Apple’s new Macs could change computers as we know them


Typically people talk about the way Apple’s devices look. But this time, what matters most is under the hood.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

Apple’s expected to announce the first computers powered using chips that are more like an iPhone than a typical PC. That alone is exciting to the techies, but it’s also a sign of what’s possible to come, whether you buy a Mac or not. The iPhone maker’s said it’s going to change the brains of its computers over the next couple years. Starting with the computers it’s expected to announce Tuesday, Apple’s going to throw its weight behind its own self-made chips.

For the past 14 years, Apple’s relied on Intel-made chips to power its laptop and desktop computers. Before the year’s end, Apple said it will begin shipping computers with chips similar to those in its iPhones and iPads.

“Our vision for the Mac has always been about embracing breakthrough innovation and having the courage to make bold changes,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said when announcing the new initiative earlier this summer. He added that Apple’s own chips will usher in new technologies and “industry-leading performance” from the computers. “Every time we’ve done this, the Mac has come out stronger and more capable,” he said.

Apple declined to comment about its upcoming event.

For Apple, this moment is one that’s been more than a decade in the making. The question that’s nagged Apple since its co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011 is what comes next. Jobs ushered in the Mac computer, the iMac all-in-one desktop, the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Apple’s biggest product launch since is the Apple Watch, which has turned into an enormous business, outselling the entire Swiss watch industry last year by a huge margin. Still, it’s not an iPhone-like dent in the universe.

By combining all its devices under the same chips and common code, Apple will be able to offer an experience that truly spans its desktops, laptops, phones and watches. Apple’s already said app developers will be able to create one app and send it to all devices, with adjustments for keyboard and mouse vs finger touch and gestures.

The result may be a further blurring of the lines between what a computer is, and what it’s meant to do.

The changes are already beginning with Apple’s newest computer software, MacOS 11 Big Sur, which brings even more similar looks, icons and sounds from the iOS software that powers an iPhone to the computer.

“With the current Mac — it’s the Mac vs the PC,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. “Now, if it behaves like an iPhone, I can manage it like an extension of my iOS devices.”

Apple's iPad Air uses the new A14 Bionic chip. It's got 11.8 billion transistors.

Apple’s iPad Air and iPhone 12 uses the company’s A14 Bionic chip. The new Macs might too.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

What may come


The difference between computers and phones is becoming just about screen size.

Angela Lang/CNET

Apple says its transition to new chips may be a little bumpy, as app developers change the way their apps are coded to work with this new machinery. In the meantime, Apple promises most of the software we all use, including web browsers, photo and movie editors from all sorts of companies and even Microsoft’s popular Office suite of programs, will work on the new machines on day one.

What’s likely to change more than anything is on the outside of the laptop and desktop. Apple’s iPhones and iPads don’t have fans to keep their chips cool. Analysts are betting that if Apple can pull off that same trick with its computers, the fans that take up space and force the laptop to be thicker might disappear.

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But aside from those changes, and what-if speculation about detachable laptop-iPad hybrids, Apple watchers seem hard pressed to come up with design change ideas. (Writer’s note: Apple, please bring back the MagSafe magnetic charging cables to the laptops. Pretty please.)

Another longer term play may be the integration of cellular service into these types of mobile chips. Computers with built-in cellular radios have been niche products at best, but these kinds of processors are designed to work with cellular radios. People buy connected iPads all the time — a connected MacBook Air isn’t a huge leap. 

While that’s not likely to come out any time soon, the carriers will likely be eager to get 5G into future generation of Apple silicon-based MacBooks. 

New way to pay


Apple’s credit card may be its secret weapon to helping getting more people to consider its Mac computers.


One benefit Apple gets out of switching to its own chips and away from ones made by Intel, is that it’s often cheaper to make your own stuff when you’re Apple’s size.

“When you control your own destiny and control your own parts, you can save money,” said Bob O’Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research.

Generally, he said, chip prices make up at least 20% of a laptop’s costs. And if Apple throws turns those savings into lower prices, it could attract new people who just won’t pay or can’t afford the company’s laptops, which starts at $999.

It may also spark consumer interest and spur competition from other PC makers, who have toyed with using mobile phone chips in computers so far.

But the Apple credit card could be the company’s true ace up its sleeve, analysts say. Putting Macs on a two-year interest-free installment plan could get people hooked with the idea of buying a computer for about $42 a month.

“Getting the Mac into a larger population could be huge,” O’Donnell said.


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