iMac (top view, wireless keyboard and mouse)

It’s been speculated for years that Macs which run ARM-based processors instead of Intel chips have been in internal testing for quite some time.

This weekend a French publication has resurrected the rumor, claiming that the iPhone maker is indeed actively prototyping several ARM-based Mac models.

Moreover, the company is also working on a brand new keyboard which integrates the Magic Trackpad, Apple’s multitouch trackpad currently available as a standalone $69 accessory. But why would Apple transition from Intel to ARM-based chips and what benefits would such a major brain transplant bring to your daily computing?

Read on for the full reveal…

The French blog MacBidouille [Google translate] claims Apple’s engineers are actively prototyping an iMac, Mac mini and 12-inch Mac notebook that run 64-bit quad-core chips based on designs from UK-based fabless maker ARM.

According to the report, Apple also has an OS X version optimized to run on ARM chips. Apparently, the firm is not ready to announce ARM-driven Macs just yet over fear of ARM’s roadmap potentially not matching Intel’s.

MacBook Air (teaser 001)

Rumors of ARM-based Macs date several years back.

In 2011, the Japanese blog Macotakara said [Google translate] Apple had been testing an A5-powered MacBook Air. Those who saw it live reportedly said the machine had “performed better than expected.”

Bloomberg in November 2012 said sources reiterated that former hardware chief Bob Mansfield is focused on an internal project that would result in ARM-based Macs by 2017.

Apple engineers have grown confident that the chip designs used for its mobile devices will one day be powerful enough to run its desktops and laptops, said three people with knowledge of the work, who asked to remain anonymous because the plans are confidential.

Apple has been designing its own mobile chips for use in iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Apple TV devices for years now.

Apple aluminum keyboard and Magic Trackapd (image 001)

These chips serve as the engine for iOS devices and combine ARM’s CPU blueprints, graphics IP from Imagination Technologies (another British fabless chip maker in which Apple holds a roughly ten percent ownership stake), RAM, control logic and other components.

Apple’s blueprints are then turned into actual chips in Samsung’s factories. It’s worth remembering that Apple’s latest A7 chip – the first 64-bit mobile processor – has been praised by the industry for its desktop-class performance and low power consumption.

Switching from Intel to ARM would theoretically make it even easier for developers to write Mac and iOS apps, although Apple’s development tools almost completely insulate developers from both the underlying operating system and hardware.

The Mac maker has been through similar transitions twice, once moving from Motorola to RISC-based PowerPC chips and again in 2005 when it switched from the PowerPC platform to Intel chips.

From the end-user perspective, moving to ARM-based Macs would probably make possible a machine such as a Retina-capable MacBook Air with 24-hour battery life. ARM’s designs are unmatched in the industry for their power efficiency – that’s why ARM-based processors dominate in mobile.

And if iOS and OS X shared the same CPU platform, future Macs would – in theory – be able to run iPhone and iPad applications. On the other hand, Tim Cook poured cold water on the iOS/OS X convergence so…

iPad Air A7

As with all things Apple, ARM-based Macs may never materialize so take the rumor with a grain of salt. Having said that, the prospect of Macs driven by ARM chips is quite tantalizing, isn’t it?

Would you buy an ARM-outfitted Mac?

  • abazigal

    For some reason, the idea does sound quite seductive, but I admit this is partly because it’s Apple doing it, and we know they don’t undertake this sort of migration lightly. If they do one day decide to move from Intel to Arm, you can be sure they have done their sums and are confident the pros outweigh the cons.

    That said, if Apple can get away with bundling integrated graphics in their 21″ iMac, they can probably get away with an ARM processor in one as well. 😛

  • Ara Rezaee

    I’m not sure if an ARM CPU could match an Intel Haswell or whatever even at higher voltage than normal

    • ✪ aidan harris ✪

      Right now this is probably true. I think in the future though an ARM CPU could probably be just as good as an Intel Haswell is right now…

      • Chris Tangler

        I’d agree but when that time comes, Haswell will be outdated and Intel will have something new. ARM will still be behind if they are just at the equivalent of the product Intel has now.

      • Bruno Iván Hernández Góngora

        If Apple completely optimizes its iOS for using all the ARM cores efficiently, it could be a quite powerful system.

  • Geoffrey Spencer

    As long as I can continue to use VMWare Fusion or Parallel and not as an emulator then they can change the chip. They could sell a regular version with just the ARM chip. They could then sell another model for professionals that have both the ARM and the Intel chip or the ability to add the latest Intel chip afterwards, if that is possible. Intel chips would only be used by VMWare Fusion or Parallel to run Windows, Linux, whatever, on the Mac.

  • jimmy little

    Apple has had an ARM based Mac for years. Every time Intel slips on production or tries to raise prices, Apple drags out the ARM Mac and says “Are you sure you want to do that, because we can always change processors…”

    • Marcus Winchester

      Intel really can’t afford to lose Apple as a customer. I mean, I know Apple are only good for about 20 million Mac sales annually but to Intel that contract is worth a good few billion dollars. Intel need to do something seriously amazing with Broadwell and all of these delays don’t help, it only helps the ARM concept grow more and more in the minds of Apple’s engineers. The only thing stopping this happening is that going to ARM will break compatibility and lose it a ton of pro customers but at the end of the day, if they could price a MacBook at $700-800 with still high margins thanks to the ARM chip and make money off of the storage bumps going up, they could seriously grab a huge chunk of the consumer market. I don’t think they would do that unless they are willing to cannibalise the iPad, they’d prefer people to own a Mac and an iPad, I personally would choose a Mac 10 times out of 10. Maybe Apple knows they can’t take the iPad much further and to be honest, I really agree. The iPad is kind of dead end, its just a larger iPhone with an over clocked A7 CPU, nothing special. Now, if they could supplant the iPad with a low cost hybrid Mac, they’d be onto something I think

      • Bruno Iván Hernández Góngora

        Maybe they’ll use the GCN discrete graphics, they already have drivers. AMD is already combining ARM and GCN.

        Hahaha! Dreaming is always nice!

      • Marco Marchant

        I tend to agree. This is where Microsoft Windows hasn’t made it. The transition from desktop/laptop to touch based devices is still fiddly and underpowered in budget devices. Budget devices are a must for budget conscious businesses such as schools. If Apple can pull off a budget device that is powerful enough to run a hybrid MacOS/iOS then they could take over the education industry 100%. Forget Surfaces, Lenovos and Chrome books, let the Hybrid Mac take over and stop my wife from touching her MacBook Air screen for goodness sake!

  • Steve Zou

    We’ll have a better idea after the unveiling of this year’s A8 chip.
    Really looking forward to dat Apple-made A8.

  • NotMyRealContact

    Remember the last time(s) this happened?
    Power PC
    Motorola 68000

    these were all cheaper chips, which ended up hurting apple in support wise.

  • jp2002

    Its RISC vs CISC. Nowadays RISC is becoming more powerful, especially with the advent of 64bit processing. If this succeeds no more fans on MacBooks! All that RISC does is break down complex instruction into multiple simple instructions increasing the pipeline waiting time for an instruction, but saving the penalty of adding more transistors for the circuits that perform the complex instructions. IMO it makes complete sense to implement it on MacBooks in the near future.