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Apple Now Rumored to Be Building ARM-Based Mac CPU For 2021


There are (new) rumors that Apple is building an ARM-based CPU intended for its Mac products, and this time they include more detail than is typically the case.

Whenever we talk about Apple switching away from x86 and over to its own ARM CPUs — and we talk about it a fair bit these days — I’m reminded of the way the company handled its PowerPC-to-x86 transition over a decade ago. Specifically, Apple chose to begin converting over to x86 years before it actually launched an OS based on the standard. When it came time to pull the trigger, the company had already done a great deal of the heavy lifting. It still took some years to migrate over the codebase and third-party vendors, but Apple began the project long before it introduced to the world.

Now, Apple has a project that goes by the internal name of “Kalamata,” and seeks to launch at least one ARM-powered system based on the A14 Bionic SoC in 2021, Bloomberg is reporting. Supposedly the new system will use TSMC’s 5nm node (unsurprising, since we expect Apple to adopt it for the A14 in the iPhone this fall), and the usual explanations are given for why Apple is making this move: It wants to control more of its own hardware destiny and keep more of the profits from its product sales.

What is new, however, are some of the details we’re getting. This new chip reportedly contains eight high-performance cores (Firestorm) and four high-efficiency cores (Icestorm). Apple will reportedly consider systems with more than 12 cores in the future. Bloomberg thinks this is primarily a lower-performance system rather than something intended to compete with the top of Intel’s product line, and it’ll run macOS, not iOS.

spec2006-global-overview

The graph is a bit hard to read. Focus on the first three chips from the right. These are the desktop CPUs and the A13 Bionic in SPEC 2006. Data and graph by Anandtech

The link between Kalamata and the old OS X PPC-x86 transition was the amount of time Apple spent doing it, and the existence of internal projects to move OS X to x86 going back to when the project was in beta. Apple claims to have started pushing to build an ARM-based CPU in a serious way in 2018, which fits a similar timeline.

Past that, there aren’t a lot of new details in the story. These new CPUs would obviously have more cores in them than anything Intel ships in the low end, but we’ll have to see what actual IPC looks like to measure real performance. There’s also the question of whether Apple would try to launch a new specific product line around the device, or if it would be a new member of the existing MacBook families. The company could honestly go either way, possibly with a device that tried to blur the line between tablet and iPad even more than the existing iPad Pro.

It is unclear if Windows for ARM would work on this device. Windows has been able to run on Macs ever since the x86 transition, and Windows for ARM theoretically might be able to do so as well, though it would take some cooperation between Microsoft and Apple to make that happen. We also don’t know what kind of x86 emulation will be available on the new system, if any. All of these are factors that could impact the amount of software available for the system and how popular it is with consumers.

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