What it is: Apple plans to release the iMac Pro soon and it’s rumored to include an ARM processor.
The Mac Pro cylinder turned out to be a dead end because it wasn’t easy to upgrade. Of course if Apple had simply listened to what professional users wanted, they would have realized that upgrading parts is common and necessary to keep existing equipment updated without buying a whole new computer. Apple has learned from this lesson by announcing the iMac Pro, which is rumored to include an ARM processor.
There are currently two reasons for adding an ARM processor to a Macintosh. First, an ARM processor runs the Touch Bar on certain MacBook Pro models that replace physical function row keys with a virtual strip of keys instead. Second, an ARM processor can possibly work with Siri and macOS allowing the ARM processor to run while the Intel processor sleeps and consumes less power until needed. This would allow the iMac Pro to recognize “Hey, Siri” voice commands.
The combination of Intel/ARM processors is going to come to all Macintosh models because of both the Touch Bar and the ability to consume less power with an ARM processor instead of relying on an Intel processor. The Intel processor will likely remain the heart of the Macintosh while the ARM processor will work as a supplement to the Intel processor. This will allow compatibility with existing x86 programs while still gaining the advantages of the lower power consumption of an ARM processor.
Now look at the headaches if you switch from Intel to ARM processors completely. You’ll need an emulation layer for ARM processors to run x86 programs and you’ll need to have developers recompile their programs from Intel to ARM processors. Microsoft is currently rumored to be readying ARM-powered Windows PC laptops soon, but those early ARM-based Windows PCs won’t be able to run all Windows programs unless the x86 emulation layer works flawlessly like Rosetta did with running PowerPC programs on Intel processors.
Apple may be avoiding the transition to Intel processors completely because it’s far simpler to just add an ARM processor to an Intel processor and get the best of both worlds. Switching to ARM processors and abandoning Intel processors means bigger headaches with slight advantages over an Intel/ARM combination.
Apple will likely test the Intel/ARM combination on the iMac Pro and then filter this feature down to the rest of the Macintosh models. Eventually, every Macintosh will run an Intel/ARM combination just to run the Touch Bar, but possibly to lower power consumption as well. The combination Intel/ARM processors will likely help the Macintosh remain compatible with Windows programs while still gaining the benefit of ARM processor’s lower power consumption features.
Intel may not be going away completely in the Macintosh, but ARM processors are definitely coming for sure.