A visual of Apple's Silicon

The Mac is going through another huge CPU switch. By the end of 2020, Apple will release Macs that include “Apple Silicon,” just like iPads and iPhones. Here’s what the end of Intel CPUs means for the future of the Mac.

The new macOS 11.0 Big Sur, expected in Fall 2020, will be the first version of macOS that supports this new architecture.

Why Apple Is Switching, and What It Means For You

A graph showing the performance of Macs with Apple silicon vs. their power consumption.

Apple insists that this switch will “give the Mac a whole new level of performance.” Apple’s own silicon, found in devices like the iPad and iPhone, offers much better performance per amount of power used than an Intel CPUs.

Intel CPUs require more power and generate more heat. In a device like a MacBook, this means performance is limited by battery power and the need to keep the internals cool.

Apple’s own SoCs (systems on a chip), which it calls “Apple Silicon,” are technically ARM CPUs. ARM is just an architecture—Apple designs and manufactures its own CPUs. With Intel, Apple is entirely at the mercy of another company to develop and manufacture the CPUs for its Macs. With ARM, Apple is able to design and create its own custom silicon. Apple has been doing that for years, and now that expertise is coming to the Mac.

Don’t be mistaken—Apple isn’t going to slap an iPhone or iPad CPU into the Mac. Apple is making chips just for the Mac, and they should be even more powerful than the silicon inside the iPad Pro. Apple has a big lead over its competitors here—Microsoft is making ARM laptops running Windows 10, but Microsoft isn’t designing its own custom-made, purpose-built CPUs ARM for Windows PCs.

Ultimately, the new architecture means improved battery life, reduced power consumption, and that Apple can control its own destiny and design the Mac’s internals to be tightly integrated with its software. Apple says the new architecture will let it “maximize performance and battery life better than ever before.

iPhone and iPad Apps on the Mac

Various iPhone and iPad apps running on a Mac with Apple Silicon.

In switching to the same chip architecture that powers the iPhone and iPad, Apple is gaining improved compatibility with iPhone and iPad apps.

You’ll be able to open the App Store on an ARM-powered Mac and install any iPhone or iPad app you like. That app will run in a window on your Mac desktop. The developer doesn’t have to do anything special.

It’s like how Google’s Chromebooks can run Android apps.

Developers Can Easily Port Their Mac Apps

The "Build Universal" option for compiling a Mac app for ARM in Xcode.

Existing Mac apps aren’t being left behind. Apple is addressing compatibility in two ways: By making it easy for developers to port their apps to the new architecture, and by letting Mac users run apps that haven’t been ported yet.

Developers will be able to open their existing Intel Mac apps in Xcode and recompile them for ARM. Apple said it should take most developers just a few days to get their apps running on ARM.

All of Apple’s own apps included with macOS 11.0 Big Sur will natively run on Apple’s own architecture. Other companies are also working on porting their apps—Apple also showed off Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop CC running natively on ARM. Developers can create universal binaries that run on both Intel and ARM Mac systems.

Developers can rent a “Developer Transition Kit” from Apple to get started porting their apps.

You Can Run Intel Mac Apps With Rosetta 2

An Apple slide showing Rosetta 2's various features.

But what about apps that aren’t ported? Apple announced Rosetta 2 for that use case. Rosetta 2 is a compatibility layer that translates existing Intel apps to ARM, letting you run the same apps on your new ARM Mac that you can run on your old Intel Mac.

The translation happens when you install the app, if possible. If the app uses just-in-time code, Rosetta 2 can also translate the code on the fly.

Apple showed off a Tomb Raider game running with excellent performance under Rosetta 2. It looks much faster than Microsoft’s compatibility layer in Windows 10 on ARM, which has been notorious for poor performance.

In other words, Mac apps that haven’t been ported will “just work.” You’ll still get the best performance with apps that natively run on ARM, of course.

A Tomb Raider game running through Rosetta 2 on a Mac.

Full Hardware Virtualization Support

ARM-based Macs feature full support for hardware virtualization, too. Apple showed off running Parallels virtual machines on a new ARM-based Mac, making it possible for developers to run Linux just as they would on an Intel-based Mac.

What’s Happening to Intel Macs?

A slide showing Apple Silicon's various features.
A slide showing the many hardware features included in Apple Silicon. Apple

Apple says you’ll be able to buy a Mac with an ARM CPU in it by the end of 2020.

But the switch away from Intel isn’t happening overnight. Apple says it will be a two-year transition, and new Macs with Intel CPUs are already in Apple’s production pipeline.

Your existing Mac with an Intel CPU will still be supported. Apple says it will keep supporting Intel Macs with macOS updates for years to come.

At some point, Apple will likely stop supporting Intel Macs, just as it stopped supporting PowerPC Macs after the transition to Intel. But that point is many years away.

RELATED: Deja Vu: A Brief History of Every Mac CPU Architecture

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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