ARM is on the march. Apple’s announcement last month of the move away from Intel to ARM-based processors for the Mac family, expected by everyone, has put the focus on Tim Cook’s future plans of MacOS and the closer integration of the Mac hardware and software.
And the opening bid should seriously worry the competition. Apple is already comfortably defeating its leading competitor. When the new ARM-powered MacBook Pro arrives later this year, Apple’s MacOS platform will land a killer blow on the competition.
The mainstream alternative comes from Microsoft with Windows 10 on ARM as the operating system. Unlike the incredibly limited version that was Windows RT, Windows 10 on ARM is a fully paid up member of the Windows 10 family. It looks and acts like the Windows everyone knows. It brings the inherent advantages that ARM processors have – such as longer battery life and improved LTE connections.
It also has a far better solution to legacy apps. Where RT simply would not run any old apps (they had to be specifically recompiled and made available through the Windows Store), Windows 10 on ARM looks to runs your older Windows apps under emulation (to quote Microsoft, “Windows 10 on ARM runs all x86, ARM32, and ARM64 UWP apps from the Microsoft Store. ARM32 and ARM64 apps run natively without any emulation, while x86 apps run under emulation.”)
In operation it’s solid but not perfect, coping with most of the common apps that don’t rely on obscure system hacks.
Does hardware with Windows 10 on ARM match Intel-powered equivalents? No, there are still compromises that buyers need to be aware of. Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is one of the first ARM machines, and it’s clear from reviews of the Pro X that in terms of computational power Intel has the edge and users still need a bit of technical knowledge to make the most from the system. Dieter Bohn for The Verge:
“Another thing I’ve learned is that using a Windows computer with an ARM processor actually requires a higher level of technical expertise, because you need to know what won’t work and why going in.
“Basically, 32-bit Windows apps can be emulated in ARM, but more modern 64-bit apps cannot. And short of Googling (or, uh, Binging) around for a decent chunk of time, it’s difficult to know if an app you need will work.”
Which is Apple’s first public MacOS machine running ARM is so interesting. Because the benchmarks show it to be killing the competition.
Apple has made one ARM-based machine available to developers. It is available on an application only basis, and the machine is on loan rather than purchased. The Mac Mini sports the same A12Z system on chip that is found in the iPad Pro, backed up by 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of SSD storage. No doubt Apple will have been running this hardware internally to port, optimise, and extend MacOS for ARM. It’s a good distance away from the final product.
But the combination of ARM and MacOS is already looking mature in terms of raw head to head performance. Paul Thurrott writes:
“According to multiple Geekbench scores, the Apple Developer Transition Kit… delivers an average single-core score of 811 and an average multi-core score of 2871. Those scores represent the performance of the device running emulated x86/64 code under macOS Big Sur’s Rosetta 2 emulator.
“…compared to Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, which has the fastest available Qualcomm-based ARM chipset and can run Geekbench natively—not emulated—it’s amazing: Surface Pro X only averages 764 on the single-core test and 2983 in multi-core.”
It is worth emphasising Thurrott’s last point. Apple’s ARM hardware is smoking the Surface Pro X though an emulation layer. The same benchmark, if it could also run as native code, will show an even larger disparity. I would also assume that MacOS can be further optimised for ARM not just before the expected Q4 release of an ARM-powered MacBook Pro, but beyond and into the future. Microsoft has the same opportunity as well, but the lead time that Windows 10 on ARM has had is not reflected in the current state of play.
It is early days for Apple’s ARM efforts, at least publicly. Hand-picked developers have just received hardware and there’s a big difference between a benchmarking number and being useful in the real world. To take the obvious question over apps, Microsoft has a demonstrably working solution for Windows 10 on ARM that can accommodate the vast majority of legacy apps, as well as native ARM apps (such as the ARM version of its Edge web browser).
Apple has said many fine words on its plans, but the WWDC stage is not a creative’s tote bag with mission critical apps needed while out of the office. But the benchmark does reflect some things. It shows that Apple’s version of MacOS for ARM is up and running, that Apple is ready to expose the code and environment to developers and the associated geekerati looking at the transition, and that Apple’s move away from Intel is not necessarily going to turn the Mac platform into a glorified iPad Pro with a Qwerty keyboard.
The stakes have been raised.