What Apple Is Promising With The New MacBooks And Its Smartphone-Derived Silicon

By Patrick Moorhead - November 23, 2020

As I reported in June, Apple announced at its WWDC that it is moving the Mac lineup of PCs from Intel processors to its own home-grown mobile SoCs. The company says it will manage a multi-year transition from Intel-based systems over two years, and it will leverage its Bionic line of IP for its new designs. This Tuesday, Apple will announce new Macs with the new smartphone-derived processors, and I thought it made sense to review what the company said it would deliver during WWDC to prepare for the event. I watched the event a few times and even transcribed the contents. Here are my highlights of what Apple promised.

Claim #1: overall “whole new level of performance”

Apple said that for the new Macs, by using its smartphone-derived Apple silicon, “the first thing this will do is give them a whole new level of performance.” This claim isn’t about performance per watt; it is flat out performance. I think when someone thinks of performance, they think of the highest levels of software performance. To me, this means Apple’s new Macs will have higher performance than its highest-performing MacBook Pro, currently the $2,799 MacBook Pro with a 9th Gen, eight-core, 16-thread, Intel Core i9 processor with a boost up to 4.8GHz. That model also has a discrete AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4G DDR4 memory. 

A fairer comparison will be how the new Apple silicon performs with Intel’s latest 10th Gen Tiger Lake silicon with the latest-gen discrete notebook card from AMD or NVIDIA. Given the overhead Apple will need for Rosetta 2 emulation, this will be interesting to watch.

Pro tip- don’t pay attention to any GeekBench scores that may be claimed by Apple or pundits. GeekBench is 100% synthetic. Wait for application-based benchmarks or routines to give the real, not a fake, artificial story. 

Claim #2: “whole new level of graphics performance”

Apple said that for the new Macs, by using its smartphone-derived Apple silicon, “our high-performance GPU is going to bring a whole new level of graphics performance to every Mac, making them even better for your applications and really great for games.”

To me, this is saying that it will outperform AMD Radeon discrete GPU performance on AAA games. Even fairer would be a comparison to today’s best crop of discrete GPUs from NVIDIA and AMD. Will Apple’s new GPUs support ray tracing or DLSS? Again, this will be very interesting to watch. I have my intense doubts.

Claim #3: emulated X86 high-end AAA games will work “amazingly” 

Apple said that for the new Macs, by using its smartphone-derived Apple silicon and Rosetta 2, “it also works, amazing with games, I can even use a game controller, this shadow of the Tomb Raider a high-end AAA game.” Apple showed off Tomb Raider at 1080P resolution and said, “so follow the path, you can see the game is responsive. It’s smooth.” This claim may be the biggest one of all, and I do not think it will be reality on Tuesday. Games are very tricky and have hard-coded optimizations for graphics to get every last ounce of experience out of them. 

Claim #4: “amazing” performance for the most complex workstation apps under emulation 

Apple said that for the new Macs, by using its smartphone-derived Apple silicon and Rosetta 2, “It even handles the most complex pro apps and their plugins. Rosetta 2 is transparent to users, and the performance is amazing.” Apple showed many examples of workstation apps working great under emulation. This means that every workstation and the professional app will work, even X86 pro workstation apps will run great. This seems very hard to me, more challenging than the games above. 

Claim #5: easy transition for consumers and developers

Apple said that for the new Macs, by using its smartphone-derived Apple silicon, “the transition to Apple silicon is smooth and seamless for both consumers and developers.” When I first heard this statement, I’ll admit, I laughed a little inside. What Apple is embarking on isn’t new- Microsoft started this over a decade ago, but I cannot imagine this being smooth for consumers or developers. Apps will break. Peripherals will break. Customers will be disappointed at some point in their journey. Developers will need to support two sets of apps- those for X86 and those for Arm and they’re going to have to figure out how to migrate x86 VMs to the Arm architecture.

One thing I’d really like to hear is how Apple will support older x86 MacBooks. Imagine you just purchased an X86 Mac. How long will you continue to get software and security updates? Also, while I addressed it in my June analysis, how will complex peripherals be supported that may use different driver models or have x86 applets like printers? 

I believe there is no possible way Apple can deliver on this big easy transition promise, but I will be super-impressed if it can. Silicon has only been in the developers’ hands for a few months, and add that to a new operating system, and you have a very high-risk situation. I wish Apple had never said this.  

The journey ahead

Apple has made a living off proving others wrong. It’s not right or good at everything, but it’s good enough at smartphones to become the wealthiest company on the planet. Apple may have been successful with smartphones, but with computers, it has underperformed. Whether it was abandoning the professional space, delivering a generation of what many considered broken keyboards, it’s clear that the Mac has been a fourth or fifth priority behind iPhones, iPads, AirPods, Watch, and Services. So Apple had to do something. And that something is to turn the Mac into an iPad or iPhone with a keyboard, larger display, and trackpad. Apple tried to turn the iPad with a keyboard into the Mac, and that didn’t work. It enabled iOS apps on the Mac, and that didn’t move the needle at all. In this new attempt, Apple is taking the iPhone and iPad guts and shoving them into a Mac chassis and having it run everything under the sun.

Apple addressed consumers and developers but what about the enterprise? I didn’t hear any plans for apps written by enterprise developers nor did I hear any comments on security or management applications. 

So, what should we be looking for on Tuesday? Apple already told us what it was going to deliver. Overall, I interpret that the company says it will provide a new level of performance beyond what AMD, Intel, or NVIDIA can provide.  Apple says its new smartphone-derived silicon will run AAA games and complex, professional apps under emulation with amazing performance. As for consumers or developers having issues? It’ll be smooth and seamless. Just like magic. 

We’ll know more on Tuesday and even more when the units ship to consumers.

Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.