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Apple is breaking a 15-year partnership with Intel on its Macs – right here's why

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Apple announced three new Mac computers on Tuesday: a MacBook Air, a 13-inch MacBook Pro, and a Mac Mini. They look essentially the same as their predecessors.

This time the chip on which they run is new. Now they're powered by Apple's M1 chip instead of Intel processors. Tuesday's announcement marks the end of a 15-year run in which Intel processors powered Apple's laptops and desktops and a big change for the semiconductor industry.

According to Gartner estimates, Apple is the fourth largest PC manufacturer in terms of shipments. Therefore, the plan announced in June to use proprietary chips across the full range of laptops and desktops is a blow to Intel.

"We believe that Intel PCs, such as those based on 11th generation Intel Core mobile processors, provide global customers with the best experience in the areas they value most and the most open platform to developers," it said in a statement from Intel.

Apple's chips are based on ARM technology, as opposed to the x86 architecture that Intel's chips use. ARM was originally developed for mobile devices, and chips made with ARM designs are consistently more efficient, resulting in longer battery life. On a laptop, this can mean several extra hours away from the plug.

However, that's just one reason Apple is turning off the brains on its laptops. Here's an overview of why Apple took this step:

Apple's strategy of owning core technologies. Apple CEO Tim Cook has often said that the company has a "long-term strategy of owning and controlling the primary technologies behind the products we make."

For a computer hardware company, there are few technologies that are less important than the silicon processors on which the machines run.

Apple has invested heavily in its silicon division, including major purchases, starting with a $ 278 million purchase of PA Semi in 2008 that started the division and most recently $ 1 billion for part of Intel Modem business in 2019. A separate company has been built A-series chips for iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches since 2010. Now laptops and desktops are essentially being equipped with the same technology, so that all Apple computers essentially run on the same framework will.

"Apple Silicon is fully in line with Apple's strategic goal of truly controlling an entire stack," said Wayne Lam, an analyst at CCS Insight. "Now in the computer they have everything from silicon to software to the movement of the mouse by the user. So it is enormously integrated."

By controlling its own technologies, Apple can integrate its products more deeply. This also means it has its own schedule – chips take 3 years to develop, said Apple senior vice president Johny Srouji last year – and has more control over costs.

"Apple believes that if they develop on chips and then build on them, they can innovate faster than the standard Intel or Qualcomm business model," Lam said.

Intel is falling behind in manufacturing. Apple proudly said Tuesday that the M1 chip in the new Macs uses 5 nanometer transistors.

"Five nanometers is currently at the forefront of process technology and there are few products out there right now," said Gartner analyst Jon Erensen. Intel is currently delivering chips with 10-nanometer transistors.

In general, the more transistors a chip manufacturer can fit in the same space, the more efficient the chip. Intel currently only delivers chips with 10 nanometer transistors.

Intel controls its own factories around the world, known as "fabs", compared to Apple, which has contracts with companies in Asia to manufacture chips to its own specifications. Apple's chip manufacturing partner TSMC can make 5-nanometer chips, but Intel can't.

"Intel has had some manufacturing-side challenges over the past few years. And I think those challenges opened a window or opportunity for ARM-based designs. Apple is one of the best ARM-based processor designers out there," said Gartner analyst Jon Erensen.

Earlier this year, Intel CEO Bob Swan said he was considering outsourcing its manufacturing, like Apple is doing.

"Given the challenges Intel faced in moving to 10 and 7 nanometers, while foundries like TSMC and Samsung have progressed more aggressively, this has taken advantage of one of Intel's main advantages and leveled the playing field a little," said Erensen.

More battery life, potentially better performance, and laptops that work like phones. Apple says the M1 Macs are better products than the older models mainly because Apple claims that its chips offer better performance and longer battery life than Intel's chips can offer.

It's clear that the new Macs will have longer battery life. Apple's earlier chips were used in smartphones and tablets that have significantly smaller batteries.

During Apple's launch event on Tuesday, the company emphasized how it primarily rates chip performance per watt rather than raw power.

According to Apple, the entry-level MacBook Air can manage 15 hours of Internet surfing on one charge, almost 30% more than the advertised battery life of 10 to 11 hours of the previous Intel-based model.

The new Macs also work more like phones or tablets, according to Apple, with features like the ability to wake up from sleep immediately. The new M1 Macs can even run iPhone apps if the developer takes a few steps to make them available on Apple's App Store.

However, analysts warn that Apple's performance claims, which are faster than comparable PCs, need to be tested as soon as computers hit shelves next week.

"The performance of the new M1 chip is difficult to assess because the company has not given detailed information about the performance claims made," said Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights.

Apple hasn't stopped selling Intel laptops on Tuesday, and its top-of-the-line laptops are still based on Intel, suggesting that some Intel chips still offer performance advantages.

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Steven Gregory