Apple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?

Apple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?
16 min read

As you guys all know, Apple is switching out the Intel processors in all of their Macs with their own in-house Apple Silicon SoCs starting later this year, and I’ve been digging deep into Apple’s developer tutorial videos to try and find out how much of an impact this is gonna have. And from the looks of it, everything is about to change for the better, and not in a minor way.

In this article, I’m gonna discuss how Intel has been holding Apple Macs back over the past few years, I’m gonna talk about Intel’s disappointing outlook on the future, I’m gonna discuss why Apple’s decision to switch to Apple Silicon is the best case scenario, and I’m also gonna show you guys very impressive tweets from real app developers and what they have to say about Apple Silicon so far.

So let’s start off with Intel’s past in terms of supporting Apple devices. The trouble started in 2013, when Intel claimed it could produce 10nm chips by 2015. Then they delayed it to 2016, and then late 2017, and then late 2019, and here we are in 2020, and we’re only now finally seeing some good mainstream 10nm chips. So that’s a 5 year delay from when Intel originally claimed their 10nm process would be ready.

As many of you may know, Apple’s MacBook Pros have been experiencing overheating issues in recent years, and here’s why. While Intel was promising that their more efficient 10nm processors would be coming soon, Apple was working on their 2016 redesign of the MacBook Pro, making it as thin as they could possibly make it while packing awesome performance. Unfortunately, Intel’s 10nm processors weren’t ready for the initial 2016 release of the MacBook Pro, so Apple had to stick with Intel’s old 14nm processors, which was fine for the time being, but Apple and their MacBook Pros thin and very limited cooling system weren’t expecting Intel to delay 10nm for so long. And when Intel started to increase core count to keep up with AMD’s Ryzen processors, the MacBook Pro started to throttle, really bad, especially in 2018 with Intel’s 6-core i9 processor.

This has caused Apple some very bad press coverage, pushing users to believe that the MacBook Pro can’t handle the heat of Intel’s latest processors. So the point I’m trying to make is that if Intel actually had their 10nm process ready in 2015 like they said they would, we may have never seen massive overheating issues on the MacBook Pro. And just a few days ago, Intel released their Q2 earnings report which caused their stock price to absolutely tankApple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac? and inversely, their chip rival AMD’s stock skyrocketed over the same time period.Apple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?The reason Intel stocked tanked is because they announced that their 7nm chips will be delayed until 2022 or 2023. And thanks to that news, Rosen Law Firm has filed a class-action lawsuit against Intel claiming that their investors suffered damage due to Intel knowing their 7nm process has major issues and instead of warning investors, they misled them by continuing to give them positive statements.

According to the lawsuit, defendants throughout the Class Period made false and/or misleading statements and/or failed to disclose that: (1) Intel had identified a defect mode in its 7-nanometer process that resulted in yield degradation; (2) as a result, the Company would experience a six-month delay in its production schedule for 7-nanometer products; (3) Intel was reasonably likely to rely on third-party foundries for manufacturing its 7-nanometer products; (4) as a result of the foregoing, Intel was reasonably likely to lose market share to its competitors who are already selling 7-nanometer products; and (5) as a result of the foregoing, defendants’ positive statements about the Company’s business, operations, and prospects were materially misleading and/or lacked a reasonable basis. When the true details entered the market, the lawsuit claims that investors suffered damages.

So in reality, it seems like Apple’s choice to finally ditch Intel happened at just the right time, because if Apple stuck with Intel, all of this news would’ve also been very bad for Apple’s stock price as well.

Apple’s decision to ditch Intel actually started back in 2015. According to an ex-intel principal engineer, the bad quality assurance of Skylake was responsible for Apple making the decision to ditch Intel. He said that Apple became the number one filer of problems of the skylake architecture. And right now, the situation at Intel is so bad that Intel’s chief engineering officer will resign in just a few days, and Intel is completely separating many of their engineering units into various teams to try and stop this issue from happening again. And you know it’s bad when Intel themselves are starting to talk about outsourcing their future 6nm, 5nm and 3nm chips directly from one of their rivals, TSMC, which means Intel is starting to give up on their own foundry. That’s basically like Chevy asking Ford to make their future trucks for them because they lost all confidence in their own factories.

So you might be asking, what does all of this have to do with Apple and their new Apple Silicon Macs? Well, TSMC has been working with Apple since 2011 to build chips for their mobile devices like the iPhone. In fact, every iPhone and iPad chip since the A10 in the iPhone 7 has been built exclusively by TSMC. And if you look at this chartApple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?the duo has caused the iPhone to absolutely destroy in terms of performance in recent years, especially with the 2018 iPad Pro running on TSMC’s 7nm process. And it’s already confirmed that the iPhone 12’s A14 chip is gonna be built by TSMC’s brand new 5nm process, and that’s the same process that Apple Silicon Macc chips will be built on. And the even better news is that TSMC is already on the way to risk production of their future 3nm process in 2021, and it’s looking like 3nm will enter into mass production for Apple’s 2022 devices, including their Apple Silicon Macs.

