Apple 'Arms' Macs with Apple Silicon

At its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this year, Apple announced that its entire Mac product line will switch from Intel chips to Apple Silicon within two years. Based on ARM cores, Apple Silicon is a series of Apple-designed SoCs meant to fulfill the requirements of new Macs that allow iOS apps to run directly on the new Mac OS – macOS Big Sur. Apple plans to ship the first Mac with Apple Silicon by the end of this year. The developer transition kit with the A12Z SoC has already been released to the developers.


The benefits of migrating to the new architecture (Apple Silicon):

  1. Reducing reliance on a single supplier
  2. Differentiating products from competitors
  3. Gaining control of the ecosystem
  4. Allowing developers to develop apps for both mobile and computer applications using the same APIs and programming tools.
  5. Reducing cost

Cost reduction is one of Apple Silicon’s advantages over Intel CPUs because the former will be produced with TSMC‘s advanced technology. In the past few years, Intel has been struggling to improve its chip manufacturing process, which has stayed at 14nm/10nm, falling behind TSMC’s 5nm in 2020. This gives Apple a motivation for the migration and a belief that the performance of its self-designed chips can be better. However, although cost reduction is one of Apple Silicon’s most important advantages, we believe that this is not the main purpose of Apple’s architecture change. The main aim here seems to be to increase service revenue. Apple expects to replicate the success of iPhone/iPad in its PC business. The company’s services business generated $2.7 billion in revenue in 2019, far exceeding Google’s Android. Also, its service revenue has surpassed that from Mac since 2016, accounting for 18% in 2019.

Apple’s revenue breakdown from 2007 to 2019

Apple’s revenue breakdown from 2007 to 2019

Apple’s self-designed chips include not only ARM compatible cores but also non-ARM cores for GPU, camera fusion, audio/video processors, accelerator, memory controller, neural processing unit (NPU), and others. The non-ARM cores take even larger space than ARM cores in SoC. The integration of these cores in a single SoC results in significant cost savings and provides additional features. These investments are expensive but provide solid and differentiated functionalities that are difficult for competitors to deal with. Apple will continue to extend this advantage to its future chips for Macs. To help apps migration, Apple will design special functions to help emulators build into new Mac OS running old Intel apps on the new platform. In addition, Apple will be able to use its neural engine to speed up non-linear video editing software and apps for machine learning and AI.

Future Apple Silicons

Although the developer transition kit uses a modified Mac mini with an A12Z chip that has been used in iPad Pro, we believe Apple is unlikely to merely reuse existing chips for iPhone or iPad in Macs. There could be two lines of Mac-specific SoC processors for different markets – one for light laptops such as Macbook Air, Macbook Pro and possibly iPad Pro, and the other for ultra-high-performance desktop Macs such as iMac Pro and Mac Pro. The primary goal of a laptop-grade SoC would be to have balance between performance and power consumption. The highly integrated PCB and the laptop-grade SoC, which is smaller than Intel’s CPU, can reserve more space for battery packs. Conversely, in situations where battery life and chip size are not major concerns (like in a desktop Mac), the performance of the chip can be maximized. The initial production linewidth of Apple Silicon will be 5nm and stay at that level for two to three years since Apple and TSMC need to cooperate to improve the performance of the new chips.

Future Macs

  • PCB components will be more compact in future laptop Macs, including MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. This will allow the new Macs to use the up-to-date high-performance processors and other components in a smaller package, leaving more room for battery packs.
  • New Macs may adopt BGA-SSD or even raw NAND that will be managed directly by Apple Silicon. This can save some space and costs of controllers.
  • Since the ARM core will consume less power, it will not require a large fan as in Intel-based Macs. The saved space will be used for the battery as well.
  • The functions of Macbook Air and iPad Pro will become very close. The former is like a clamshell laptop and the latter is like a detachable laptop.
  • Future Macs are expected to integrate more sensors, such as 3D sensing and ultra-wideband (UWB). The SoC here will incorporate more powerful NPUs to process the image captured by iPhone 12 and iPad Pro.
  • Although the cost of Apple Silicon is lower than Intel’s CPU, the price of future Macs will not necessarily be cheaper than the current models. On the other hand, the price may increase because of the new design with additional sensors and chips.

Companies Involved

  • TSMC: 5nm will be the mainstream technology of Apple Silicon in the next two to three years. In addition to Apple, it is expected to see other SoC vendors working on ARM-based SoC for PC, which will become the next battlefield in the foundry industry.
  • ARM: ARM will benefit from the license fee that Apple will pay to migrate its platform.
  • Intel: Intel will suffer revenue loss from the transition. However, its impact will be limited. Intel is expected to move to 10nm/7nm soon to stop the increasing adoption of ARM-based SoC in PC.

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Brady Wang has more than 20 years working experience in high-technology companies from semiconductor manufacturing to market intelligence, and strategy advisory. Brady’s major coverage in Counterpoint is semiconductors. Prior to joining Counterpoint, Brady Wang worked for Gartner for 11 years. He started his career at TSMC as an engineer for 6 years.

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