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Apple Silicon - All Stories

By Jason Snell

Fun With Charts: Entirely speculative charts about Apple Silicon

Last week I stared directly into the Apple marketing content and speculated about the information it was trying to impart with a WWDC slide. This week, prompted by reader David Hovis, I’d like to engage in some pure speculation on the speed potential of Apple’s new processors, using some back of the envelope calculations and existing GeekBench speed-test scores.

To get started, let’s consider the pace of Apple’s own chip development. Apple’s progress in increasing the base speed of its processors has been very consistent. That makes it fairly easy to estimate the speed of the A14 processor, which presumably will power the new iPhone models being released this fall.

Did you know that the current-model Apple A13 processor generates a faster Geekbench single-core score than the fastest single-core Mac, the 2019 i9 iMac? It’s true. Now, a Geekbench score doesn’t necessarily equate to real-world speed, because every operating system can be more or less efficient. But it’s a pretty decent proxy for us to use on the back of this envelope.

Assuming the normal pace of growth, that theoretical A14 processor will put that 2019 iMac to shame in terms of single-core performance. Now let’s imagine a processor designed for the Mac—I’m going to call it the M14, because why not—that’s based on the A14 but is capable of running at a higher clock speed due to active cooling systems that don’t exist on iOS. (Again, this is a guess—maybe many future Macs will be entirely fanless—but let’s go with it.) A reasonable boost, from a theoretical 3GHz M14 chip to a 3.5GHz M14 would skyrocket single-core performance.

A chart full of made-up numbers.

That’s fun to imagine, but now let’s turn to where the rubber meets the road: multi-core performance. Again, Geekbench scores don’t tell the whole story — different operating systems behave differently when parceling out tasks to different cores. Also, Apple’s approach to multi-core processors in iOS devices is very different from the Intel processors used in Macs. Apple’s chips have two separate sets of processor cores, one set designed for high performance and the other for energy efficiency. When you really need to get work done, though, it’ll use all of them.

Still, for my exercise I decided to just focus on the performance cores, because Geekbench scores really do seem to scale directly with the number of performance cores on a processor. Looking at recent trends, I again tried to extrapolate what the two-performance-core A14 processor in the next iPhone would offer, and likewise for a theoretical four-performance-core A14X processor that would power a new iPad Pro and perhaps (in some form) new Macs. Then, looking at current ratios of single-core and multi-core Geekbench scores, I imagined that my imaginary M14 processor had eight performance cores instead of four.

Another speculative chart.

Look, this envelope is getting messy. But just consider the possibilities. Simply extrapolating the growth of the iPad Pro-class processor into the A14X generates a multi-core score that’s faster than the fastest MacBook Pro Apple currently makes.

Now for giggles, toss in that eight-core “M14” processor. Now you’ve got a Mac that’s basically faster than any Intel Mac other than the very fastest Mac Pro and iMac Pro configurations.

Will it happen? Who knows what Apple’s roll-out strategy will be. But if Apple wanted to use its iPad Pro-class processor in some lower-end Macs, and a souped-up processor in some higher-end Macs, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that it could blow away the performance of almost every Intel-based Mac.

To repeat: These numbers are entirely made up. But going through the exercise makes me pretty confident that Apple will be able to deliver major upgrades to Mac performance.

[Thanks again to reader David Hovis for the suggestion.]

By Jason Snell

Macs with Apple silicon will get new, refined boot and recovery mode

Doing unusual things at Mac startup has long required remembering keyboard shortcuts. Is it Command-Control-P-R or Command-Option-P-R that zaps the PRAM? Is that still even a thing? Is it Command-S for Recovery Mode—or wait, that’s Single User Mode, it’s Command-R for Recovery mode, Command-T for Target Disk Mode, Option to choose a startup disk.

With the advent of Macs running Apple-designed processors, things will get a whole lot simpler. As described Wednesday in the WWDC session Explore the New System Architecture of Apple Silicon Macs, these new Macs will only require you to remember a single button: Power. (On laptops, that’ll be the Touch ID button. On desktops, presumably it’s the physical power button.)

Holding down that button at startup will bring up an entirely new macOS Recovery options screen. From here you’ll be able to fix a broken Mac boot drive, alter security settings, share your Mac’s disk with another computer, choose a startup disk, and pretty much everything else you used to have to remember keyboard shortcuts to do.

Now that Apple is holding all the cards, the company has built a new boot process, based on iOS’s existing secure boot process, but modified to support those features that Mac users expect, such as different macOS boot drives, multiple versions of the operating system, and macOS Recovery itself.

On these new Macs, Target Disk Mode will be retired in favor of Mac Sharing Mode. Rather than turning your Mac into a disk, the new Mac Sharing Mode will turn your Mac into an SMB file server. As with most of the features of Mac Recovery, you’ll need to authenticate yourself before turning on Mac Sharing Mode.

These Macs will also have a little more granularity when it comes to boot security. Each startup volume can be set to a different security mode, either full security (which is the default) or reduced security. This means that external disks will be able to be booted from without downgrading security.

In reduced security mode, you can boot any supported version of macOS, even if Apple’s no longer signing it. And if an app or accessory you rely on uses a third-party kernel extension to enable functionality, you’ll need to use this mode.

For a while now, Macs have been able to recover from disasters by booting to the hidden System Recovery partition. When even that partition is gone, Intel Macs fall back to Internet Recovery. Macs with Apple-built processors will have access to different hidden area, System Recovery, which offers a very minimal version of macOS that will allow you to reinstall both macOS Recovery and macOS itself. (If System Recovery is also unavailable, it’ll be time to attach the Mac to another device running the Apple Configurator app to bring it back to life.)

Once the booting is complete, there’s also a new login window that’s more capable, because the system can fully boot before the user even presents their login credentials. It includes built-in support for smartcard authentication and supports VoiceOver as well.

The Mac’s future is on a collision course with the iPad

It was the most important WWDC keynote for the Mac since the arrival of OS X two decades ago. Apple’s announcement on Monday of the Mac’s third-ever processor transition was big enough, but it was only the beginning. Apple also announced a new version of macOS, Big Sur, that is full of new features and design elements that paint the clearest picture yet about where Apple is taking the Mac in the future.

It’s no coincidence that Apple chose this moment to leave version 10 behind after twenty years, replacing it with macOS 11.0. 2020 is the beginning of the Mac’s next (and, depending on how you read the tea leaves, last) era.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