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Apple may co-design special new ARM chips for its laptop and desktop computers

Bob Mansfield, Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL"Technologies" group senior vice president, recently announced that his semiconductor teams have "ambitious plans for the future."

I. Change Ahead?

For Apple, who has been quietly been growing its chipmaking army with acquisitions like P.A. Semi and Intrinsity, that could mean a switch from Intel Corp.'s (INTC) x86 chips on the Mac computer front to in-house system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs utilizing ARM Holdings plc.'s (LON:ARM) proprietary architecture, which is currently found in Apple's iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

new report from Bloomberg suggests Apple is exploring a possible exit from its dependence on Intel chips, over the next several years.  The news agency writes:

While Apple is now committed to Intel in computers and is unlikely to switch in the next few years, some engineers say a shift to its own designs is inevitable as the features of mobile devices and PCs become more similar, two people said.
....
As handheld devices increasingly function like PCs, the engineers working on this project within Apple envision machines that use a common chip design. If Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook wants to offer the consumer of 2017 and beyond a seamless experience on laptops, phones, tablets and televisions, it will be easier to build if all the devices have a consistent underlying chip architecture, according to one of the people.

 
ARM core
Apple is rumored to be contemplating switching its Macs to ARM chips.
[Image Source: Maximum PC]

None of the companies involved were willing to comment on the rumor.  However, this has not been the first time that Apple has been rumored to be working on computer-side CPUs in-house.

ARM shares climbed 4.2 percent on the London Stock Exchange following this news, and news that ARM had paid MIPS Technologies, Inc. (MIPS) a lump sum of $350M USD to license its portfolio of 580 hardware patents.  The MIPS deal lays to rest concerns that the rival reduced-instruction set computer (RISC) architecture designer might be preparing to sue its more prolific peer (ARM).

II. Lesson From the PowerPC Era

Apple may be reticent to jump into a computer-side deployment of ARM too soon.  

Only a decade ago Apple was supporting another non-x86 architecture -- PowerPC -- whose chips were co-designed by Motorola and International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM).  While PowerPC Macs seemed to be faster in some benchmarks than their higher-clocked Windows/x86 counterparts, Intel's flashy clock speeds during the height of the Megahertz wars hurt Apple from an image standpoint.  And Motorola's decision to bail on PowerPC drove Apple to in 2005 finalize its long-standing plans to jump ship to Intel's x86 chips.

ARM is hardly analogous to PowerPC at present, but it's easy to see why Apple might be uneager to move too fast, should market conditions change.  Indeed, the next few years in the chip market are a time of great uncertainty.  

PowerPC G3
Apple's decision to ditch PowerPC brought it closer in line with Windows OEMs, who also use Intel chips. [Image Source: Bryon Realey/Flickr]

On the one hand, Intel is pushing hard to leverage its process advantages to deliver fast, power-efficient mobile cores, cutting into ARM's core business.  On the other hand, ARM is invading the personal computer market with Windows RT, and is expected to land in the server market around 2014 with Window Server 2012 R2.  ARM has been boosted by x86 veteran Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.'s (AMD) decision to at least partially transition its CPU line to ARM chips.

If Bloomberg's sources are accurate, Apple will likely be hard at work designing a possible ARM-based SoC replacement to drop into its MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros.  But the decision to pull the trigger may ultimately rest on where ARM stands versus Intel/x86 come 2016-2017.

Source: Bloomberg



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Performance difference?
By edge929 on 11/6/2012 1:59:41 PM , Rating: 2
I don't see how ARM chips can match the much more mature x86 chips in raw performance. Sure, ARM chips are more efficient per watt, that's how they were designed but at the end of the day, I'll take a 50% jump in performance for 60% more power usage.




RE: Performance difference?
By FITCamaro on 11/6/2012 2:27:47 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly. They'll maybe keep the sheeple who buy their crap regardless of its performance, but for the 90% of people I know with Macs who do development, they'd never buy another one again. ARM doesn't hold a candle to x86 in performance.


RE: Performance difference?
By TakinYourPoints on 11/6/2012 3:45:49 PM , Rating: 2
Yup. Developers love having a Unix platform that is well supported with lots of applications, not to mention one that runs Windows well in a VM. Take that away and they'll have to use something else (Ubuntu perhaps?)


RE: Performance difference?
By Mint on 11/6/2012 6:44:18 PM , Rating: 2
Even per watt, they're only more efficient because Intel didn't bother going after the market. Atom was a half-assed effort good enough to prevent AMD/Via/ARM from getting the netbook market, but bad enough to make the ULV Core CPUs as desirable as possible.

The tablet/smartphone market had too low margins for their taste at first, but now it's big enough and premium enough to warrant attention. Clovertrail already virtually closes the perf/W gap, and Intel hasn't even put its best foot forward either in architecture or process. Just wait until they go 14nm.


RE: Performance difference?
By Jeffk464 on 11/6/2012 9:02:40 PM , Rating: 2
So if you have an x86 android phone are you going to have the same problem you have with windows RT where existing programs wont run?


RE: Performance difference?
By someguy123 on 11/6/2012 9:58:57 PM , Rating: 2
They can run dalvik apps but not NDK.


RE: Performance difference?
By Jeffk464 on 11/6/2012 10:01:51 PM , Rating: 2
argh, this bouncing back and forth between chips is going to be a pain for consumers.


RE: Performance difference?
By Jeffk464 on 11/6/2012 8:58:56 PM , Rating: 2
Actually thats not a good trade off if you are working off a battery.


"This week I got an iPhone. This weekend I got four chargers so I can keep it charged everywhere I go and a land line so I can actually make phone calls." -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg














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