Are ARM chips actually powerful enough now to replace the likes of Intel and AMD? That’s still an open question. At Apple’s 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the company shied away from giving us any definitive answers.

Are ARM chips actually powerful enough now to replace the likes of Intel and AMD? That’s still an open question. At Apple’s 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the company shied away from giving us any definitive answers.

There were canned demos but no benchmarks or comparisons
Apple CEO Tim Cook, with a wafer of Apple silicon in the background
For years, Apple has steadily revealed how the ARM-based chips in its mobile phones were catching up in performance to the beefier silicon youd find inside a laptop or desktop in 2018, the company claimed its new iPad Pro was faster than 92 percent of portable PCs. At some point, it seemed inevitable that Apple would turn the more efficient chips into the primary processors for its Mac computers, too.
Now, its official: Apple is migrating the Mac to its own homegrown silicon, starting later this year.
But are Apples ARM chips actually powerful enough now to replace the likes of Intel and AMD? Thats still an open question because at Apples 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the company shied away from giving us any definitive answers.
a handful of canned demos and vague promises
This time, the companys typical array of charts, benchmarks, and fastest ever claims for each new generation of homegrown ARM silicon were completely MIA. Apple wouldnt chat about it when we asked. Even a prerecorded chat with one of its silicon architects didnt provide much insight. Instead, the company showed a handful of canned demos and made some vague promises that the future might be faster.
The closest we got to a comparison was effectively, is machine learning faster with hardware acceleration turned on?
Admittedly, we werent expecting Apple to hand us an ARM-powered Mac during a pandemic, and the prerecorded demos during the keynote and subsequent State of the Union addresswere moderately impressive. Using the same Apple A12Z Bionic chip youll find in an $800 iPad Pro, the company showed that a low-power ARM desktop can already handle a variety of power user apps on Mac, including:

  • Versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom running natively on ARM
  • Three streams of simultaneous 4K Pro Res video in Final Cut Pro
  • Rotating around a photorealistic stone face in Cinema 4D
  • Rotating around a 6-million polygon scene in Autodesks Maya animation studio, with textures and shaders on top
  • Rendering effects in the Unity game engine
  • The games Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Dirt: Rally running on Mac smoothly (but at low-ish resolution and detail)

Dirt looked… well… a little messy.
Whats more, Apples ARM-powered Macs will be able to automatically translate some existing Intel apps thanks to Apples Rosetta 2 conversion software: while they looked a little ugly, both Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Dirt: Rally were running that way, as was Autodesk Maya.
But for the most part, Apple seems to be asking developers to take its word that ARM will unlock a whole new level of performance, without discussing how that performance actually stacks up right now.
Maya seemed like a more impressive demo, though I dont have a good frame of reference.
The companys press release says very specifically that Apples new chips will give the Mac industry-leading performance per watt, and thats a very deliberate turn of phrase. Apples arguing that by building the most efficientkind of chips it can the highest performance with the lowest power consumption it can achieve more raw performance by tipping the scales of that performance-per-watt formula toward more watts.
In other words, if you build a MacBook Pro-sized chip with a MacBook Pro-sized heatsink and enclosure, plus a MacBook-sized battery, your iPhone-esque processor theoretically has room to do a heck of a lot more work. But its almost always been true that ARM-based processors are more efficient than the competition, and the scales dont tip on their own. Speeding up a chip isnt just a simple matter of giving it more juice youve got to design a beefy enough processor (or, say, the worlds fastest supercomputer) around that efficient architecture, and Apple isnt bragging that its actually done that yet.
You may remember Intels Core M / Y-series chips, which wound up in the thinnest MacBooks, also began with Intel touting their relative efficiency but they wound up starting off slower than their mainstream Intel counterparts and only became a worthy choice after a few more years of work. Perhaps the iPad Pros A12Z Bionic would make for a more powerful MacBook than Intels current low-power laptop chips, but Apple isnt saying so; maybe itll take a later chip in Apples roadmap.
It also seems telling that Apple isnt publicly planning to get rid of Intel anytime soon. Not only is Apple planning to release several additional Intel-based Macs in the future, but the company will continue to support and release new versions of macOS for Intel-based Macs for years to come. For a company that prides itself on the courage to often make a clean break with the past, its a little unusual. (Then again, this isnt a product launch; its a developer conference.)
All that said, Apple does say we should expect pure performance not just efficiency in one category in particular: graphical performance. Apple writes that the ARM initiative will also give the Mac higher performance GPUs, including additional horsepower for games, and it showed off a few apps (Affinity Photos, Unity, the aforementioned Cinema 4D, and Dirt: Rally) taking advantage of Apples Metal framework to fire instructions directly to the GPU.
While that might not satisfy gamers used to having a dedicated Nvidia or AMD graphics chip, Apples integrated graphics might actually be a substantial boost over the Intel integrated graphics that ship in, say, a new MacBook Air. Theres also the possibility that Apples talking about building beefier GPUs of its own though Apple isnt talking about whether its CPUs will interface with laptop chips from AMD or NVIDIA, much less desktop GPUs or external GPUs right now.
And its true that not everything is about performance, anyhow. Apple is promising its ARM-based Macs will be able to run more kinds of apps than before, thanks to both native iOS app support and hardware-accelerated machine learning chops built into the silicon. Theyll be able to keep cached cloud content fresh for days even when your Mac is asleep, and Apple says using your iPad as a secondary monitor for your Mac will get better thanks to the image processing that Apples already built into its ARM chips. Though Apple didnt provide any metrics, the company suggests ARM will provide more battery life, too.
Right now, Apples most important task is to convince would-be buyers and devs that this time ARM chips wont require them to abandon their old apps or make other unacceptable compromises in order to switch.
Apple needs you to know it isnt pulling a Windows RT so far, so good
Thats the message that Apple tried the hardest to nail at WWDC, and it feels like the company is making good headway. Its got Rosetta to automatically translate some of your apps, while a handful of key developers like Microsoft and Unity are building native versions of others. Apples developer sessions showed that theoretically creating a universal app for multiple platforms is as easy as pressing a button. Apple showed off file system and network access, virtual machines and peripheral support, the ability to natively play a game with an Xbox controller, and even a promise to let you boot from external drives with ARM-based Macs.
Watching Apples WWDC keynotes, its easy to imagine there might be no downside, no legacy apps youll need to abandon; just a whole bunch of extra iPhone and iPad apps you can now additionally use by upgrading to an ARM-based Mac.
But it feels very strongly like theres something Apple isnt telling us about performance, and well need to wait to see. Improved performance is one of the most compelling reasons to buy a new computer, and an absolute requirement for pros. Performance is time, and time is money, after all.
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