Apple Silicon may have killed the PC as we know it

Replacing Intel Core processors with Apple Silicon is huge, but replacing Xeon chips would be a whole other matter.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Apple has demonstrated the chip powering the iPad Pro is up to the job of powering the Mac and that a two-year-old A12X processor can run x86_64 code in emulation faster than Microsoft's Surface Pro X can run an Arm version natively.

And not by a little bit either. The difference is staggering.

Now, putting aside the question of what Microsoft and Qualcomm -- the company that developed the Surface Pro X's SQ1 processor in partnership with Microsoft -- have been doing all these years (answer: not enough), the real question is just how much power Apple can squeeze out of Apple Silicon, and how far it wants to take the platform?

There's little doubt that, if Apple is getting this sort of performance out of an old chip, Macs running the A14 chips -- which could break the 3GHz barrier and may be powering the next-generation iPhones -- are going to be fast. Really fast.

But will Apple Silicon be up to the challenge of replacing Intel Xeon chips over the next couple years?

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There's no doubt at all that Apple has upended the processor market. Not only has it kicked sand in Intel's face, but it's also pulled the rug from under existing Arm-processor makers, and is once again showing the benefit of fully owning the ecosystem.

Switching out Intel Core chips for Apple Silicon is one thing, but Xeon, the processor that powers the Mac Pro and the iMac Pro, is another thing entirely.

Take the Mac Pro. The base system ships with 3.5GHz 8‑core Intel Xeon W processor, but bumping that up to 2.5GHz 28‑core Intel Xeon W chip adds a whopping $7,000 to the price tag.

Can Apple Silicon chips based on the silicon that powers iPads and iPhones really compete against this sort of power?

And there's more to Xeon than just cores.

Compared to Intel Core chips, Xeon offers more L3 cache, support for ECC RAM, and is designed to handle heavy loads day in, day out.

They're a very different animal.

Before WWDC 2020, I was skeptical that Apple could easily replace the Xeon, but after seeing the fruits of what's been going on behind the scenes for the past few years, it's very clear this is something Apple has put a lot of R&D into, and it is much further along than anyone imagined.

So, Tim Cook said the timeline for the transition to Apple Silicon is two years, and I think he meant it.

By the end of 2022, I'm now certain that Apple will have chips that outperform the Xeon and will part ways with Intel completely.

Now, the Mac Pro and iMac Pro are very niche markets for Apple, so the commitment to designing an Apple Silicon platform to replace the Intel Xeon platform is not an insignificant one.

  • Could this lead to an interesting "one more thing…" moment?
  • Could Apple make a bigger -- possibly cheaper -- push into the workstation market?
  • Or what about a new push into the server market?
  • What will this mean for Intel? AMD? Nvidia? Existing Arm players such as Qualcomm?
  • Is this the new lease of life that the Mac has been waiting for?

Apple may well have upended the processor market and killed the x86 PC as we know it. And that's not a bad thing.

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