Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #1008

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
Issue #1008
November 1, 2020


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First, I’m not going to join the crowd and report about Apple’s financials. They’ve been reported in more places than anyone can count, and if you want to know more, check Apple’s investors page for the raw figures.

Now as you’ve probably heard, Apple is reportedly readying the first generation of Macs with Apple Silicon, based on the same chips used for the iPhone and the iPad. But while the company has done processor switches twice before, that hasn’t stopped some less-informed, or less honest, members of the member from fear-mongering.

So as the date for the release of the first ARM-based Mac arrives, you’ll hear more and more ill-informed speculation about how Apple is destroying its brand and betraying hundreds of thousands of loyal Mac developers. But in our real world — and not the bizarre world of alternative facts — Apple has plenty of experience with processor switches.

Back in 1994, Apple pulled its first processor switch. Until then, the fastest Mac was a Quadra, using the Motorola 68040 CPU. To take performance to another level, Apple teamed with IBM and Motorola for the PowerPC, which was installed in the first Power Macintosh, the 8100. There were promises of huge performance increases.

But there were terms and conditions, the most important being that apps had to be ported to the new processor architecture, and that wasn’t quite as simple as Apple’s positive promises claimed. It took years for some apps to get there; some never did. So in the meantime, you ran most or all of your apps in emulation.

Emulation worked well enough, but it meant that performance would be more in line with a 68030 Macintosh, meaning that they’d run much slower than on the previous fastest Mac, the Quadra. So much for your investment in faster hardware.

Now Apple’s sales situation wasn’t so good in those days. Its efforts to build a new, industrial strength operating system, code-named Copland, weren’t going anywhere. In late 1996, Apple bought Steve Jobs’ NeXT, which meant its Unix-based, processor-independent OS. Consider the latter important, because it would count for a whole lot a decade later.

It took nearly five years for Apple to release a NeXT-based version of Mac OS, and a couple more for Mac OS X to deliver credible performance and reliability. Some apps still had to run in the “Classic” layer, meaning in a separate window supporting the older OS. Despite Apple’s promise that “Carbon” technology would ease porting of existing apps, especially those with loads of legacy code, it wasn’t so easy in practice. Some developers seemed to take their own sweet time getting with the program.

By 2005, Mac OS X Tiger surely fulfilled the promise of the NeXT acquisition, but Apple wasn’t doing so well with its processors. The very latest PowerPC, the G5, was supposed to be capable of amazing performance, but Intel was doing better with its Pentium and was working on its Core CPUs, which promised greatly improved performance and power efficiency.

The very fastest Power Mac G5, workstations that were predecessors to today’s Mac Pro, required liquid cooling to keep from overheating. Just imagine the consequences if the coolant leaked. The G5 was never tamed for portables. It ran much too hot, so those with PowerBooks were stuck with the slower G4.

In interviews at the time, Apple CEO Steve Jobs professed satisfaction with the PowerPC’s roadmap, but didn’t deny seeking other options.

At the 2005 WWDC, Apple made a move that had been telegraphed in the Mac rumor watchers for several years, that it was running a secret project testing Macs equipped with Intel processors. Jobs confirmed the move, and promised that Macs with Intel Inside would appear beginning in 2006 and that the transition would be complete by the end of the year.

Now through the PowerPC and Intel transitions, I don’t recall quite so much much fear mongering about Apple’s processor moves. Indeed, moving to Intel seemed only natural, and embracing hardware already used on hundreds of millions of PCs presaged greater compatibility with the Windows world.

The first MacBooks with Intel CPUs were launched, as promised, in January 2006. The transition was completed ahead of schedule, by August with the launch of the Mac Pro. By this time, Parallels was beta testing its Desktop virtualization software, allowing you to run Windows and other operating systems in high-performance virtual machines. Maybe not as fast as running them on a regular PC, but fast enough. Compare that to running Windows in emulation on a Power Mac, where performance was so slow than just launching apps and opening documents might take minutes to complete.

Rather than buy an extra computer, I remember using one of those emulation programs to write Windows versions of my books. Painful, yes, but I focused on the mechanics, running and evaluating Windows and Windows apps and taking screenshots. The actual writing was done in Word — for the Mac!

Apple made using Windows even more efficient with Boot Camp, which allowed you to reboot your Mac and run Windows natively in a separate partition. For most, it was worth using virtualization and giving up some performance.

So that was it — or was it?

Over the years, Intel has encountered more and more difficulties scaling up its CPUs and reducing die size. When Apple introduced the iPhone, it didn’t use a low-power Intel processor. Instead it used an ARM-based processor.

Now the ins and outs of processor architectures aren’t relevant to most people. It’s about performance and power efficiency. If it works, it works.

So beginning in 2010, Apple released the first processor designed in-house, the A4, using an ARM-based core. It might not have seemed to be such a big deal, but the next decade demonstrated that Apple clearly had a long-range plan in creating its own silicon. In 2013, Apple equipped the iPhone 5s with the A7. Rather than just scaling up performance, they made it 64-bit, the first mobile processor to achieve that goal.

Apple’s competitors from Qualcomm, Samsung and other companies said it was just hype, but it wasn’t so long before they also entered the fray with their own 64-bit alternatives.

A recent article examining Apple’s ability to scale up performance with its own silicon indicated an average of 20% or so for single cores and multiple cores, based on the Geekbench results. It was inevitable that performance would soon meet or exceed what you could get from most Macs or PCs with Intel hardware. Indeed, just a couple of years ago, Apple was boasting that its latest A-series chip at the time was as fast or faster than 90% of Intel notebooks.

With Apple assuming control of its own GPUs for iPhones and iPads, it was inevitable that speculation would grow that they’d abandon Intel and go to their own silicon on Macs before long. Each year year, speculation became more intense, as Intel considered to confront roadblocks scaling up its Core chips.

As it stands, we may be no more than a week or two from the official announcement of the launch of the first Macs with Apple Silicon. The betting is that they will be notebooks, though there are also reports of a 24-inch iMac, which would seem a curious choice, given the existence of today’s 27-inch version with 5K Retina display.

If all goes as planned, Apple’s third processor switch will be complete by the summer of 2022. Some suggest sooner, though I suspect the Mac Pro will be the last to make the migration.

In a sense, it’ll be revisiting the past, with most Mac apps running in Rosetta 2 emulation, meaning a performance dip over current hardware unless the new chip is so much faster that it compensates for the difference. Apple is already working with developers to port Intel apps to Apple Silicon, so the migration might not take so long. In the meantime, the main issue will be how virtualization will fare, not so much for Linux or similar operating systems, since they aren’t processor dependent. It’s about Windows and whether the loss of performance will make it less useful for people who have to live in both platforms. Obviously there will be no Boot Camp, or maybe there will be.

You see, Microsoft is working on an ARM-based version of Windows, so that portends a possible Boot Camp solution.

Forget the naysayers. It’s quite likely that most folks who buy Macs with Apple Silicon inside won’t notice any differences using their apps. They will see performance improve over time, and battery life will probably soar. Not having to pay Intel for chips may also mean a slight price resolution, assuming Apple isn’t too greedy about it.

So color me optimistic about the whole thing.


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