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Macs on ARM (and Hackintosh futures)

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There's a lot of rumors going around of Apple moving to an ARM architecture for future Macs - in a lot of places where this is being discussed, a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings abound. Let me try to shine some light onto these speculations, and include some actual facts.


Apple has bought a chip design company not so long ago, back in 2008.




PA Semicondutor are the folks behind the A-series of CPU chips that are powering iOS devices. They have been creating not only the A-Series CPUs, but also the M-series motion processors, and the W-series wireless chips. 


Apple also recently bought a chip fab/foundry (back in 2015), that used to belong to Samsung. Likewise, Foxconn just voiced interest in purchasing the Toshiba RAM memory business, mainly their foundries. (Foxconn is basically a surrogate of Apple).






This just to make an introductory point that Apple is very serious about owning and controlling every aspect of the production of their devices - so, Apple not just designing but potentially manufacturing future CPUs to be used in Macs is a real possibility -- and those will most assuredly be ARM based chips, as the performance/Watt ratio is way ahead of intel x86 chips.


What does that mean, really?


Aside from the commodity value, availability and fabrication that Intel can offer, the huge advantage of their chips is the x86 compatibility which makes the Mac easily able to run Windows, Linux, and other x86 OS'.


Switching to an ARM platform would mean that Apple would lose that advantage.


Or does it?


Not if AMD has anything to say about that (and this is where - surprise - the AMD rumors are starting to make sense).




In 2014, AMD announced an initiative that would culminate in project SkyBridge - an ambidextrous ARM architecture, with ARM and x86 chips operating side by side.


The first of such proof-of-concept implementations were limited to 32-bit x86, but that was 3 years ago, and the ultimate goal was 64-bit compatibility, and compatibility with modern x86_64 architecture. In other words, I believe that if Apple were to go with an ARM CPU for future Macs, this is the path they would follow - and an alliance with AMD would make perfect sense in that regard. 


That's all nice and good, but wouldn't this ultimately mean that Apple will go that route (good for them), and that the folks in the Hackintosh camp will be basically screwed, as we'd have no more compatible hardware?


Well, maybe not.


Last year, at the WinHEC hardware conference in Shenzhen, a big deal was being made (sort of) of the 'Return of Windows to ARM', with Qualcom (ARM) powered Windows 10 PCs supposedly to be shipping in 2017 - with other manufacturers following suit.


Obviously, especially if Apple makes an impact with pushing their hardware to ARM, the rest of the PC industry following won't be far behind - particularly if these new ARM chips are pin-compatible with regular ARM CPUs and provide ambidextrous cores on the same chip. Most likely, the usual suspects (hp, Dell, Asus, etc...) will provide desktops and laptops based on the new architecture, with the usual motherboard makers not too far behind.


Technically, this would open the door to Hackintosh/ARM -- albeit clearly some sort of advanced fakeSMC or the likes will need to be appropriately updated.


Could Apple screw this up?


Sure. Starting with a custom SOC with custom support and peripheral processors for all the relevant ports, thus cutting us off from using commodity parts for USB, SATA, NVMe, etc..  which is kinda what they have already done on the new MacBook Pros, which are using an Apple peripheral architecture.


In the near future (4-5 years after such an introduction) MacOS will still support the older architecture (even just the regular x86_64 that we are all currently on), so this is not an immediate issue. Furthermore, considering how slow-moving Apple is, consistently, it would take at least another 2-3 years before such an ARM CPU implementation would actually be realistic, particularly since there are still performance and compatibility hurdles to be overcome.


Overall, I think we are safe for at least another 5 years, probably longer.


Interesting bit of Trivia -- Apple originally formed and created ARM holdings, when they used the very first ARM chips in the Newton PDA. Their ownership was then sold after Jobs killed the Newton.




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