Why You Should Care About Silicon Macs

Apple's ditching Intel

Key Takeaways

  • Apple Silicon is way faster than Intel’s chips.
  • The first Apple Silicon Macs will be MacBooks, not iMacs.
  • The new Macs could sport touch screens, Apple Pencil support, 5G connections, and Face ID.
Apple's "One More Thing" event promo image

Apple will almost certainly introduce Silicon Macs at next Tuesday’s "One More Thing" event. These will be the first Macs to ever run on chips designed by Apple, and they will eventually replace Intel chips across the entire Mac lineup.

The exciting part is, we have no idea what this means. Perhaps Apple will announce a MacBook Air, unchanged but for the CPU inside. Or maybe we’ll get a radical new, ultra-thin, iPad Pro-inspired MacBook that has a touch screen, runs for days on a single charge, and doesn't need a fan to keep it cool.

"Fan-less would be a big win for my wife, who's an audiobook narrator," Mac and iOS software developer Mark Bessey told Lifewire via Twitter.

What Is ‘Apple Silicon’?

For the last decade and a half, Macs have run on Intel chips, the same chips used in PCs. Meanwhile, it has designed and built its own custom-designed A-Series chips for the iPhone and iPad. In recent years, Apple's mobile chips have gotten as fast as Intel's, all while using way less power.

Apple Silicon is what Apple now calls these custom-designed chips. The individual codenames for the Mac versions of these chips are still unknown, but they'll be related to the A14 chips that power this year's iPhone 12 and the new iPad Air.

Using Apple Silicon means Macs will not only be more powerful than an equivalent Intel-based machine, but they can also use a lot of neat Apple technologies, like the Neural Engine it uses for processing photos and doing Artificial Intelligence computing. A MacBook running on Apple Silicon should also wake instantly, like an iPad, and be able to check for updates to, say, email while it’s sleeping, like an iPhone.

It should also mean that you can finally use your laptop in your lap without burning your thighs.

"Better heat management, don't lower performance when connected to [an] external display… 16" really sucks," iOS engineer Johnnie Tseng told Lifewire via Twitter, in response to a question about what he wants to see in a new MacBook.

Apple Silicon also means that the Mac will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps, which would open the Mac up to millions of existing software titles from the App Store.

MacBooks Not iMacs

According to a rumor reported by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, the initial lineup of Apple Silicon-based Macs will be laptops, not desktops.

"Apple and overseas suppliers are ramping up production of three Mac laptops with Apple processors: new 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros and a new 13-inch MacBook Air," writes Gurman.

This makes some sense. Intel's aging x86 chip architecture, on which most current PCs and all current Macs are based, was created in an era when computers were always plugged into power, and had big, fan-cooled cases.

Apple's A-series chips were created for the iPhone, a fan-less, tight box which has to run off a small battery. To say that Apple's chips are suited for laptops is an understatement. Apple will surely want to show off the battery-siping, low-power capabilities of these new MacBooks.

An Apple MacBook running the Xcode software.
Apple

On the other hand, Apple will also want to show off the sheer power of its silicon. Last year's A13 chip, found in the iPhone 11, was already faster than any Mac made prior. Think about that for a second. Apple's phone CPU was faster than even the iMac Pro in some circumstances.

Gurman's laptop-only prediction is disappointing for anyone hoping to buy a new iMac, which is still blundering along with a design that has gone almost unchanged since 2007. Imagine what this year's Apple Silicon could achieve inside a big iMac enclosure, with plenty of power and cooling? Still, don't hold your breath.

"I don’t think there’ll be any desktops until mid next year," Max Seelemann, developer of Mac and iOS app Ulysses, told Lifewire via Twitter.

Touch? 

There are lots of other possibilities, none of which have been confirmed or dispelled by rumors or leaks. One is touch. Will these Macs have touch screens? It would be the perfect way to interact with those iPhone apps, for example, although not everyone agrees.

"Touch is best left to iPads for all intents and purposes," tech commenter Agneev Mukherjee told Lifewire via Twitter.

Other possibilities include FaceID, a 5G cellular connection, a way-better front-facing camera, and Apple Pencil support. In theory, Apple could put any of those into new MacBooks. In practice? We’ll have to wait and see.