Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #996

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
Issue #996
June 22, 2020


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By Gene Steinberg

The tech media, particularly the Apple fan sites, will be poring over Apple’s new OS announcements at the 2020 WWDC keynote. In large part, most of the changes are largely predictable upgrades, though there are some notable developments.

So, after 19 years, version X of the macOS will go away, to be replaced by macOS 11 Big Sur. But that’s really the biggest change, as the remaining enhancements are largely incremental. According to Apple, it’ll run on an assortment of Macs dating back to the 2013 MacBook Pro, and the 2014 iMac that includes models with the 5K Retina display.

Ditto for iOS 14, which will run on the same gear as iOS 13. This means that Barbara’s iPhone 6s is not yet out of date and she won’t ask for a new one until at least the fall of 2021. Good thing, because it still works just fine. But the change that will impact many of you is the ability to change your default browser and email. You won’t be forced to use Safari and Mail, and that’s a good thing.

Although, again, I don’t think all that many iPhone and iPad users will really bother, just as few bother to change default apps on the macOS, which is something you’ve been able to do almost forever.

The list of iOS 14 improvements is quite large, actually. In addition to enhancements in Maps and Messages, the home page is overhauled, and allows you to access a single page listing all of your apps. It’ll make it far easier to locate the ones that usually appear on widely-separated pages.

But the really big change hasn’t arrived yet, but it merely confirms still more rumors about what Apple has been up to in recent years.

So after a decade-and-a-half of Macs with Intel Inside, stay tuned or Macs with Apple Silicon Inside.

This has been a change long in the making for over a decade now, and one that’s perfectly logical from Apple’s point of view. What it means is that, starting late this year, new Macs will be all-Apple when it comes to the CPU and GPU systems on a chip. So not only will Intel lose business, but AMD, supplier of the Radeon GPUs, will also suffer.

For Mac users there will be lots of benefits after the initial shakedown cruise, and upgrades will possibly be more frequent because Apple won’t have to wait for Intel to ship new chips.

Those A-series processors have been designed to deliver high power and low power requirements, and were originally intended for tiny mobile gadgets. Scaling them up to Macs could possibly yield far greater performance. Today’s iPad Pro, for example, performs about the same as a MacBook Air and basic MacBook Pro, with faster graphics. Now imagine what Apple will be able to do running those chips full bore in a far more generous environment.

As with previous processor switchovers, Apple will offer an emulation feature, this time to be known as Rosetta 2. It means that software built for Intel will be able to run in the new environment with good performance, says Apple. There will certainly be a performance hit, but how much will depend on how much faster Apple Silicon can run compared to Intel.

So the loss may not be so much, and Apple already demonstrated high-power apps running in emulation at the WWDC keynote. Virtualization will also be possible, but again it won’t be known how well it’ll work until there’s something out there to test.

As with the Intel transition, Apple is promising quick porting of Intel apps to Apple Silicon. Claims of“a matter of days” from Apple software chief Craig Federighi may be correct, but it might require lots more work for developers to optimize their apps for maximum performance and compatibility with the new hardware.

Apple did try to reassure pros by announcing that both Adobe and Microsoft on working on building compatible apps with, I assume, Apple support. According to software chief Craig Federighi, Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X will be available with the arrival of the new Macs.

To help developers get with the program, Apple will be distributing a specially equipped Mac mini packaged as the Apple Developer Transition Kit for Apple Silicon. It’s reminiscent of the Intel Developer Kit offered in 2005 to ease the transition from PowerPC.

When they ship, these developer packages will cost $500. As with the Intel kit, the equipment will have to be returned once the program has ended. I would assume that will occur after enough ARM-based Macs are shipping.

The first Macs with Apple Silicon are expected by the end of 2020, with the transition taking two years, meaning mid-2022. No doubt Macs using Intel Xeon processors, such as the iMac Pro and the Mac Pro, will be among the last to get with the program.

Aside from full platform control and possible improvements in performance and power efficiencies, Apple will be spending a whole lot less to provide even its most powerful CPUs and GPUs. This means higher profits, or perhaps Apple will be able to bundle more features, or even lower the prices of new Macs.

Consider that a Mac Pro with a 28-core Intel Xeon CPU exacts a price premium of $7,000. Imagine Apple Silicon with a similar or greater number of chips costing a few thousand dollars less. How much will that and the reduced GPU costs impact the final price? Will the $30,000 plus price be reduced to $25,000 plus or less?

Now I have lived through the two previous Mac processor transitions, and they were not quite seamless. The original Power Mac in 1994 was only slightly faster than the model it replaced, equipped with the Motorola 68040 chip. That’s largely because its emulation feature reduced performance of legacy apps to the older 68030 chip, quite a difference.

It took several years for Power Macs to gain enough power to largely eliminate the performance penalty from emulation. Developers also took a long time to embrace PowerPC.

The situation was far better with Rosetta, which was used to let you run PowerPC apps on an Intel Mac. Yes, there was a performance hit, but for most people it wasn’t such a big issue since the new Macs were a lot faster than their predecessors.

Aside from apps that were never upgraded, one of the downsides of the new hardware was a tendency of the first MacBook Pros to run somewhat on the hot side, making them less suitable for placing on your lap. Apple managed to improve things over the next year or so.

The open question with a Mac with Apple Silicon is how virtualization will fare. While you can run Windows natively under Boot Camp on today’s Mac, you’ll have to use Rosetta 2 for Windows or any other OS that requires Intel. There’s already a speed penalty for virtualization, though it has gotten better over the years.

How useful will virtualization be with Apple Silicon? If the CPU and GPU are much faster than the Intel chips they replace, will that make up for all or most of the performance loss?

A number of these questions will be partly answered as developers get their kits, and benchmarks begin to appear. But even then, the chip inside that box will probably not be the one that will ship with new Macs late this year. It’s the same A12Z that’s packaged inside the 2020 iPad Pro, though I suppose Apple could still scale up performance.

In the meantime, so-called Universal 2 apps, compatible with both Apple Silicon and Intel, will be the best solution for the next few years.

Or maybe longer.

Apple nowadays is building operating systems that support Macs from six to seven years old, so you’d expect — or hope — that emulation will survive for at least that long.I assume.

In any case, I clearly have lots of time to save up for one of those new Macs. But it would sure be nice if they were indeed cheaper because of the lower-priced parts. Apple earns quite enough in profits as it is.


The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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