If Apple can ditch Intel, it will

Nov 6, 2012
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If Apple can ditch Intel, it will

The Apple rumor-mill is cyclical, and one tale refuses to die: Apple ousting Intel from its MacBooks, and replacing x86 chips with ARM-based alternatives. The story surfaces periodically, just as it has done today, with titters of increasing "confidence" within Apple's engineering teams that Intel will be eventually ditched in favor of the company's own A-series SoCs as currently found within the iPad and iPhone. Not today, so the whispers go, but eventually, and what's most interesting is that we're likely already seeing the signs of the transition in Apple's newest models.

Apple has arguably pushed tablet processors as far as they need to go, at least for today's market. There's a sense that the Apple A6X chipset in the latest, fourth-generation iPad with Retina display was a near-meaningless improvement on the A6 its predecessor sported; far more important was the change from old-style Dock Connector to new Lightning port. Sure, the newest iPad is faster in benchmarks, but in day to day use there's hardly a noticeable difference.

Those benchmarks give some hints, however, as to where ARM chips might make sense on the desktop. The iPad 4 did particularly well in SunSpider, a browser-based test of JavaScript performance that gives a good indication of how fast the web experience will be. Considering most of us live online when we're using our computers, that's an increasingly important metric.

The iPad 4 scored under 880ms in our SunSpider testing (the lower the number, the better), making it one of the fastest tablets around in that particular benchmark. Now, admittedly, a current-gen MacBook Pro is capable of scores a quarter of that. But, more importantly, the iPad 4 can run for more than ten hours of active use delivering its level of performance, on a 43 Whr battery. Inside the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, in contrast, Apple finds room for a 74 Whr pack.

[aquote]Intel may make a fast processor but it's behind the curve in efficiency[/aquote]

The allure of an ARM-based MacBook, then, is the combination of that growing performance and the power frugality of the chips that deliver it. Intel may make a fast processor, but it's behind the curve when it comes to efficiency compared to ARM; the company's struggles with Atom in the mobile market are evidence of that. And, while there'll always be a cadre of performance-demanding Mac users, the regular cohort with more everyday needs might be more than wiling to sacrifice a little top-end grunt for the longevity to make it through a transatlantic flight with plenty of juice to spare.

In the end, though, Apple is notoriously self-reliant. The company has bought or invested in specialists in chip components, displays, aluminum casing production, optically-laminated displays, component assembly, and more. Anything, in short, that contributes to Apple's supply chain or its competitive advantage in the market place (or preferably both). Sometimes the fruits of those investments go relatively unused for years, at least as far as the public can see; Apple's perpetual and exclusive license to use Liquidmetal in its range - something so far mostly limited to a SIM-removal tool - is a good example of that.

We've also seen how it won't shy from distancing itself from vendors when they either won't toe the line or let the company down. NVIDIA's time in the doghouse after the faulty MacBook GPU saga is good evidence of that, while AMD has long been tipped as attempting to curry Apple's favor but never quite delivering the goods in internal testing.

If Apple can rid itself of reliance on another third party - and further extend the distance between its range and Windows-based PCs, blurring the lines of direct comparison - then it will undoubtedly jump at that chance. It's unlikely to be shy in flexing its checkbook to do so, either, betting on long-term investment over short-term gains.

Apple, if time has taught us anything, will do what's best for Apple: that means it demands the biggest advantage from those it works with, and isn't afraid of taking a hit if it needs to change in order to achieve greater returns. In the past, Intel has given it early access to new processors, as well as the collaborative spoils of Thunderbolt ahead of PC rivals. If Intel can't meet the grade on the sort of processors Apple sees as pivotal to its vision of future computing, however, all that shared history will be for naught. As far as Apple goes, it's the Cupertino way or the highway.


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