Apple recently announced that they will soon begin a two-year transition away from using Intel chips in their computers to using in-house ARM chips instead. How will this major paradigm shift affect creatives who use Macs for their work?
A huge amount of photographers, videographers, and other creatives rely on Mac computers day in and day out for their work. Apple is known for doing a great job of creating seamless systems that work reliably, and their recent announcement that they will be transitioning away from Intel chips to using their own in-house ARM chips over the next two years should serve to increase the reliability of the ecosystem. But what impacts will it have on creatives who use Macs? There are still a ton of technical details to iron out, but here are some of the broad things we can expect.
Better Battery Life
ARM chips are generally more power-efficient than comparable x86 chips, and that can translate to thinner and light MacBooks with better battery life. Creatives are often running very intensive applications that can suck down power quite quickly, and for those that are on the go, particularly photographers and filmmakers who frequently travel for work, battery life can be one of the most important features of a device.
An ARM processor generally produces less heat than an equivalent Intel chip. That can mean longer periods of high-level performance when working on processor-intensive tasks. Lower-end Mac will also see performance benefits.
A Better Continuity Between Mobile Devices and Macs
iPhones and iPads are already on ARM chips and have been since their respective introductions. With ARM chips being introduced in Macs, apps should be able to work on both platforms with much greater ease, with the biggest hurdle likely being simply adjusting for different input methods (touchscreen versus mouse and keyboard). This is fantastic in two ways. First, it means you will likely be better able to grab your iPad on your way out the door and pick up where you left off on your Mac with little to no change in interface or capabilities. Second, it means there will be a greater availability of apps on both platforms, particularly since you will likely be able to run iOS apps on the Mac.
It Could Strongly Encourage Companies to Reexamine Their Software Code
It is no secret that apps like Lightroom are bloated and slower than they should be given what they are doing and the hardware they are running on. If you have used Lightroom for the iPad, which was developed from the ground up, you have probably noticed that it is often much, much faster than its desktop counterpart. In fact, given the smoother performance, the great touchscreen performance, and the fantastic screen of the iPad Pro, I actually do the majority of my Lightroom work on my tablet now. The switch to ARM chips could be the impetus companies like Adobe need to rebuild their core apps and modernize them, which could translate to significant performance improvements down the road.
An Instant Performance Improvement Due to ARM64's Architecture
ARM64's architecture has support for twice the number of general purpose registers as x64. These are used to temporarily store data for the processor. Having more of them helps the CPU avoid needing to rely on memory and caches, which means when put up against a comparable x64 architecture, you can expect a performance improvement of around 25%.
No More Boot Camp
Boot Camp, which allows Intel-based Mac to run Windows in a dual-boot setup, will not be included in future ARM-based Macs. This does not rule out the possibility of virtualization, and in fact, this is the likely route that will be taken.
Your Apps Will Be Fine
If you are worried about your apps suddenly not working on the new processors, everything will be fine. When Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel, they bundled MacOS with Rosetta, an emulator that recompiled PowerPC apps for the new computers. The new ARM Macs will come with Rosetta 2, which will allow you to run your x86 applications as needed. From the user experience side of things, it will likely look like nothing has changed at all. It is not clear what kind of performance you can expect from running x86 apps through Rosetta 2, but Apple has said performance is quite good, as can be seen in the Developer Transition Kit. For apps that support both x86 and ARM, Apple has introduced the "Universal 2" binary, which will contain a version of compiled code for each architecture. For the end-user, it will look largely like business as usual.
Developers Are Already Starting to Prepare
Apple has already made Developer Transition Kits available, which are essentially Mac Minis with A12Z chips (the one used in the 2020 iPad Pro) inside. This will allow developers to get to work on applications built for ARM chips, making the transition significantly smoother.
Continued Support of Intel-Based Macs
There are millions upon millions of Intel-based Macs in use right now, and many of them are quite new and nowhere near the end of their service life. In fact, Apple just released the third generation of the Mac Pro, their flagship desktop and most powerful computer, less than a year ago, in 2019. It is not like the company is going to flip a switch and leave their Intel-based hardware in the dust. In fact, Apple stated that they plan to support Intel-based for "years." What that means precisely is of course not yet clear, but given that the company will not have even completed the hardware transition for two years and it surely does not want to pull the rug out from underneath millions of Mac users, I would say it is fair to assume Intel-based Mac users can expect to receive updates and support for at least the next 5-6 years and likely for the reasonable service life of their machines.
Business as Usual With Some Benefits
Developers certainly have a lot of work ahead of them, but for users, though this transition is a huge shift for Apple, it seems there is not much to worry about and some great perks to look forward to.