Episode 95: Apple Silicon, What does it Mean?

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Summer Contest

In this episode I talk about the new Apple Silicon and what it means for photographers and everyone else.

Earlier this year at their annual World Wide Developers Conference in June of 2020 Apple unveiled what they are calling Apple Silicon as the future of their systems. For those of you that don’t know Apple’s computers originally had Motorola RISC processors at their core.

In 2005 Steven Jobs told the world at WWDC that they would be switching to Intel processors because their PowerPC architecture couldn’t give them the speed they wanted nor the reduced power consumption. This was a HUGE deal for Apple as they had to create a plan for making the switch over to a new CPU architecture and new instructions sets based on x86 instead of PowerPC. In order to not blow off their customers who had been using PowerPC Macs for years Apple had to come up with a way for customers existing software to run on the new platform and Rosetta was born to bridge the gap. Rosetta allowed Intel Macs to still run PowerPC software and give software companies time to port their code over to the new platform.

Now Apple is making the switch again, only this time Apple is going to their own CPUs and GPUs called Apple Silicon. And in order to make this two year transition easier for all of us they introduced Rosetta 2. Rosetta 2 will allow Intel based software to run on Apple Silicon so that your favorite programs can still run on a new Mac while software vendors port over their code to run natively on the new Apple hardware.

But why is Apple doing all of this? Well Apple has been producing iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch and other products for 10 years now and all of those products have been running on Apple Silicon. The advantages for Apple is they make ALL of the design and development plans and implement them and we get fantastic hardware that runs beautifully. With Apple Silicon Apple has been using ARM based CPUs in their mobile devices. ARM CPUs using a smaller instruction set to carry out tasks when compared to the extremely complex instruction sets needed to make an x86 processor perform tasks. By using a smaller, simpler instruction set Apple can create CPUs that run cooler and consume less energy.

Some of you may already know that smartphones and tablets can run for hours on end performing all kinds of complex tasks and programs and yet stay fairly cool when compared to say your desktop or laptop computer. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that mobile devices don’t get warm or hot at times, but when you think about all the processing intense things we run on them they don’t get nearly as warm as a desktop or laptop would and the mobile devices you may or may not have notices do not have any cooling fans.

The reason for all of this is the ARM based processors that are the core CPUs inside these devices. Because of the smaller and simpler instruction sets these CPUs can run faster and consume less energy and produce less heat than an Intel or AMD processor in the x86 architecture can. This means devices with incredibly long battery life and devices that can process the most intense programs like Lightroom CC and Photoshop on the iPad or iMove or GarageBand.

One of Apple’s long philosophies has been to create powerful devices that look elegant and you can see that in every device that Apple currently makes. Whether it’s the iPhone, iPad Pro, MacBook Pro or iMac or MacPro Tower, Apple wants their devices to be powerful and yet beautiful to look at. They want your devices to not only do the work they are intended for but to make their environment look more attractive at the same time.

Because Apple tends to put form before function at times, this is why we can run into issues with Apple computers, that get too hot and then the Intel CPU has to throttle in order to compensate and cool the system down. Apple doesn’t like putting all kinds of fans into their devices to keep them cool and x86 processors because their instruction set is so complex these processors run much hotter than ARM processors and are less energy efficient.
I am not bashing Intel or AMD, I personally didn’t make the switch to Apple computers until Apple went to Intel as I never liked the PowerPC processors. They had too many limitations. They couldn’t get past certain processor power barriers so they couldn’t compete with the power and performance of Intel’s x86 system. And this was why Apple made the switch to Intel. As Steve Jobs said at the 2005 WWDC,

“The most important reasons are that as we look ahead, though we may have great products right now, and we’ve got some great PowerPC product[s] still yet to come, as we look ahead we can envision some amazing products we want to build for you and we don’t know how to build them with the future PowerPC road map. And that’s why we’re going to do this. When we look at Intel, they’ve got great performance, yes, but they’ve got something else that’s very important to us. Just as important as performance, is power consumption. And the way we look at it is performance per watt. For one watt of power how much performance do you get? And when we look at the future road maps projected out in mid-2006 and beyond, what we see is the PowerPC gives us sort of 15 units of performance per watt, but the Intel road map in the future gives us 70, and so this tells us what we have to do.”

So as you can see if you’re watching this episode on Youtube or hear on this audio podcast Apple needed to go to Intel at the time to keep moving their products forward and keep making them better, more powerful and less power consuming. Well, that is why Apple is making the switch again. By going to Apple Silicon, Apple can continue to make new, powerful products that use significantly less power and generate considerably less heat. With this transition Apple will no longer have their hands tied by the limitations of the x86 architecture and they will be able to continue to make massive advancements in their products.

The Apple Silicon processors are smaller, thinner and more powerful while using less energy than anything Intel can currently create and because Apple did all of the R&D and builds the processors themselves they have less overhead as they don’t have to pay someone else for their CPUs. Another big change coming as part of this transition is Apple will also be making their own GPUs or Graphical Processing Units as well. Currently Apple has been using a combination of Intel, AMD and in some cases Nvidia video chipsets in their Intel based Macs, but with the change to Apple Silicon, Apple will be making their own GPUs as well as part of the overall Apple Silicon chip.

