Should I Buy an Intel Mac Today or Wait to Buy an Arm-Based Mac?

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Apple at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference announced its intention to transition away from Intel processors to Macs powered by its own Apple Silicon chips starting in late 2020. Apple says that by using its own Arm-based processors, it will be able to build better Macs that will boast better performance while also being more energy efficient.


Apple's announcement at WWDC 2020 was expected, but the timing of the transition has left many people in the market for a new Mac wondering whether they should buy one now, or wait until the first Macs powered by Apple Silicon arrive. If you count yourself among those facing the same dilemma, then keep reading. This article summarizes the most salient points to consider.

Where Have I Heard of Arm Before?
Apple is no stranger to Arm-based architecture, and if you're already wedded to the Apple ecosystem, you probably own a device powered by Arm chips. iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV all use Advanced RISC machine (Arm-based) processors instead of Intel chips, which use the CISC instruction set.


In fact, the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac Pro, Mac mini, and Mac Pro are already equipped with Apple-designed Arm processors, in the form of the T1 and T2 chips that power the Touch Bar, Secure Enclave, and other features in these machines.

Indeed, Apple's familiarity with the architecture is one of the reasons the company has decided that it's time to make the wholesale switch for its desktop and notebook machines.

Will Arm-Based Macs Be Better Than Intel Macs?
Apple says it has been working on a family of system-on-chip processors for its desktop and notebook Macs that will usher in a new set of features and deliver "incredible performance."

Apple loves superlatives, but the details are still thin, so it's hard to know exactly what performance gains are in store. But based on past and current architecture, there are some benefits we can be sure of.


Thanks to Apple's years of experience honing power-efficient chips for its Apple Watch and iOS devices, it's fair to say that we can expect a better balance of high performance and low power consumption. Apple's custom chips will also provide best-in-class security with the Secure Enclave, along with high-performance graphics capabilities for professional apps and games.

Apple Silicon chips will also include Neural Engines and Machine Learning Accelerators, making Macs ideal platforms for machine learning. Other technologies set to feature include a high-quality camera processor, performance controller, high-performance DRAM, unified memory, and cryptography acceleration.

In addition, Apple has developed several custom technologies that it can build into Apple Silicon to integrate the system and further boost the Mac's capabilities, making it stand out from the competition. Just take the T2 chip in current Macs, which integrates the system management controller, the image signal processor, the SSD controller, and a Secure Enclave with a hardware-based encryption engine, not to mention the Touch Bar and Touch ID.

By going all-in with its own silicon, Apple is increasing its ability to control both the software and the hardware, just like it does for iPhones and iPads, which should make for an improved user experience overall. Not only that, apps designed for the iPhone and the iPad will run on Apple Silicon natively when the first Mac with an Apple-designed chip is released.

How Much Faster Will Apple Silicon Macs Be?
The truth is we don't know yet. Apple seems confident in the future performance of its Arm-based Macs. Presently, Apple is providing developers with a Developer Transition Kit, which is a Mac mini with an A12Z iPad Pro chip. This is based on a 2019 Arm CPU that was designed for the iPad, so shouldn't be seen as representative of what Arm Mac performance will ultimately be.

Due to the change in CPU architecture, current Intel Mac software will be translated under Rosetta -- this means that performance of unoptimized software will be slower until developers have a chance to support the new Arm processors.

Early benchmarks show how the developer kit performs with unoptimized software, and delivers benchmarks roughly on par with 2013 to 2015-era MacBook Pros.

It's worth noting, however, that the Arm-powered 2019 iPad Pro running Arm-native benchmarking software is faster than the 13-inch MacBook Pro (2019) in single core and multi-core benchmarks.


Overall, these early benchmarks seem promising, bearing in mind that Apple's Arm-based Macs that run Apple Silicon will have new chips designed for specifically for the Mac and based on the A14 chip created for the 2020 iPhone lineup with a 5-nanometer process.

When Are the First Apple Silicon Macs Due to Launch?
At WWDC in June, Apple said that the first Mac that uses Apple Silicon will be introduced before the end of 2020. The company didn't offer any more details beyond that, but rumors suggest Apple is developing at least three Mac processors all of which are based on the A14 chip in the upcoming 2020 iPhones.

Respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes the first Macs that will adopt Apple's custom chips will be a refreshed 13.3-inch MacBook Pro and a redesigned 24-inch iMac, with the updated machines to launch in the fourth quarter of 2020 or early in 2021.


Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has also said that Apple plans to release at least six Mini-LED products by the end of 2021, including 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models, so it's possible that these new Macs will be among the first to run on Apple Silicon.

Apple has already confirmed that its Apple Silicon Macs will continue to offer support for the Thunderbolt USB-C standard, so there will continue to be an Intel element in the new machines after all.

What Does Apple Silicon Mean for Intel-Based Apps?
Apple has said it will continue to support Intel Macs for years after the transition to Apple Silicon is complete, so if you buy an Intel-based Mac today, you can expect to receive software updates throughout the life of the machine.

As indicated by its Developer Transition Kit, Apple expects most developers to start building native apps immediately. However, users will still be able to run Intel apps on Arm-based Macs thanks to Rosetta 2, a translation process that runs in the background and is invisible to the user.


Apple has demoed Rosetta 2 with apps and games, and shown that there's no apparent difference between running an Intel app on an Intel machine versus an Apple Silicon machine. Everything works as you'd expect, but if performance is important to you it may take some time for all your software to be updated to support the new processors.

If you rely on Adobe software, the good news is that Apple has given Adobe early access to its Arm-based architecture, and Photoshop and Lightroom are reportedly already running smoothly on Apple Silicon.

What If I Need My Mac to Run Windows?
Unfortunately, Boot Camp won't be available on Macs that run Apple Silicon, and existing virtualization solutions also won't support running Intel Windows. Even if VMWare or Parallels were to offer that support, it would suffer from slower performance due to the different CPU architectures involved.



Microsoft does have its own native Arm version of Windows it uses on its Surface Pro X, but that is only available to manufacturers who resell Microsoft products under their own name and branding. As far as we know, there are no current plans make an Arm-based version of Windows available for Macs. Even if that were to become available for the Mac, it has its own compatibility and performance issues with traditional Intel Windows applications.

Should I Buy a Mac Now or Wait for Apple Silicon?
Apple is committed to supporting Intel-based Macs long into the future, and even says it has new Mac models in the pipeline that run on Intel processors.

In addition, Apple's existing Mac lineup has never looked in better shape. The 16-inch MacBook Pro and the recently updated 13-inch MacBook Pro in particular are well-rounded machines that offer very impressive performance across the board.

If running Windows is an important factor, then buying a current generation Intel Mac makes more sense than waiting. Intel Macs will be supported for years to come with new Intel Macs still in the pipeline.

In addition, if you are looking to buy a higher end Mac with specific software where performance is important to you, it also may not be worth waiting. Early Apple Silicon Macs may not replace the top-of-the-line for some time and native software will take some time to arrive.


If you don't need to buy a new Mac right away, and the idea of Apple Silicon excites you, it might be worth holding out for a little longer to see how things evolve. Apple says the first Arm-based Mac is set to be introduced before the end of 2020.

That said, Apple has also stated that it will take two years to transition its entire Mac lineup to Apple Silicon, so depending on what kind of Mac you want, you could be in for a long wait.

Article Link: Should I Buy an Intel Mac Today or Wait to Buy an Arm-Based Mac?
 
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l3it3r

macrumors regular
Oct 12, 2011
159
37
Hagerstown, MD
Personally, I'm waiting. I have a 2018 15" MBP and have been very tempted to get a 16", but with the upcoming Apple-powered Macs, I'm perfectly happy waiting for them to be released. I've been testing Big Sur on my old 2013 MBA, and it's pretty nice, so I'm excited to see what happens with the new chipsets :)
 

newyorksole

macrumors 601
Apr 2, 2008
4,073
4,449
New York.
Well I’ll tell ya one thing... Someone better buy my 27” 2019 iMac later this year when I put it up for sale! Lol

Excited to see these new Macs. If I were someone in the market for one I’d probably just wait for ARM.
 

Rudy69

macrumors 6502a
Mar 30, 2009
661
828
That said, Apple has also stated that it will take two years to transition its entire Mac lineup to Apple Silicon, so depending on what kind of Mac you want, you could be in for a long wait.
Let's not forget the PPC transition was supposed to start June 2006 and finish at the end of 2007. Apple ended up starting earlier and finishing August 2006.

