Beyond the benchmarks: How Apple Silicon Macs could change the game

Apple is set to offer breakthrough performance with Macs based on its own silicon. But the move to ARM architecture offers other variables that could make for big differences in adoption and usage.

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The launch of the first Apple Silicon Macs looks bright. Initial benchmarks of the development Mac mini show Apple's first ARM-based PCs dramatically outperforming the Surface Pro X. And even though it's unfair to compare a desktop to a slim tablet, the Surface Pro X is itself based on a faster version of the Snapdragon architecture than most Qualcomm PCs, and the developer Mac mini's A12Z Bionic processor is two generations behind what Apple will likely release in shipping hardware.

The strong showing of Apple silicon in the PC has implications for how quickly Apple will convert the highest-performing computers in its lineup away from Intel. Like the switch to Intel 15 years ago, Apple has given itself about a two-year transition period, a schedule that the company beat its first time around. While the promising benchmarks have some predicting that it's all over for Intel or that the Mac may now have an insurmountable advantage versus Windows, much depends on how Apple chooses to use its new chips.

For example, looking at the evolution of Qualcomm-based Windows PCs, the promise of better speed hasn't been part of the value proposition. Rather, Microsoft and Qualcomm have focused on three main benefits: Slimmer devices, longer battery life, and connectivity. Regarding slimmer devices, it's possible that Apple could shave a millimeter or so off the MacBook. But the MacBook Air is, of course, already pretty thin. Not only would a reduction yield marginal benefit but, as we've seen, testing the boundaries of slimness can cause compromises for keyboards or the inclusion of USB-C.

Regarding longer battery life, it's likely that Apple would be able to drive ARM-based MacBooks for longer. The question is for how much longer since, as Apple chooses faster performance, that comes at the expense of battery life. Long battery life was one of the advantages that the iPad had over the Mac at its debut, but today the difference is not as pronounced. Qualcomm-based Windows PCs have offered superior battery life, but here again, there's the question of whether a full day's worth of operation has much practical benefit. While successive smartphone processor generations have touted improved efficiency, the most pronounced improvements in battery life have come from simply adding larger batteries.

Then there's connectivity. All Qualcomm-based PCs have at least LTE connectivity whereas the Mac has traditionally been the odd machine out in Apple's cellular-connected lineup; even the diminutive Apple Watch can access the world beyond Wi-Fi by itself. As Apple is moving both desktops and MacBooks to its silicon, it's unlikely that the whole product line will get cellular connectivity. However, just as Apple is finally leveraging its own processor architecture across its family, the company has made no secret of its desire to develop its own 5G modems. That, and the convenience of eSIM, make it likely that ARM-based MacBooks will eventually include these features. While cellular-connected PCs still represent a small part of the market, there's a growing case for the feature as 5G rollouts continue and business users respond to the security concerns of open Wi-Fi networks even as Apple has smoothed the iPhone tethering process.

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But the most significant factor in the success of the Apple Silicon Macs is how Apple will handle the cost savings that will come with no longer paying Intel premiums. Even as Apple has pushed well past $1,000 with its iPhone Pro and iPad Pro lines, the Mac has historically had the highest entry price point of Apple's main devices. Given that Apple already has the best margins in the PC business, it has a lot of room to breathe between the MacBook Air's $999 starting price and the iPad's $329 starting price, even taking into account the higher costs that come with the former's larger display and keyboard deck.

Increased processing horsepower is important not only for how well native apps will run on the new generation of MacBooks but for how well virtualized x86-based software will run for years to come. For many casual Mac users -- most students and productivity workers, for example -- having a core of apps, such as Office, Zoom, and a browser available should meet their needs, particularly if they can grab the iPad version of apps such as these in a pinch. But a Mac that could join its ARM-based siblings with features more competitive starting price points and easier access to the internet from nearly anywhere could go a long way toward expanding the Mac's appeal as it moves beyond its fourth decade.