From the Annals of Underpromising and Overdelivering: Apple’s Timing for the Mac’s Transition to Apple Silicon

In the previous item I mentioned Microsoft’s “the boy who cried wolf” problem regarding its upcoming Surface devices powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite chips. To wit: Microsoft has been trying to promote ARM-based Surface laptops and tablets — and ARM-based Windows PCs in general — for 12 years. Each time they do, they promise that the performance will be great. And each time so far, that’s turned out to be wrong. So their problem now isn’t just whether the performance — including x86 emulation — really will be good with these new Snapdragon X Elite chips. It’s whether anyone will believe them even if performance is great. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” goes the saying.1 Microsoft is way past “twice” at this point.

Compare and contrast with Apple’s transition of the Mac to Apple silicon. They could have made the transition years earlier than they did, but chose to wait until the advantages were overwhelming — in performance, efficiency, and price. Here’s the section on performance from my review of the first-generation iPad Pros in 2015, five years before the M1 Macs debuted:

The iPad Pro is without question faster than the new one-port MacBook or the latest MacBook Airs. I’ve looked at several of my favorite benchmarks — Geekbench 3, Mozilla’s Kraken, and Google’s Octane 2 — and the iPad Pro is a race car. It’s only a hair slower than my year-old 13-inch MacBook Pro in single-core measurements. Graphics-wise, testing with GFXBench, it blows my MacBook Pro away. A one-year-old maxed-out MacBook Pro, rivaled by an iPad in performance benchmarks. Just think about that. According to Geekbench’s online results, the iPad Pro is faster in single-core testing than Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 4 with a Core-i5 processor. The Core-i7 version of the Surface Pro 4 isn’t shipping until December — that model will almost certainly test faster than the iPad Pro. But that’s a $1,599 machine with an Intel x86 CPU. The iPad Pro starts at $799 and runs an ARM CPU — Apple’s A9X. There is no more trade-off. You don’t have to choose between the performance of x86 and the battery life of ARM.

We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 more than the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.

The entire x86 computer architecture is living on borrowed time. It’s a dead platform walking. The future belongs to ARM, and Apple’s A-series SoC’s are leading the way.

So at a time when Microsoft was already three years into pushing underpowered ARM-based Windows laptops, Apple had ARM chips that really were competitive with Intel’s x86 offerings, but waited five years to build an overwhelming, undeniable advantage before making the switch on the Mac.

By 2018 it was incredibly obvious that Apple would make the switch on the Mac, but it was still two years away. When you ask people to switch from something tried and true to something new, “good enough” isn’t good enough. The new thing needs to be something like an entire order of magnitude better in at least one way, and preferably multiple ways.

  1. Or, if you prefer, George W. Bush’s poetic rendering of the adage: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” God bless old W — we all know how hard it is to put food on your family↩︎

Tuesday, 9 April 2024