It’s an idea that has been around for several years now: replace the Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC) chips currently powering Mac computers with ARM chips from ARM Holdings plc (ADR) (NASDAQ:ARMH). Doing so would have many advantages for Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL). According to a Bloomberg report, the prospect of ARM CPUs in Macs is getting closer, with AAPL working on a new chip that would independently control a MacBook’s low power mode.
Whether you think it’s a great idea or a head scratcher, the Touch Bar is the tentpole feature of Apple’s new MacBook Pro. The Touch Bar is an OLED strip that replaces the laptop’s function keys with a programmable touch display, with virtual buttons based on the application currently being run. It also incorporates a fingerprint reader.
And the Touch Bar is powered by the T1, Apple’s first ARM-based Mac chip.
New ARM CPUs in Macs?
Bloomberg is now reporting that AAPL engineers are taking the next step toward ARM in Mac, by having the “Power Nap” mode controlled by an ARM chip. Power Nap is a feature that lets Mac laptops run basic background functions such as retrieving e-mail and installing software updates, while closed and sleeping. By shifting control of Power Nap from the Intel CPU to an ARM chip, less power is used and MacBook battery would last longer.
Why the excitement about the possibility of Apple making a complete switch and replacing Intel processors with ARM CPUs in Macs?
ARM in Mac: The Payoffs
There are many compelling reasons, including those laid out last year by the MacObserver. ARM chips power all of Apple’s mobile devices, so switching to ARM CPUs in Macs would simplify and unify code development between MacOS and iOS.
Intel has moved away from tick-tock processor development cycles, so it may not be moving forward fast enough for Apple’s needs. Modern, 64-bit ARM processors are becoming competitive with Intel on power, including the power needed to run an operating system like Windows in a virtual environment; therefore, ARM in Mac wouldn’t have to mean Macs lose the option to run Microsoft Corporation’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows.
Then there’s cost. In a post dating back to 2015 AppleInsider broke down the potential financial gain should Apple ditch Intel. It estimated the cost of the A-series chips used in the iPhone and iPad at roughly $25, while Intel CPUs used in Macs were somewhere in the $180 to $300 range.
The site points to the Apple TV as an example of Apple making the switch. The first generation ran a version of OS X on Intel processors. For the second generation, AAPL switched to an ARM-based A4 chip running iOS. That move shrunk the Apple TV size and knocked the price from $299 to $99. The numbers may have changed a little since then, but the same basic math applies: ARM is considerably cheaper.
Will Apple Ditch Intel?
There would be many risks in switching to ARM CPUs in Macs. Even if AAPL did make that decision, it would still need Intel CPUs for a number of years while it made the transition across the Mac product line — and Intel would be able to stick it to Apple for those chips. There would be challenges around integrating ARM chips with high-end graphics cards like those made by Nvidia Corporation (NASDAQ:NVDA). Other third-party hardware would also require work.
There is also the issue of manufacturing capacity: AAPL’s suppliers would need to be able to pick up the slack from Intel and churn out the needed ARM chips.
However, as intense as all this sounds, it’s worth remembering that AAPL has done it all before. Twice! The company transitioned the entire Mac platform from 68k to PowerPC in 1998, and then from PowerPC to Intel in 2005.
ARM CPUs in Macs aren’t a reality yet, but with the new ARM chips rumored for MacBooks, it seems as though AAPL is testing the waters. With Nvidia already causing it grief by turning its video cards into high-powered CPU-busters and Microsoft once again trying for a version of Windows on ARM processors, Intel has to be watching the ARM in Mac situation with more than a little consternation.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.