If the transition proceeds smoothly I can't imagine Intel macs being sold after 2021
 

4jasontv

macrumors 68030
Jul 31, 2011
2,540
2,598
tl;dr
Yes, buy:
1. Need a new Mac today
2. Want option to run Windows*
No, Wait:
1. Don't need a new Mac today

*I suspect Microsoft will release a system builder version of Windows for ARM because money.
EDIT: (per MikeZTM) Window's for ARM is already available, and you can use an existing Windows licence to activate it. Opinion: If Microsoft can convince Mac users to install it they can push it on their OEMs and start making a meaningful conversion rate.
 
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Jeaz

macrumors 6502
Dec 12, 2009
430
513
Sweden
Good writeup.

I have a strong feeling these rumoured new iMacs with the all-new design is for Apple Silicon, with the first one being that 24". There will be new Intel iMacs but my bet is on that they'll keep using the old design.

I normally wouldn't mind waiting for a larger version of the iMac with AS, if performance holds up. But with Apple not supporting my iMac with next Big Sur I'm in a bit of a bind.
 
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NickName99

macrumors 6502a
Nov 8, 2018
946
2,739
The Apple processor based MacBook Pro 13” will be at least twice as powerful as a 10th gen Intel one, with far better battery life. GPU performance will be at least triple, the Intel integrated graphics on those is awful.

For the 16” MacBook Pro or the iMac, I don’t think the initial performance improvements will be as drastic from Intel, but still a nice step up. We’ll see!
 

smoledman

macrumors 68000
Oct 17, 2011
1,929
341
Does ARM Windows run x86 apps at all? I would imagine most people needing Windows (like me) are there because of legacy software.
Microsoft already has shown Windows can emulate x86-64 applications. The issue is poor performance.
 

4jasontv

macrumors 68030
Jul 31, 2011
2,540
2,598
Does ARM Windows run x86 apps at all? I would imagine most people needing Windows (like me) are there because of legacy software.
Not well, but Microsoft seems highly interested in no longer supporting legacy apps. It's why they have tried so hard to push their ARM solutions.
 
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Altivec88

macrumors member
Jun 16, 2016
66
285
Unless Apple changes the word "Years" into an actual number, we will not be purchasing any more intel Macs. I've got burned so many times from Apple, that they lost my trust in things like this. They used and continue to repeat the word "years" for a reason and I don't like it. Very poor marketing on their part to create this uncertainty. I guess they don't care that Mac sales are going to tank for the next two years.
 

Morgon

macrumors newbie
Nov 21, 2014
29
92
Are we certain that there won't be a yearly refresh of an Intel-based MBP this fall, while they finalize their transition? I was hoping to get a 2020 version before enduring the long wait to determine compatibility/stability of the ARM hardware.
 
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JosephAW

macrumors 68040
May 14, 2012
3,073
3,589
(2005: Should I buy a new 64 bit dual core/quad core PowerMac G5 or wait to get an 32 bit Intel Mac?)
Remembering the sting from Apple abandoning us with OS X after making the right decision. Well at least they are still running as servers, got our monies worth.
Of course those of you who went with the Mac Pro 1,1 got thrown under the bus just as fast.
 

David Rodgers

macrumors newbie
Jul 9, 2020
1
0
I'm on a late 2016 15"MBP and I've had no reason to switch yet until the news that they're finally moving to their own silicone. I'm going to wait until 2nd generation larger displayed MBP before I consider the switch, fingers crossed they're super efficient as well as all powerful but I mainly want to see what else they can bring to the table with the switch to ARM
 

Piggie

macrumors G3
Feb 23, 2010
8,390
2,746
I can't wait to see how great ARM macs will be.

However I think pretty much every single person here can agree on one very true point which has repeated itself with Apple products over many many years even going back to well into Steve Jobs time.

Expect any new Apple product, to get VASTLY better by the time the 2nd and 3rd models come out.

1st model (generally always issues)
2nd model fixes most of these problems, as they HAD to ship the 1st one and could not fix everything before launch so the 2nd one has all the things they really wanted to do with the 1st one.
3rd model, they'd had time to have a rethink and look at the good and bad points, and give it the love and polish to really make is a good well rounded product.

:)
 
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