Apple Silicon Chip Hero

In late 2020, Apple released several Macs that use the new Apple Silicon architecture. You may have heard that not all Mac software “natively” supports Apple Silicon yet. But what does that mean?

Native Software Runs Faster

Software that is “native” to a certain computer system has been written especially for that type of computer (otherwise known as an “architecture”). Native is a relative term. If software is non-native, it was created for another type of computer than the one you’re using.

Normally, a computer can’t run non-native software. But there are special software tools called emulators, virtual machines, and binary translators that can help the process along by translating code between architectures on the fly as you run the software. This allows non-native software to run as translated or emulated software, with few or no preparations needed by the software developer.

On the downside, this translation process adds complexity and computation time, which means that non-native software usually runs slower than native software. Also, non-native software may not take advantage of all the features and advantages of the new architecture.

RELATED: What Does it Mean for Software to Run Natively?

Apple Silicon Macs Have a New Architecture

The Apple Mac Mini M1 Model from 2020
Apple, Inc.

At their core, Apple’s new Apple Silicon Macs use a different computer architecture (ARM) from Intel-based Macs (x86-64). This means that the CPUs inside the two types of Macs work in fundamentally different ways and that the software that runs on Intel Macs must either be translated on the fly using special software or changed (rewritten or recompiled) by the developers in order to run natively on Apple Silicon Macs.

The technology that Apple uses to automatically translate Intel Mac software to run on Apple Silicon Macs is called Rosetta 2, and it’s fairly amazing. The first time you attempt to run an Intel app, Rosetta 2 will be installed, and the app will run seamlessly after that. Rosetta 2 translates the underlying software code between architectures and then saves what it has learned in order to run the app even faster the next time.

RELATED: How the Mac Will Switch From Intel to Apple's Own ARM Chips

Rosetta 2 Is Great, but Native Apps Are the Best

Even though Rosetta 2 is amazing, there’s still a performance penalty for running non-native software on a Mac, since the software wasn’t specially optimized to run efficiently on the new architecture. If you were to compare the same app running through Rosetta 2 versus running natively on Apple Silicon, the native version of the app should theoretically run faster and more efficiently.

So running native software—apps written especially for Apple Silicon machines—is almost always better if you have the choice. That’s not always easy when there’s a brand new platform (such as the Apple Silicon Macs) without much native software available for it yet, but there are ways to check whether the apps you’re running on your Mac are native or not.

Also, keep an eye on the websites and social media accounts of your favorite software developers. The website also contains a helpful list that shows which popular apps natively support Apple Silicon.

As time goes on and more people buy M1 Macs, it’s almost guaranteed that every Mac developer with an active product will release a native Apple Silicon version of their app sooner or later, so stay tuned.

RELATED: How to Check Which Apps Are Optimized for M1 Macs

Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is an Associate Editor for How-To Geek. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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