Forget PS5: An Apple console could be gaming's next big thing

Apple TV and Xbox Wireless Controller
(Image credit: Apple)

Speculation as to whether Apple could be, or indeed is, working on a games console has been percolating for a while. But Apple hasn’t really made a big move into gaming as of late beyond Apple Arcade

While Apple has championed gaming on iPads with support for Xbox One and PS4 controllers, it’s left most of the work to third-party developers. And until recently, neither the iPad nor the iPhone were envisioned as gaming devices despite their now expansive game libraries. But Apple could change that with Apple Silicon and a new rumor that the folks at Cupertino could be working on a console powered by an ARM-based chip. 

A tweet from a reasonably reliable leaker going by the name of MauriQHD claimed that they’ve heard Apple is working on “an ARM console.” Given Apple’s A-series chip, found in its iPhones and iPads uses ARM-based architecture, we can assume the leaker means such a console will use an A-series chipset.  

Now we need to take such a claim with a very healthy dose of skepticism, as the leaker doesn’t mention the origin of the leak. But as Apple is looking at creating more powerful A-series chips for its Mac machines, as part of a move away from a reliance on Intel processors, there’s definitely potential for it to make games console with a home-grown slice of silicon at its heart. 

Technically speaking, Apple already has a form of ARM-based games console with Apple TV. The box is powered by Apple’s own A10X Fusion chip, which is chip that’s powerful enough to run mobile games blown up to fill a TV screen. And with the option to pair an Xbox Wireless Controller with it, Apple's streaming box also doubles as a mini-console for lightweight games.

Given the current iPad Pro 2020 with its A12Z Bionic chip is a seriously powerful tablet and is able to chew through graphically intensive mobile games, it wouldn’t be a stretch to for Apple to take that chip and put it into an updated Apple TV. It’s not exactly breaking the mold, but it could deliver a TV streaming box with a good dose of gaming power. 

But this new leak would suggest that Apple might be building a dedicated gaming console. And that’s an intriguing proposition. 

ARM-ing a games console 

As mentioned, Apple is working on making its own ARM-based chips to replace Intel silicon in the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and iMac. This will eventually lead to Apple completely moving away from Intel chips if it fully realizes its ambitions. 

While the A-series chips are pretty impressive in benchmarks, they don’t have the architecture to run PC and console games designed to run on hardware based on x86 architecture; the architecture that underpins Intel and AMD processors. 

Apple WWDC 2020

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple has a development kit for software makers to port their apps over from running on the x86-based macOS to a version built to run on ARM’s RISC architecture. That might solve software compatibility issues, but Apple will also need to ensure its Apple Silicon chips are powerful enough to deliver the type of performance that people have come to expect from Mac machines running Intel chips.

As such, Apple could come up with new A-series chips that have a lot more CPU and GPU power than the previous mobile-centric chips. With some clever cooling and the support of game developers, Apple could use its in-house chip initiative to then create a console that can run more than just mobile games, and stand as a dedicated gaming machine rather than leave gaming as a feature in Apple TV or iPads.

Apple iBox 

With Apple's vast funds, access to developers, and its work at creating a carefully curated software and device ecosystem, it could create a proper games console. And such a console would play nicely into Apple’s existing ecosystem. 

Not only would it provide another way to get people into Apple Arcade, but the extra power of a dedicated ARM-based games console could also see the game service get built out further with exclusive games for the console. Furthermore, Steam games now run on macOS, so if Valve’s gaming platform is ported over to run on ARM-based Macs, there’s no reason it couldn’t then run on a console powered by an ARM chip. 

Apple will need to put a lot of work into getting its Metal graphics API (application programming interface) to ensure proper console games could run on its ARM-based chips. And it will need to ensure the chips’ graphics accelerator is up to that task of running modern PC and console-grade games. 

After all, it’s one thing running a few productivity apps on an ARM-based system-on-a-chip, and another to run 3D games that traditionally require some form of dedicated graphics card. That being said, we’ve seen Intel deliver relatively impressive graphics performance from its Ice Lake laptop-grade processors, which can just about run some modern PC games. So Apple could do the same, especially as it can draw upon its experience with graphics in the A-series chips. 

iPad Pro gaming

(Image credit: Future)

Does this mean Apple could have a challenger for the Xbox Series X or PS5? Probably not, as it would take Apple some time to develop a truly dedicated gaming ecosystem like the Xbox Live and PSN platforms those machines are set to fit into. 

But it could feasibly create a device to go alongside current and next-generation consoles, much like the Nintendo Switch. This would be a console that can run some triple-A games at a specific graphics quality level, but then also have a suite of original Apple-exclusive titles. 

And with the surrounding ecosystem of iPads and iPhones, Apple could have a suite of devices that could interact with the console, say by streaming games from the console to an iPad mini 6 or using an iPhone 12 as a secondary screen. It’s definitely an interesting concept if nothing else. 

Does Apple need to make a games console?  

An Apple games console could be a shrewd move by Apple to further diversify its product range. But it could also be a pointless one. 

As mentioned earlier, iPads and iPhones have almost become de facto gaming devices. And with Apple Arcade and controller support, as well as the ability to run various third-party game streaming services on them, there’s arguably no need for Apple to push deeper into gaming. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With a rather wide range of iPads, iPhones, Mac machines, headphones, smartwatches, and a curated walled garden of software, Apple has plenty to keep it busy. And that’s before you consider how much of a big move it will be for Apple to move away from Intel chips.

So making a dedicated gaming machine when it already has hardware that can be used to game on, might not be worth the extra resources and headache for the Cupertino crew.

The likelihood is Apple’s rumored games console will just be the Apple TV 2020 offering a powerful A-series chip that will run mobile games at up to 4K resolution, perhaps with a few exclusive Apple Arcade games thrown into the mix. Either way, the idea of a new ARM-powered console is definitely food for thought and an interesting alternative to the discourse around the next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles.

Roland Moore-Colyer

Roland Moore-Colyer a Managing Editor at Tom’s Guide with a focus on news, features and opinion articles. He often writes about gaming, phones, laptops and other bits of hardware; he’s also got an interest in cars. When not at his desk Roland can be found wandering around London, often with a look of curiosity on his face.