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Big Under-the-hood Changes Coming for New Macs

Apple held their annual developers conference a couple of weeks ago -- all online, for the first time. They announced major under-the-hood changes for Mac users, but if Apple does their job well, you won't really notice.

Macs change their CPU:

A computer's CPU (which stands for Central Processing Unit) is where most of its computing happens, so it is the essential heart of the machine. Beginning in late 2020, Apple will begin making their own CPUs for their Mac computers, rather than buying them from Intel (or an Intel-compatible vendor like AMD). This is a bigger deal than it sounds like.

The issue is that every CPU design has its own native tongue -- the computer's "machine language," by which software can tell it what to do. Nearly all the software on the Mac you now own speaks Intel. The new Mac models will instead require software that works with a CPU design called ARM. This means that, without help, none of your current software will run on a future Mac.

Apple has anticipated this, so their forthcoming version of macOS, called Big Sur (aka macOS 11), will speak both Intel and ARM. Intel-based applications will be automatically translated, though this means they will run more slowly. Software developers will need to rework their applications in order to get full performance when running on Mac computers with the new CPUs.

This CPU change is likely because Intel has failed to keep increasing the raw speed of their processors over the past decade; a new Mac isn't all that much faster or more capable than a well-equipped model from 2012. Further, Apple can now unify their technology, since all their other major hardware products -- iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV -- already use ARM-based "Apple silicon" (as they call it) CPUs. And ARM-based CPUs require less power, so Mac batteries may last longer. And I'm sure that Apple wants to control their own destiny, so for the most critical component of their computers, they'd probably prefer not to depend on another company.

This big change won't be all sunshine and roses at first, though -- some software will prove to be incompatible with Big Sur's translation technology. And if you depend upon being able to run Microsoft Windows applications, via software like Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, you may be stuck, because we don't yet know whether it will be possible to run Windows at full speed, or at all. And Apple is the first company to put an ARM-based CPU at the heart of a high-performance personal computer -- Microsoft and a couple of other vendors have recently dipped their toes in the water with tablet PCs, but not in any products equivalent to a MacBook Pro or iMac. So we don't yet know whether these new Macs will equal or exceed the performance of their Intel-based predecessors.

Apple has been down this road twice before, in 1994 and 2006. Both times, a translation technology was successfully used to make the transition smooth for users. This time around should be actually the least eventful, in part because iPhones and iPads already use ARM-based, Apple-manufactured CPUs, so Apple and software vendors are generally already familiar with the technology.

If you are thinking about buying a new Mac in the near future, and intend to use it for 3-5 years, we think you're probably better off buying a current Intel-based Mac, rather than waiting. If history is any guide, the first generation of Mac computers with Apple CPUs won't be as good as those that come after. We'll let you know what we think, and how you'll be affected, once Apple actually ships a Mac with an Apple CPU.

Other announcements:

As happens every fall, Apple will be releasing new versions of macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS. We'll go into more of these in detail when their releases get closer. The macOS and i(Pad)OS are going to look and feel a bit different, with revamped aesthetics, and, in the case of iOS and iPadOS, miniature "widget" versions of apps that can coexist on your home screen with your app icons -- a feature that Android phone users have enjoyed since the beginning. Well, better late than never. And watchOS 7 will certainly have a relevant new feature...it will detect when you're washing your hands, and start a 20-second timer for you. For real. 

(July 2020)


Anyway, we'll cover all of this in loving detail, but this newsletter is long enough! See you next month!

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