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Intel Mac vs. Apple Silicon ARM Mac: Which ones should you buy?

Apple Silicon at WWDC 2020

The winds of change are blowing on Apple. The company announced that it intends to completely transition the entire Mac line to custom ARM-based Apple Silicon processors within two years.

Apple just updated the 27-inch iMac with Intel̵

7;s latest 10th generation Core i5 and i7 processors. Are you buying a new Mac now or waiting for ARM?

The case for buying an Intel Mac 2020

There are some good reasons to buy an Intel Mac in 2020, even if a brand new architecture is just around the corner. At the top of the list is the fact that you need a new Mac, right now. Maybe your computer was destroyed, stolen or simply without repair.

Because many of us rely on a Mac for work, school, or creative endeavors, waiting for Apple’s upcoming ARM models is not an option. As of August 2020, Apple has not announced what the first ARM Mac models will be. Rumors suggest a MacBook Air and a redesigned iMac and MacBook Pro are all in the works.

Intel chips Apple currently supplies 64-bit Intel architecture, which handles computing instructions differently than the upcoming ARM-based chips. This means that software written for Intel Macs will not run on ARM.

Apple has promised some degree of compatibility thanks to the Rosetta project, but it is unlikely that applications written for Intel Macs will also work on ARM.

Apple iMac with 10th Gen Core i7

This is something you should keep in mind if you want to squeeze as much performance from an Intel native application as possible. For example, if you are a music producer using a niche audio workstation app, the software you depend on may not be ARM-ready at launch. No one still knows how good (or bad) Rosetta will be at converting Intel native apps to work on ARM processors.

One of the biggest benefits of Intel-based Macs is the ability to dual-boot Windows. While Windows 10 for ARM exists, there are many issues with it, including a limited app selection. If you double-start Windows to run built-in X86-64 apps (as many Mac gamers do), you’ll probably be jumping on the latest generation of Intel Macs.

The arrival of Microsoft’s Surface Pro X has refocused the conversation around Windows on ARM. There is also a difference between Windows 10 on ARM and the faulty Windows RT. The biggest downside right now is X86 apps running in a 32-bit emulator, which means that 64-bit apps are not supported. There is a lot of Windows software that will not run on Windows.

The potential benefits of waiting for ARM

Apple has not revealed too much about Apple Silicon, or how it will affect the Mac ecosystem, but we have a good understanding of the potential benefits of ARM. Although this is the first time the company has designed custom processors for Mac, it has been using its own chip (SoC) system in the iPhone and iPad for several years.

Because ARM uses a simpler set of instructions than the X86-64, the architecture is chosen for low-power devices. ARM-based chips are more energy efficient than their Intel counterparts, which can lead to large gains in battery life.

An Apple graph showing performance compared to power consumption for Mac with Apple Silicon.

However, Apple’s ARM chips are not directly comparable to mobile SoCs. The company can go in the opposite direction and focus on performance, trading battery gain for more power. This will be the case for desktops, such as the iMac and Mac mini.

It is highly unlikely that Apple would release an ARM-based Mac that is significantly less powerful than an Intel predecessor. But we just do not know how the two stack up until one arrives.

Then it’s a question of cost. Apple has been at the mercy of Intel for over a decade and paid what the company charges for its chips (big discounts aside). Apple is likely to save money by breaking ties with a third party and using its own products.

Of course, even if Apple saves money on manufacturing, these savings may not be passed on to the customer in the form of cheaper Macs. Apple is likely to make significant investments in R & D to recover, and these expenses will continue as the company looks beyond the ARM transition.

An Apple image that shows Apple Silicon's various built-in features.

However, there are additional benefits to ARM. Apple announced that iOS and iPadOS apps designed for iPhone and iPad will run naturally on ARM-powered computers. They will also do so with little or no action required by developers. This will massively increase the number of apps available for the platform. Of course, many of them will need to be optimized for the desktop to be really useful.

Even if you press the shutter button on a new ARM MacBook, you can still use X86-64 applications thanks to Rosetta. It’s unlikely that these apps will work as well as on an Intel Mac, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The many unknowns of Apple Silicon

Rosetta effectively compiles X86-64 when you install them to create ARM versions that can run in the new architecture. The only available ARM Mac right now is a Mac mini with an old A12Z iPad SoC. Some developers have been able to use it to make sure their software is ARM ready. This is a development package, so it is not representative of the end product. It also runs beta software.

The benchmarks we have seen come from these machines are promising, with the reference tool (Geekbench) requiring Rosetta to be used in the first place. Even with this handicap, the A12Z-powered Mac still outperformed the Surface Pro X, which ran a built-in ARM version of Geekbench.

However, it is always wise to approach first generation hardware with caution. Apple has some experience with this thanks to its iOS efforts, but it’s still a brave new world for the Mac. The company has had problems with thermal choke in the MacBook Pro as late as 2019, and it is finally replacing the unpopular butterfly keyboards in the latest models.

    2020 MacBook Pro 16

The first Retina MacBook Pro was plagued with screen issues, and the original Apple Watch required a complete overhaul due to the sluggish way its software “streamed” from the iPhone.

The company is a serial innovator, but it also means that Apple makes some mistakes when they find their way. If you’re not desperate to upgrade right now, it may be worth waiting even a year for the next generation of Apple Silicon.

Then, of course, there are all the other unknowns that come with a hardware update. Will a redesigned ARM-powered iMac still enable expandable RAM? How about USB-A ports? Will Apple kill the headphone jack on the Mac range? And what does an ARM-powered Mac Pro look like?

If you buy a Mac today, you know what you’re getting. We do not know how long Apple will continue to discard Intel-powered machines – especially after releasing ARM versions.

Do you need a Mac today?

If you need a Mac right now, buy one. It is supported for several years. When Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel, it introduced Rosetta in 2005 to run PowerPC applications on Intel machines. Rosetta was not dropped from the operating system until 2011.

Going forward, Apple’s Xcode software development environment will allow developers to create universal binaries that run naturally on both Intel and Apple Silicon machines.

You do not need to buy a brand new Mac either. If you would rather save some money, choose a used machine or buy a refurbished one directly from Apple with a similar new warranty. It’s probably best to avoid the old “butterfly” keyboards if you can.

Apple's refurbished Mac Range (August 2020)

If you primarily use an iMac or Mac mini, you can download a MacBook Air or a lower specific MacBook Pro that would still be useful when upgrading your mainframe to ARM. For example, we are writing this article on a MacBook Pro in mid-2012, running the latest version of macOS Catalina.

Whatever you choose, you can be assured that Apple will continue to provide software updates for your machine for several years.

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