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Apple’s break up with Intel and what it means for the future of Personal Computing

 

Author – Arjun Sunil Kumar

 

On June 22nd, 2020, Apple announced at the World Wide Developer Conference that they would be ending the use of Intel-based processors in their Mac products which constitutes their desktops and laptops. To most people, this may seem like “What’s the big deal?”. To some others, it may seem like some publicity stunt by a greedy tech giant trying to use fancy words to demand more money for the same product. But what is Apple Silicon and why are the tech geeks either extremely excited or extremely disappointed? The first question in the minds of many is, what is Apple silicon? Apple Silicon is the name Apple has given to the ARM processors Apple has designed in house for their devices. In the 90s until 2005, Apple’s Macs were powered by PowerPC processors. PowerPC processors were designed under the Apple-IBM-Motorola alliance. From 2005, Apple has been using Intel processors to power their Macs due to their performance and efficiency. 

Apple-designed their own processors for their iOS devices since iPhone 4, while Macs continued to run on Intel processors. But by 2019, Apple’s processors in the iOS devices started outperforming the Macs in a significant manner and people realised Apple’s own processors would be better for the Mac than Intel’s slow-progressing chips. Several rumours have been floating around for over 2 years now that Apple would switch the Mac to Apple’s own processors, and now the rumours are a reality.

Now, what is the big deal? Windows systems aren’t Intel exclusive, we have other processor manufacturers like AMD in the market that are providing both high performance and low costs. Why does it matter that Apple is switching from Intel? To explain that we need to look at processors in detail. Processors are the computer’s brain, they process data and give corresponding outputs. Fundamentally speaking, it’s just a bunch of transistors and circuits arranged to perform a few simple tasks. All data that goes into a processor is in machine code(1010101001110, that kind of code), above machine code, there exists assembly code. Assembly code is simple instructions which can be easily translated to the processor and can also be easily understood by a programmer. In the past, it was necessary to know assembly language in order to make the software compatible with a particular processor. Depending on the processor it can understand anything from simple commands from add 2 numbers to commands like add 2 numbers, square it and find its cube root all in a single instruction. This meant sections of the processor were dedicated for each unique instruction that may or may not be needed. These kinds of processors were called Complex Instruction Set Computer(CISC), 

A team at UC Berkeley came out with a different solution known as Reduced Instruction Set Computer(RISC). RISC featured highly efficient instructions that had the ability to perform tasks, much faster. The goal of RISC is to complete 1 instruction in 1 cycle. This helps keep the processor work continuously and helps ensure all parts are active. RISC had a huge drawback when it came to memory management compared to CISC, it just needed more space for most tasks. 

Intel and AMD processors are based on the x86-x64 platform which is essentially a CISC system, which meant they have dedicated areas of the processor to simplify tasks but can’t do all at once because it will get hung up on the slowest process. PowerPC, on the other hand, is a RISC system and was able to perform well. Everyone has heard of the ARM processor in their phones, ARM is Advanced RISC Machine. 

All desktops and laptops have been using CISC chips for decades now and Apple has a radical decision to shift to their own ARM processors which are RISC machines. Apple’s design is very efficient in terms of memory management as well since most iPhones come with under 4GB of RAM while the competitors are releasing 12GB and iPhones have been outperforming those phones in terms of memory and performance for years.

Microsoft experimented with ARM processors in their surface lineup but failed due to the lack of support from developers and because most amateur users were unhappy because the software that runs on the other laptops weren’t running on this one.

Apple’s move towards ARM chipsets for their Macs will bring in the ability for iOS apps and Mac apps to be cross-compatible and also allow Macs to perform better and gain more battery life. It will, however, bring up issues related to support for Windows and Linux as these operating systems aren’t entirely compatible with ARM. This could be the turning point in the PC industry that will push us towards a future powered by ARM processors.

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Arjun Sunil Kumar

Author
Rajagiri School of Engineering & Technology,Ernakulam

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