Buying a Mac computer: why you should think twice right now
What you need to know about the Mac's transition from Intel to Apple silicon processors.
By Nick Gelling
Product test writer
It’s late June 2020. Apple announces it’s transitioning away from Intel processors in its Mac computers, and will instead be using its own. Tech enthusiasts the world over raise their eyebrows and say “huh”. The rest of the world misses the news entirely. It’s not the most captivating story.
Only, there’s historical evidence it’s a much bigger story than you think.
What’s this all about?
The processor (also called the central processing unit or CPU) is the core of any computer. It’s the main component where calculations and logic happen.
The “architecture” of a CPU determines what code it can run. The overwhelming majority of computers use processors with Intel’s x86 architecture, as it’s the most powerful tech available. The main competing architecture is ARM (Advanced RISC Machine). ARM processors are simpler – usually cheaper, lighter and more energy efficient. They dominate the phone and tablet market but, until now, they haven’t really made the jump to larger, more demanding devices.
Apple claims that the laptop-like performance of the iPad Pro proves ARM can compete with x86 CPUs. By 2022, Apple wants all of its computers to release with ARM processors.
However, the two architectures are so fundamentally different that they can’t run the same code – existing Mac programs will need translation to work on ARM chips, and most new apps will be built twice to work well on both x86 and ARM architecture. Apple is making this easy for developers, so as long as the transition goes as planned, consumers shouldn’t see compatibility issues.
So why should I care?
This has happened before. When Apple announced its switch to x86 processors in June 2005, the final Macs to use the PowerPC architecture trickled out over the following months. By August of 2009, the new OS update didn’t work on PowerPC Macs. Computers released in October 2005 were looked after for less than four years.
Once ARM-based Macs start appearing at the end of 2020, new apps and updates will likely be built for them first, with efficiency on x86 an afterthought. You don’t want to spend thousands on a laptop that immediately becomes “legacy” hardware, and you certainly don’t want to stop receiving OS updates while your hardware’s still working. We’ve asked Apple for comment on how long support will last – we’ll update this article when we hear back.
So what should I do?
MacBooks and iMacs are consistently great, and we recommend almost every one we test. But unless you need an Apple computer right now, why not wait until the ARM-based Macs roll out later this year? The first round will likely be announced at a big event sometime in spring – probably October – with releases following a few weeks later.
Admittedly, that option has its own dangers – such a big change brings risk of failure, as with any first-generation technology. However, Apple’s history of quality control indicates it shouldn’t go too wrong.
If you don’t want to wait, remember you have rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act. If Apple fails to support your shiny new Intel-based Mac for a reasonable time – say, as long as they do now, which is about seven years – you have grounds for a claim under the CGA.
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