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Apple Silicon Macs explained: Everything you need to know about ARM MacBooks

Apple Silicon
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Silicon is the name that Apple is using to describe the chips at the center of the biggest change to its Macs in more than a decade. Yes, the ARM-powered MacBooks we've heard rumors about got a bit of a rebranding at WWDC 2020 when Tim Cook broke the big news. 

A switch to these new chips will allow for major changes up and down Apple's laptops and desktops — and it's rumored no Mac will be left behind (eventually). And, yes, these chips will be based on the same technology as the A-series iPhone and iPad processors. 

While it may seem like inside baseball for some, Apple Silicon will have massive ramifications that are seen throughout Apple's next systems, in particular its MacBooks. ARM-based MacBooks could see big improvements that allow for redesigned chassis, longer battery life and lighter designs. And both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro could really use a shot in the ARM when it comes to design.

This would be a massive and important weapon in Apple's arsenal to regain ground against competitors that have caught up in the Mac vs PC war, most notably in the Dell XPS 13 and HP's Spectre laptops.

Here's everything you need to know about Apple Silicon.

Apple Silicon release date

Right now, only Apple Developers can get Apple Silicon Macs, as Apple revealed a development system that runs inside the Mac Mini enclosure. As for firm hardware release dates, we only know that the first Mac based on Apple Silicon will be released sometime in 2020.

Yes, at WWDC 2020, Apple CEO Tim Cook said we should expect to see the first Apple Silicon-based Mac released at some point this year. That relatively short window was first leaked by tweeter @l0vetodream, when they posted that there will be an "ARM Mac this year." 

It's important to keep in mind that Cook also said that this transition from Intel to Apple Silicon will take a full two years. So it's not as easy as flipping a switch.

Apple Silicon performance and app compatibility

Apple claimed that Macs with Apple Silicon will stand up against desktops and laptops because they can provide higher performance with lower power consumption. This makes them very appealing for laptops, where battery size often hurts portability. 

Apple Silicon vs Desktops and Notebooks

(Image credit: Apple)

We're all wondering, though, how will apps run on day 1, when this first Apple Silicon Mac releases this year. ARM Macs running on Apple Silicon in 2020 seemed unlikely before this past week, as developers will want time to translate their apps from the Intel/x86 structure to the Apple Silicon/ARM code. Fortunately, Apple's also got a weapon in their back pocket that allows them to release Macs before everyone's caught up.

Apple's done this all before, moving from PowerPC to Intel, so for its move from Intel to Apple Silicon, it's announced Rosetta 2, the ARM-emulation technology that succeeds Rosetta, which was used to let PowerPC apps run on Intel Macs. 

Apple Silicon running Maya

(Image credit: Apple)

In a pre-taped demo at WWDC 2020, Apple showed that the powerful and demanding Maya 3D rendering tool and Shadow of the Tomb Raider can well run on Rosetta 2. We've talked to developers worried about Maya on ARM and how games will work under emulation, so this is the kind of thing that needs to be seen in person to be truly believed. 

Remember the Microsoft Surface Pro X? That ARM processor powered laptop suffered from incompatibility issues. If Apple wants to replace Intel smoothly, it can't have such concerns.

Apple Silicon virtualization

Apple Silicon Macs will also run other platforms. At WWDC 2020, we saw that Linux and Docker will run in windowed modes on these Macs, and Apple claims near-native performance. 

Apple Silicon virtualization for iOS apps

(Image credit: Apple)

iPhone and iPad apps will also run on macOS in the Apple Silicon future. You'll be able to download these apps directly from the App Store and run them on the desktop. Apple provided a couple of examples in Monument Valley 2 and the Calm app.

Apple Silicon processors

Apple didn't break down the names of the Apple Silicon chips it will use in upcoming Apple, but it revealed that the Developer Transition Kit will feature the same A12Z system-on-chip seen in the iPad Pro 2020. A report from Bloomberg stated the first Apple Silicon chips for Macs will have at least 12 cores: 8 high-performance cores and at least 4 energy efficient cores.

Apple Silicon dev transition kit

(Image credit: Apple)

Considering that Apple has updated its A-Series ARM processors on the iPhone on an annual basis, we expect that an A14 chip will succeed 2019's A13 processors used in the iPhone 11 Pro Max. 

The A14 processor is also expected to be used in the iPhone 12. This means we should expect strong performance from the early Apple Silicon Macs, as the A13 Bionic chips in the 2019 iPhones are the fastest phone processors around, and the A12Z Bionic chip in the iPad Pro keeps pace with top-tier laptops. 

Apple Silicon processors

(Image credit: Apple)

At WWDC 2020, we saw a list of all of the major features and components of Apple Silicon system-on-chip technology. Those start with high-performance CPU cores and include high-efficiency DRAM memory, high-performance GPU and — of course — Apple's Secure Enclave technology seen across all Macs. Apple also cited "advanced power management" and a "low-power design" that will help for greater efficiency.

Apple Silicon outlook

Apple's decision to move to Apple Silicon isn't just motivated by an improved user experience, as a greater control of its processor supply chain will likely reduce Apple's own costs. We just hope that this doesn't come at a cost to how the Mac works. 

Intel Macs aren't going away today, though. Tim Cook also noted at WWDC that 2020 will see Apple release Intel processor-powered Macs. Apple prognosticator Ming-Chi Kuo tipped us off to expect the iMac and MacBook Pro to be the first Apple Silicon-powered Macs.

Tim Cook rightly positioned Apple Silicon as one of the biggest moves in the Mac's history — alongside switches to PowerPC and Intel processors, and the launch of OS X — and we're looking forward to see all the major ways this will change the Mac as we know it.