Apple is planning to start selling Mac computers with its own processors by next year, relying on designs that helped popularise the iPhone and iPad, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Cupertino, California-based technology giant is working on three of its own Mac processors, known as systems-on-a-chip, based on the A14 processor in the next iPhone. The first of these will be much faster than the processors in the iPhone and iPad, the people said.
Apple is preparing to release at least one Mac with its own chip next year, according to the people. But the initiative to develop multiple chips, code-named Kalamata, suggests the company will transition more of its Mac line-up away from current supplier Intel.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Apple’s partner for iPhone and iPad processors, will build the new Mac chips, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private product plans. The components will be based on a 5-nanometer production technique, the same size Apple will use in the next iPhones and iPad Pros, one of the people said. An Apple spokesman declined to comment, as did Intel and TSMC.
Apple is designing more of its own chips to gain greater control over the performance of its devices and differentiate them from rivals. Getting Macs, iPhones and iPads running the same underlying technology should make it easier for Apple to unify its apps ecosystem and update its computers more often. The move would also reduce reliance on Intel, which has struggled to maintain the annual increases in performance it once offered.
Firestorm and Icestorm
Current mobile device chips from Apple have multiple processing units, or cores, that handle different types of tasks. The latest iPad Pro has four cores for performance-intensive workloads and another four to handle low-power tasks to preserve battery life.
The first Mac processors will have eight high-performance cores, code-named Firestorm, and at least four energy-efficient cores, known internally as Icestorm. Apple is exploring Mac processors with more than 12 cores for further in the future, the people said.
In some Macs, Apple’s designs will double or quadruple the number of cores that Intel provides. The current entry-level MacBook Air has two cores, for example.
Like Qualcomm and the rest of the mobile semiconductor industry, Apple designs its smartphone chips with technology from ARM, owned by SoftBank Group. These components often use less energy than Intel’s offerings. But it in recent years, ARM customers have tried to make processors that are also more powerful.
The transition to in-house Apple processor designs would likely begin with a new laptop because the company’s first custom Mac chips won’t be able to rival the performance Intel provides for high-end MacBook Pros, iMacs and the Mac Pro desktop computer.
The switch away from Intel is complex, requiring close collaboration between Apple’s software, hardware and component-sourcing teams. Given work-from-home orders and disruptions in the company’s Asia-based supply chain, the shift could be delayed, the people said.
Like with the iPhone, Apple’s Mac processors will include several components, including the main processor, known as a CPU, and the GPU, the graphics chip. Apple’s lower-end computers currently use Intel for graphics, while it has partnered with AMD for the graphics cards in its professional-focused offerings.
The Kalamata project has been going for several years. In 2018, Apple developed a Mac chip based on the iPad Pro’s A12X processor for internal testing. That gave the company’s engineers confidence they could begin replacing Intel in Macs as early as 2020.
Apple has already started designing a second generation of Mac processors that follows the architecture of chips planned for the 2021 iPhone. That indicates Apple wants to put its Macs, iPhones and iPads on the same processor development cycle.
MacOS to stay
Despite a unified chip design, Macs will still run the macOS operating system, rather than the iOS software of the iPhone and iPad. Apple is exploring tools that will ensure apps developed for older Intel-based Macs still work on the new machines. The company also has technology called Catalyst that lets software developers build an iPad app and run it on Mac computers.
Moving macOS from Intel’s chip architecture to an ARM-based design will be a technical challenge. Microsoft stumbled with a similar effort.
The changes will be a blow to Intel’s prestige. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the late Intel CEO Paul Otellini stood on stage in 2005 to announce the first Macs with Intel processors. The decision was praised for several years, resulting in capable computers such as the original Mac Pro in 2006, the second-generation MacBook Air in 2010 and the thinner MacBook Pro in 2012.
But in recent years, the pace of Mac upgrades has declined, partly due to a slowdown in Intel’s chip advancements. That sometimes left years between Mac refreshes, upsetting some customers. Intel has also faced manufacturing challenges that Apple has blamed for some recent declines in Mac sales.
Kalamata is Apple’s most ambitious computer chip initiative to date. It currently offers specific chips for Mac features, such as security and power management, that work alongside the main Intel processors.
Apple also aims to stop using Intel cellular modems — chips that connect smartphones to the Internet and support calls — after using them for only four years. The company plans to use 5G modems from Qualcomm in as many as four new iPhone models later this year. Apple last year acquired Intel’s modem business after striking the short-term supply deal with Qualcomm. — Reported by Mark Gurman, Debby Wu and Ian King, (c) 2020 Bloomberg LP