Analysis, Rumors

Don't Yet Dismiss Apple Shifting Macbooks to ARM

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Rumors of an impending demise of Mactel are nothing new. But as ARM continues its momentum and Intel grapples with the delay of Broadwell, it’s worth taking a second look at the case for ARM on Mac.

Although the Apple-Intel partnership has been going great ever since the Cupertino giant switched to Intel’s offerings from PowerPC processors in 2005, cost considerations and rising momentum of 64-bit ARM hardware may see a similar shift from Intel to ARM in the near future.

At least that’s what Jean-Louis Gassée, a former Apple executive that served the company from 1981 to 1990, thinks. Although the Apple Gassée knew is a very different one than it is today, he did make a compelling case on his blog Monday Note that rumors of Apple considering ARM for its Macbook line should not be immediately dismissed.

Cost is considered to be the main reason for a move away from Intel’s processors. Intel is said to charge around $378 for an i7 CPU in a 15-inch MacBook Pro. Other CPUs, like the i5, are said to be in the vicinity of $300. Intel, owing to its dominant position in the CPU market, is able to command a premium for its processors. 

ARM hardware, on the other hand, is easier and more cost effective to manufacture thanks to the RISC-based design in comparison to the x86 architecture used by Intel. Costs are further driven down by the intense competition in this field. Also, x86-based hardware use more transistors than their ARM counterparts, which consumers more power and gives out more heat. While ARM is predominantly used for low power hardware, 64-bit offerings are bridging the divide in terms of performance. The move away from Intel is also said to be spurred on by additional delays encountered by the processor giant in launching its 14 nm Broadwell line of CPUs, which are delayed but expected to be available mid-2015.

Since Apple is an ARM architecture licensee, it can tailor hardware specifically suited to its devices, like the 64-bit Apple A7 SoC used in the iPhone 5s. By designing its own hardware, Apple can control “all layers of the stack.” Apple can also exert more control over the manufacturing of the processor, and save a considerable amount of money in the process. The savings can be passed on to consumers, as Apple can still retain its margins thanks to the reduction in overall cost of components.

When Apple switched to Intel from PowerPC, Steve Jobs touted the performance per Watt as one of the key metrics for the change. A decade later, ARM hardware is the clear winner when we look at performance delivered per Watt. Intel has already lost out to ARM in the smartphone segment, and while it managed to secure a few hardware wins in name with Merrifield, its market share in the tablet and smartphone is paltry compared to what ARM has managed to accrue. If it were to lose its contract with Apple, it stands to lose over $2.59 billion a year, whereas ARM would net a royalty of $34 million from the license. 

It’s too early to decisively declare the Macintosh-Intel alliance fractured or strained. In fact, there’s no evidence to say that it’s anything but healthy. But as ARM’s hardware improves by leaps and bounds, and Intel struggles to reinvent itself for the mobile world, it’s also too early to dismiss the possibility that Apple is considering an ARM play.