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Published on January 30th, 2013 | by John I.


Apple wants to move Macs away from Intel

The rumors started in 2010, when then-CEO Steve Jobs said that Apple’s iOS and OS X would eventually merge to be one and the same. To merge, Apple would most likely need to unify its platforms on one processor architecture. No more ARM for mobile devices and Intel x86 for Macs — they would have to pick one.

Apple’s loud and public complaints in 2011 that Intel’s chips were too power-hungry fueled the flames, but Intel listened — and today their high-efficiency Ivy Bridge Core chips are at the center of both Macbooks and Windows-powered Ultrabooks.

Still, the rumors are still floating around. Partly, this is because Apple’s in-house designed ARM CPUs keep getting faster. It’s also possible that with the shift in Intel’s mobile-range Atom chip production to state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques next year that Apple might decide to use Intel for all its devices.

Either way, the common idea is a unification of Apple Macs and Apple mobiles. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear if this is necessary. Two separate product lines is no problem for Apple. Keeping them separated also means Apple’s designers aren’t forced into making compromises in order to shoehorn a product into a “one size fits all” architecture.

Given that Apple CEO has stated that Apple doesn’t think Macs and mobiles should have the same operating system, the idea of a total unification seems dead. However, it’s still possible that Apple is planning to keep the software separate but unify the underlying hardware architecture. This would mean either moving the Macs to ARM or the mobiles to Intel.

Technically speaking, moving the Macintosh line to ARM is unlikely. While ARM is just about the only game in town for companies who want to customize their microprocessors, nobody’s made an ARM design that’s as powerful as Intel’s high-end CPUs. ARM started as a low-power design, and its main strength today is still power-per-watt.

Intel, by comparison, has significantly better manufacturing technology and an extremely aggressive design department cranking out new top-end CPUs almost every year. If ARM is to win over, they have to win on efficiency — not performance.

There’s one more major factor against a chip switch. The last times Apple changed CPUs, their current processors were way behind the state-of-the-art. Today, Intel is still well ahead of the pack.

Compared to moving from Intel to ARM, it also seems unlikely Apple will move its mobile line to Intel. Whereas ARM was designed from the ground up to have very high efficiency and low heat output, Intel’s had a fair bit of trouble going from high performance to high efficiency. Even if the new manufacturing process means Intel Atom chips finally match ARM’s efficiency, a switch here would run contrary to Apple’s famous love of in-house design.

On the other hand, Apple’s famous love of designing their own road — regardless of the cost — is perhaps the biggest argument for a switch away from Intel. We simply don’t know what Steve Jobs wanted on this front. After all, they did spend $500 million just to get in to the CPU design business. If Apple’s engineers think they can beat Intel’s performance, the company may just try.

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