This has already been happening for the last 10 years ever since Apple released the iPhone in 2007. ALL of Apple’s mobile devices use their CPU/GPU combination chips and the power, performance and reduction in power consumption is why these devices are so powerful and yet have batteries that last incredibly long. The iPhone 11 Pro has a 10.5 hour battery, the iPhone 11 Pro Max has a 12 hour battery. The battery in the new 11” iPad Pro Gen 2 is 8-10 hours of normal use. On the 16” MacBook Pro, we see impressive 11 hour battery life. Now keep in mind, if you are using more intense programs such as photo or video editors, the battery life in significantly less, but this is overall extremely impressive.

With the move to Apple Silicon CPU/GPU combination I believe that we will see laptops with 24 hour battery life. Now I am not saying that you could post process images for 24 hours before needing a charge, but if you are using the MacBook for web surfing, emails, stuff like that, yes 24 hour battery life. If you are post processing images in say Lightroom Classic, probably 8-10 hours of battery life, but that is crazy considering a current Intel MacBook Pro can do this same task for what maybe 4-5 hours if you’re lucky.

The other side of it from the processing power standpoint is I believe by making this switch, Apple will be able to make Macs that are twice as fast if not even more than current Intel based models. The transistors in CPUs are getting smaller and packed more tightly together every couple of years and the fact that CPUs are also getting thinner with these new transistors and that allows them to processor faster and faster while basically sipping power and generating far less heat. Will we eventually see Macs that don’t need any cooling fans at all? Possibly, but we’ll have to wait and see. Apple prides itself on making the heatsinks, the metal around the CPU that helps dissipate heat larger and more of the overall design of the chassis, so maybe someday they can make a system that is totally fan less but I would not bank on that. Rather the fans can get smaller and quieter to the point where we almost don’t even hear them at all.

Apple has already released prototype Mac minis with Apple Silicon for developers so they can started porting their code over to run on the new platform as they did in 2005 when they made the switch to Intel and although these developers have signed Non-Disclosure Agreements, rumors are swirling that these prototype machines can already hold their own against Intel CPUs, even though they have to use Rosetta 2 to translate the x86 instructions to ARM. So, if these machines can match the power and performance of an Intel CPU now when NOT running native code, imagine how much faster they will be when the code is native. Additionally, remember these Mac minis are running two year old Apple Silicon from the current iPad Pros, so it’s not even a CPU/GPU that was specifically built for a desktop or laptop computer.

Will this transition be quick and easy? Absolutely not! There is a transition period of two years just as there was in 2005. Apple will still be releasing new Macs with Intel processors for the next 2-3 years, but they are rolling out the first Apple Silicon models sometime before the end of 2020!

Is this some sudden thing that Tim Cook just decided to do this year? No way! If you remember from what Steve Jobs said in 2005, “We have been planning this for 5 years”. When it comes to the move to Apple Silicon in the Macs, I believe Apple has been working on this probably for at least 5 years as they have people smart enough working them to know that eventually they were going to hit the wall so to speak on the limitations of the x86 platform. So I am fairly confident that Apple has been developing macOS on both x86 and ARM at the same time for at least that long. Keep in mind that every year as Apple released new Operating Systems for each of their devices that the move to merging iOS and macOS has been getting closer and closer. That would not have been happening unless Apple was already working on macOS on both architectures at the same time.
Getting back to the transition pains, there will be bumps in the road just as there were in the mid 2000s when Apple transitioned last time, but since this is Apple’s third CPU transition Apple is the expert when it comes to making the switch as smooth as possible. We already saw at WWDC this year that Apple’s software is already ready. Final Cut Pro X, Logic Pro X, Apple’s office suite with Keynote, Pages and Numbers are all ready to go and Apple has been working with their closest partners like Adobe for quite some time on this.

I don’t even think they were will be bumps for Adobe’s Creative Cloud software suite moving to Apple Silicon, why, because Adobe already has Lightroom CC and Photoshop for the iPad which is already running on Apple Silicon. Sure Adobe has to port the rest of their software in the CC Suite to Apple Silicon, but the transition will be smoother for them as they have a head start over many other software companies due to their close partnership with Apple which is very strong.

The companies that will have a harder time are the smaller ones like Luminar, CaptureOne, ON1 PhotoRAW, but I predict that they too will be ready within Apple’s two year window. These companies have been making great photo editing software for years and have a lot of smart developers working for them as well. In the meantime we have Rosetta 2 to bridge the gap and make the transition easier for everyone that wants to run Apple Silicon and have all of their current programs and apps.

I know I am excited and my current Late 2015 27” iMac is getting long in the tooth and needs replacing. With this announcement I am trying to hold off until I can replace it with a 27’ iMac built in Apple Silicon so that I am all in on the new future of Apple computers!

What are your thought on this move by Apple? Are you excited, or as someone who is NOT a nerd like myself, do you even care as long as your Mac continues to do what you need it to do? Let me know in the comments on Youtube or in the Facebook group!

Visit the homepage for show notes at www.liamphotographypodcast.com

Also be sure to join the Liam Photography Podcast Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/liamphotographypodcast/ You can reach the show by call or text @ 470-294-8191 to leave a comment or request a topic or guest for the show. Additionally you can email the show @ liam@liamphotographypodcast.com.

You can find my work @ https://www.liamphotography.net on and follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @liamphotoatl. If you like abandoned buildings and history, you can find my project @ http://www.forgottenpiecesofgeorgia.com.

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