Apple’s Silicon Strategy: How Apple’s Custom Chips May Change Their Product Lineup
Naturally, following Apple’s WWDC announcements on June 22nd, there has been a great deal of chatter and discussion regarding the future of the Mac now that Apple is transitioning to using it’s own custom designed chips. And naturally, we may have heard a thing or two from sources who have served us well in the past (including one of the sources that gave us great information on Apple’s AirPower plans).
That being said: I have an immense dislike for rumors on an existential level. The level to which rumors can be verified varies greatly; the level to which even a once-accurate piece of leaked information can adapt or develop over time, equally so. And this happens for a number of reasons: false information, Apple changing their plans, so on ad nauseam.
As such, rather than to continue the pattern of rumor bombardment for nothing more than the sake of rumor itself, while not discounting that we have definitely heard some pretty fascinating and worthwhile things from folks we have good reason to trust, I’m going to weed through what we’ve heard and break it down into the “bigger why,” focusing on the ideas beneath what we’re hearing, and why it makes a lot of sense.
The Bigger Why Behind What’s Already Been Said
First up to bat: based on a recent report from well known Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a respectable track record for these sorts of things, Apple’s first Macs to utilize their new house-designed chips will be a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a redesigned version of the iMac. What we are hearing lines up with that. But the equally important question here is: why? Why would the entry level MacBook Pro and the entry level iMac be the devices that Apple uses to showcase the potential of their new chips?
Based on what we’ve been told – and a healthy dose of what we think makes a lot of sense anyway: it boils down to a issue of scale. It’s like this: even at this early stage, Apple already knows with certainty that their existing A12Z chip (or a lightly tweaked modification thereof) works brilliantly as a Mac Mini. The first benchmarks we know of on their Developer Transition Kit already shows impressive performance, even running under Rosetta rather than natively on the machine.
So, to think about what that actually means, let’s phrase it as a question: what is the actual hardware difference between a Mac Mini, a 13-inch MacBook Pro, and an entry level iMac? To put it frankly: not much. What we’ve been told is that, as a matter of resource strategy, Apple has decided to focus on the entry-to-mid level as a starting point mainly because it is much easier to do so. Once Apple establishes a solid baseline of performance on the entry to mid level, they will have a much more stable base to build from, and will be able to dedicate greater resources to adding additional cores, enhancing overall performance, and so on. As such, a physically larger and more powerful version of both the iMac and the MacBook Pro are more natural evolutions to be unveiled weeks or months down the road. This naturally allows for more optimized versions of traditionally consumer-centric devices to then be targeted more directly at professionals.
Layer Two: Streamlining Existing Product Lines
The second big piece that we’ve been told involves slimming down Apple’s product lines. As Kuo’s research note indicated, the launch of the new entry level MacBook Pro will mark the end of Apple using Intel processors in that device. That is also very likely to be true of the 16-inch MacBook Pro: once Apple launches a version built around their own custom silicon, they will no longer release an Intel version of the MacBook Pro at all.
Before we go further, let’s take a moment to consider a few key things. What we currently know of Apple’s chips is that they are capable of performing extremely well in iPads and iPhones: devices with no fans, no ventilation, and thermal mechanics which rely only on their aluminum construction to function. It’s not difficult to imagine that, by adding only a small additional layer of thermal management (a single thin fan, for example, or even just a slightly thicker product, such as the MacBook is compared to the iPad), Apple could get a whole lot more performance out of chips that already exist in their iOS devices.
The New MacBook
This concept works on many levels, and also raises an interesting line of thought: now that the MacBook Air already has a Retina display, and in most ways is not notably much different than a MacBook Pro except for a couple of ports and the usage of processors that are more thermally friendly and more efficient…why should it exist at all? Say hello to “The New MacBook.” Using incredibly powerful chips that require less cooling, it now makes a lot less sense for Apple to sell two distinct 13-inch notebooks. Instead, what we’ve heard, and which, again, makes a huge amount of sense, is that Apple, going forward, will offer only a single line of notebooks, which will simply be called “The New MacBook”, or just “MacBook”.
If you can make a “MacBook Pro” practically as thin and light as a “MacBook Air,” why would you not do that? Apple’s more efficient chips make that far more possible and likely than it has ever been.
Other Bits and Pieces: Larger Screens, Thinner Bezels
Echoing rumors that Apple’s forthcoming redesigned iMac will feature a 23-inch or a 24-inch display, what we are hearing is that this will, for all intents and purposes, be a reiteration of what we now know as the 21.5-inch iMac, only with much thinner bezels inspired by Apple’s Pro Display XDR. On this same line, we’re told that the 27-inch iMac is likely to move to a display that is between 30 and 32 inches diagonal, and that in both cases, the footprints of each iMac will not change significantly. The magic lies almost exclusively in the much thinner bezel.
On a similar line, we’re also hearing that Apple’s 13-inch MacBook is likely to shift to a 14-inch display, while the existing 16-inch display on the larger MacBook Pro will remain.
Design Simplicity: Making the Most of Existing Silicon
Another notable piece of what we’ve been told, although we are more skeptical of this than of what we have already said, is that Apple is unlikely to make many different versions of its new chips. Instead, Apple’s silicon will be chain-able. As an example: while an entry level “New MacBook” might use a single chip, a 16-inch MacBook with a larger battery could use multiple chips that work in parallel to achieve faster processing speeds and additional power. This same concept could easily apply to desktop units like the iMac, or perhaps even the Mac Pro at a greater scale.
It also seems fairly reasonable, and even likely, that Apple can make relatively minor changes to a single piece of custom silicon – say, adding additional cores, or varying amounts of included memory, to achieve the performance differences that we currently see between different models of the MacBook Pro, or different models of the iMac, or between the iMac and the iMac Pro. It’s also worth noting that, if Apple streamlines their existing MacBook line, we may very well see the re-merging of the iMac line to go along with that, with no more distinction between iMac and iMac Pro.
Wrapping it Up
I’ll be the first to say that I don’t want to represent any of this as knowledge at this point. While we consider what we have been told to be both credible and highly believable for the most part, we think that it’s the ideas and lines of thinking represented in the information that are most notable. It lines up well with Apple’s existing habits of streamlining product lines where possible, using the technology inside of their various devices as intelligently and efficiently as possible, and syncs well with decisions Apple has already made in the past.
With that being said, nothing in this article would surprise me in the least if it happened to creep its way into absolute reality. Not even a little.