So it’s looking very likely that in 2022, Intel will still be working on their 7nm chips while TSMC already has their 3nm chips in mass production, so Apple’s choice to ditch Intel and go with TSMC and their own Apple Silicon is obviously the best choice they could’ve made. The only question that remains is this, will Apple Silicon actually be able to keep up with the performance of Intel chips? Well, the A12X in the iPad Pro from 2018 is already outperforming Intel’s brand new 10nm i7 chip for the 2020 MacBook ProApple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?in both processor performance and graphics performance.Apple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?And that’s with no active cooling at all. And Apple has mentioned that their Apple Silicon Macs chips will be scaled up to match the enclosure of each of their Macs, which factors in active cooling, so we can expect a lot more performance.

As far as comparing the performance of Intel and TSMC chips, what matters is the transistor density, which greatly affects performance per watt. As you can see from this chartApple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?Intel’s new 10nm process which has just started to hit new devices very recently, is measuring at around 100 million transistors per square millimeter. TSMC’s 7nm+ EUV process is beating it around 115, and that’s the process that was used to make the A13 chip in the iPhone 11 almost a year ago.Apple Silicon ARM Chips vs Intel x86 Processors for Mac?And next month, we’re expecting Apple to announce the iPhone 12 with the A14 chip, which will be built on TSMC’s 5nm process which has a measured transistor density of around 171.3, so it’s around 73% more dense than Intel’s new 10nm process. And apparently, TSMC’s 3nm process in 2022 is estimated to have over 291 million transistors per square millimeter, compared to Intel’s 7nm process possibly in 2023 which Intel claimed would have around 2.4x the density of their 10nm process, so that’s gonna be around 240 compared to TSMC’s 291. And back in April, TSMC already started development of their future 2nm process. So what I’m trying to say is that Apple is in a much better spot by switching to their own Apple Silicon chips which are manufactured by TSMC, especially since Intel has a long track record of delaying their chips.

So now that we’ve settled all of that, let’s discuss Apple’s controversial transition from x86 Intel chips to ARM-based chips, which some people believe will be a very rough transition for developers and app support. And to do this, let’s see what app developers who have access to Apple’s Developer Transition Kit which packs the ARM-Based A12Z chip from the iPad Pro have to say about this transition.

App developer Longhorn recently said that at this point, the first gen Apple Silicon Macs will be faster at running x86 code than an actual x86 chip.

He also revealed the code names of three new Apple chips which are almost certainly for Apple Silicon Macs, hinting at 3 new Macs this year, possibly a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and a 24” iMac.

Senior Software Engineer at Disney Animation mentioned that Rosetta 2 works shockingly well, with absolutely no problem even with complex code.

He then mentioned that the x86 version of CMake runs perfectly well through Rosetta 2.

Yining received his Developer kit on July 2nd, and the very next day, he already had his toy hobby rendering app ported over and running natively on ARM macOS, with total porting time taking only 5 hours. He then mentioned that now that he has a real-world workload running natively on both ARM and Intel MacOS, she says that she’s 100% onboard with this future.

He also mentioned that his transition kit stays cool to the touch on all surfaces while running a scene with his hobby rendered, while his wife’s 16” MacBook Pro gets really hot.

He also said that his Intel-based Mac Mini never stays cool to the touch under load.

Josh, who works as a creative tech at Netflix, mentioned on July 3rd that he’s seeing many accounts of things already running on Apple Silicon across multiple languages.

The company OTOY mentioned that the GPU rendering app Octane X will be fully optimized on day 1 for new Macs this year on Apple Silicon.

Samuel, who works for slack, has created a launchable dev build off Electron JS for Apple Silicon, which he said needed more work, and less than two weeks later, he released another working version for Apple Silicon.

Electron JS is an open source app that allows you to build cross-platform desktop apps with common code.

Steve Throughton Smith, another developer, mentioned that after this year’s WWDC, the way forward is a lot clearer than last year, with a shared codebase across platforms with universal purchase being ideal for most developers, including Apple.

He was also able to easily scale his Mac audiobook app to run on iOS, with all SwiftUI components intact.

And another software developer praised SwiftUI, saying that he wants to talk about this because the transition is some of the most intriguing and exciting stuff he’s ever seen.

Basically, the point that I’m trying to make is that it’s only been a month since developers got their hands on the developer transition kit, and so far, a lot of developers are extremely impressed with the performance and compatibility of Apple Silicon, which is the complete opposite of what everyone else is saying.

So based on Apple working with TSMC to bring top-of-the-line ARM chips to their Macs, combined with developers already praising Apple Silicon, especially the developer who said Rosetta 2 works much better than he expected for running current x86 apps, this transition is gonna be huge for Apple AND for its customers who will be enjoying better performance and thermals than on previous Intel Macs, for years into the future. 

Jacob Enderson 2161
I'm a tech enthusiast and writer, passionate about everything from cutting-edge hardware to innovative software and the latest gadgets. Join me as I explore the...
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