Fifteen years ago, Apple announced that it was switching off of the PowerPC chips and on to Intel chips. This move came with a lot of bonuses and few drawbacks.
There is quite a bit of difference between the PowerPC chips and Intel chips, but the difference most people needed to worry about was the instruction set. When a piece of software is compiled and built, it’s usually for a specific instruction set. That means that if you built software to run on Intel chips, then you’d have to build it again to run on PowerPC chips and then again if you wanted it to run on a different chip running a different instruction set. That might not be a big deal if you’re making a small, self-contained application such as a calculator, but it becomes burdensome for larger projects.
For instance, Adobe takes advantage of quite a few instructions that are specific to Intel chips to make their Photoshop and Premier software packages run faster. That means they’d have to rewrite a significant amount of code if they wanted to make their software run properly on other chips.
Likewise, video game developers rely on much more than the instruction set to make their games run properly. A video game developer will probably target DirectX because it’s available on all Windows machines for making their game engine run faster, but DirectX doesn’t run on MacOS. That means game developers would have to write a significant amount of code to make their game run on both platforms. Most of the time this meant that developers wouldn’t bother to make their software available on more than one platform.
When Apple switched to Intel chips it solved a lot of problems for developers. Adobe could much more easily make its software run on MacOS with the performance that people expected. Users could install Windows on their Macs through Apple-provided software called Boot Camp, which lets users boot into either MacOS or Windows, and play all the same games that they could on any other Windows machine.
The downside was that any software made specifically for PowerPC chips would have to be run via an emulator that would slow it down. Thankfully, most of the developers ported their programs to Intel quickly.
Apple recently announced another change. In the coming years it will be switching from Intel chips to its own Apple-designed ARM-based chips. This move is likely to cause more waves than the last. It means that developers like Adobe are going to have to redesign their software if they want it to run on Macs.
Microsoft does have an ARM-based version of windows, but no video games will run well on it. Most, if not all, video games that run on Windows target the Intel instruction set, which means they have to be emulated, which means they’ll be slower.
I also doubt Apple will put much effort into letting other operating systems run on their computers. It’ll be possible, but it won’t be for the average user.
So why make this change? There are three reasons I can think of. The first is that Apple designs fantastic chips. The A-series of chips that power their iPhones are consistently the best mobile chips around in terms of performance and battery usage. Scaling that up a bit to run in a laptop instead of a phone should yield impressive results while increasing battery life.
The second is that Intel chips have stagnated a lot in the last few years in terms of performance and power usage. An Intel chip today isn’t much better than one from three years ago.
The third is cost. Using their own chips will save Apple a lot of money when they make these computers. Though it remains to be seen if that cost savings will be passed on to the customer.
You might be wondering how AMD fits into this. Well, AMD runs the same instruction set that Intel does. You can take any piece of software that runs on an Intel chip and run it without any modifications on an AMD processor. This came about because of a trade agreement between the two companies. AMD wrote the 64-bit instruction set that both AMD and Intel chips use. So Intel licenses the 64-bit instruction set from AMD, while AMD licenses the 32-bit instruction set from Intel.
This isn’t to say that there’s no difference between the two. AMD has made a lot of progress in the last year, while Intel has stagnated. Right now, AMD delivers better performance than Intel does.