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.

20jul buying a mac hero

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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Paul M.
27 Jul 2020
Good News or bad news?

I've used Apple machines (and laptops) commercially in design for over 30 years. My last experience was the dreaded 2011 Macbook Pro overheating GPU chip which Apple first refused to recognize and then funded a repair which didn't last. That episode aside, I still prefer to buy Apple machines and their adoption of 3rd party Intel chips made me wonder if they had lost either the expertise or drive to better them. Certainly Apples' laptop and desktop market has fallen into a niche category compared to their OS devices.

This news gives me some confidence in Apple's direction which I had questioned with the loss of Steve Jobs and his inspiration and management. Thank you for this article, it is becoming a minor market, even though Apple's hardware is a major component of my design work.

Dionne N.
25 Jul 2020
Always had mac computers but I would wait

I am onto my 3rd iMac computer in 22years. My first one lasted 10years and the second 11 before I decided they were getting to slow. The second dies about 2 weeks after buying a new computer. Admittedly once I moved from being a student I wasn't using my computer every day but value for money it was worth it. The resolution is amazing.
Hearing that they are making such a change I would want to have it proven before I sunk that amount of money into a new computer, becuse they are not the cheapest on the market. Be pretty annoyed if they don't give the software updates to the newish computer I have because they have changed CPUs.

Matt S.
25 Jul 2020
Wait until the 2nd generation models

Apple's track record with first generation hardware and software releases has been sketchy at best (anyone remember OS 10.0?). My advice, which comes from working in the IT sector for 30 years, is to wait until they release their second generation of computers running their new CPUs. I could be wrong though - it wouldn't be the first time!

Graham E.
25 Jul 2020

Apple has yet to move towards 5G. I was told that their iPhone 11, which costs about 2500, will NOT be compatible with 5G. Instead you will have to buy the latest Apple iPhone 12 coming out at the end of the year. Is this correct?

Consumer staff
27 Jul 2020
Re: Apple

Hi Graham,

That's correct - iPhone 12 range is expected to support 5G network connectivity.

Kind regards,
Frank - Consumer NZ staff

William O.
25 Jul 2020

I've been using Apple laptops since around 2003. I was still using a late 2008 Macbook pro until recently and it was still functioning very well.
I recommend Apple, but a bit dubious over the change in processers.

Marita B.
25 Jul 2020
price point

Thanks, a timely article. Mac laptops are crazy expensive, particularly if you choose a bigger memory option. The govt has introduced a one-off (this financial year) covid stimulus where businesses can 100% write off equipment purchases under $5k. Apple would do well to keep their new models under that price point for those considering an upgrade.