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Apple not likely to ditch Intel chips for Macs in near future

Loyd Case | Nov. 8, 2012
There’s a certain sense to recent rumors that Apple may trade the Intel chips in its Macs for the company’s own processors. Apple is, after all, the poster child of a company that wants to control its own destiny: It makes its own hardware and software, and is a proponent of the “walled garden” ecosystem exemplified by its iTunes Store and App Store. Even more recently, Apple has taken deeper control of its processor design; the iPhone 5’s A6 chip uses Apple’s own custom ARM-based design, rather than taking a standard ARM core and just dropping it in, as the company has with past iOS devices.

Theres a certain sense to recent rumors that Apple may trade the Intel chips in its Macs for the companys own processors. Apple is, after all, the poster child of a company that wants to control its own destiny: It makes its own hardware and software, and is a proponent of the walled garden ecosystem exemplified by its iTunes Store and App Store. Even more recently, Apple has taken deeper control of its processor design; the iPhone 5s A6 chip uses Apples own custom ARM-based design, rather than taking a standard ARM core and just dropping it in, as the company has with past iOS devices.

However, its one thing to design a CPU thats different but software compatible with existing designs, and another thing to drop in a completely different core. Apple has done that with the Mac twice in the past, once, when it migrated from Motorolas 68000-based chips to the PowerPC architecture it co-designed with IBM and Motorola, and again when it transitioned from PowerPC to Intel. It wasnt a painless process in either case, but in both cases Apple had a key advantage: It included emulation technology that allowed the newer CPUs to run old Mac binaries (most of them, anyway). In the latter case, especially, the Intel CPUs were considerably faster than the PowerPC processors, so running in emulation mode didnt adversely affect performance too badly.

Moving from Intel to ARM is a different proposition, for two key reasons: First, current ARM performance really doesnt compare with what Intels processors offer when it comes to the kind of performance expected from MacBooks and iMacs. Secondly, the currently shipping ARM-based products are 32-bit. ARM announced the ARMv8 64-bit architecture at the ARM Tech Conference on October 30th, but products based on ARMs 64-bit core are unlikely to hit the market until sometime in 2014.

Intel isnt sitting still

Meanwhile, Intels not resting on its laurels. Next year, the company will ship its new Haswell CPU in mid-2013. Haswell will offer somewhat better processor performance than the Ivy Bridge CPUs used in the current MacBook and iMac lines. However, Intel expects graphics performance for the integrated Intel graphics to double compared to the existing Ivy Bridge graphics. Given that Apple thought Ivy Bridge was good enough to build its new 13-inch MacBook with Retina Display using the chips integrated graphics, having even more performance will likely be an attractive proposition for Apple going forward.

Beyond Haswell, Intel will be building a new CPU, code-named Skylake, on its upcoming 14nm manufacturing process, which should substantially shrink the CPU die and reduce power consumption even more significantly. Intel is betting on its processor technology to help it reduce power consumption, and Haswell itself has major tweaks for power management; at idle, it will use less power than any recent mainstream Intel CPU.

 

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