developers. The majority of applications would function without modification. When it comes to optimizing for AMD’s architecture, numerous familiar tools are available. Some of AMD’s best-optimized code can be found in the Linux community, which is closer to macOS than to Windows. In comparison to porting an app to ARM, porting the entire macOS catalog to AMD’s Ryzen processors would be a breeze.
Fan club included
Apple appears to be more interested in becoming a services company than in selling a large number of desktop computers, but it’s still important for the company to move some hardware. Recent Mac sales have been stagnant and could use a boost. Apple’s ability to innovate by producing its own Mac processors is the most effective long-term solution.
In the short term, it never hurts to have a group of rabid fanboys who are excited to purchase your computer because it uses the processors and GPUs of their favorite company. There are Intel fans and AMD fans, but the AMD fanbase has the sort of “always the underdog” mentality that should fit in perfectly with Apple. If you believe that an AMD fan will not consider purchasing their first Mac because it contains a Ryzen Threadripper chip, you have never met an AMD fan.
ARM-based Macs will not be available for some time
The performance of the iPad Pro’s A12X is comparable to that of a MacBook Air, but it is several times slower than the 18-core Intel processor of a year-old iMac Pro. Then there are GPU performance, memory bandwidth, and a multitude of PCI Express lanes… Apple is close to producing all the necessary components for a great thin and light MacBook but is still years away from producing the large, high-power chips required for future iMac Pro and Mac Pro desktops.
That’s okay. If the ARM Mac transition is to occur, it should begin with thin and light laptops before moving up the product stack. Not only are the current A-series chips from Apple much closer to meeting the performance and feature requirements of these laptops, but compatibility issues will be less of an issue.
The MacBook and MacBook Air, which are thin and light Mac laptops, are consumer devices. People use them to surf the web, check their email, listen to music, watch videos, and perhaps create simple content (modest photo editing and the like). If macOS transitions to ARM, it will require a significant amount of work rewriting applications, but Apple’s built-in apps can almost entirely satisfy the needs of MacBook Air users. Consumers can switch apps relatively easily, with a few exceptions; if their preferred note-taking app does not have an ARM-compatible version, they can try another.
The iMac Pro and Mac Pro, however, are designed for users who perform intensive video editing, 3D modeling and animation, and advanced image editing (like movie posters). The professional applications they rely on are frequently updated with new features, but transitioning to a new architecture can take years. And customers cannot easily switch to a competing product; they may first need to convince their company to purchase it, and then they must contend with years’ worth of legacy data and libraries.
I believe Apple should migrate the Mac line to ARM, beginning with the MacBook and MacBook Air. Apple can replace x86 processors with its ARM chips in the MacBook Pro, the iMac, the iMac Pro, and the Mac Pro as it develops larger and more powerful chips. And during the years it takes the company to develop these chips and ship the products, pro-level application vendors will have all the tools and time they need to adapt their software.
Even if the transition to Apple processors in Macs begins this year and occurs rapidly, it will likely be a few years before the entire product line is equipped with Apple processors. During that time, the business should look to AMD to fulfill its x86 processor requirements. And if Apple does not transition to ARM, there is even more reason to support the company that manufactures the most innovative x86 desktop processors.