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Why Apple Is No Longer Using Intel for Their Chips

There’s not just one reason behind Apple’s shift away from Intel processors but a combination of factors that led to the decision.

Performance Stagnation

Slow Pace: Intel had some delays in transitioning to smaller chip manufacturing processes limiting its ability to deliver significant performance gains year after year.

Power vs. Performance: While Intel chips became more powerful they also were more power hungry. This was problematic for laptops where battery life is crucial.

Control and Optimization

Limited Customization: Using off the shelf Intel chips meant Apple had limited control over hardware design hindering their ability to match the performance precisely to their macOS and other devices.

Integration Friction: Using Intel chips along with other components created friction. Apple wanted a tighter integration of elements for better efficiency.

The ARM Advantage

Power Efficiency: The ARM architecture used in smartphones and tablets is known for its great power efficiency. Apple wanted to bring this battery life advantage to its laptops.

Mobile Success: Apple had years of experience designing high performance ARM based chips for iPhones and iPads which gave them confidence in its scalability.

Innovation Potential

Unified Architecture: Designing its own silicon allows Apple to create a unified memory architecture for the CPU, GPU and other components, improving performance and streamlining processes.

Neural Engine Integration: Apple wanted to accelerate on device machine learning tasks for features like advanced image processing and Siri functionality + custom silicon allowed them to integrate specialized hardware for this.

Cost and Business Sense

Reduced Reliance on Suppliers: Designing in house reduces reliance on a single supplier like Intel providing Apple with greater control over its supply chain and release timelines. Although the reality is now they’re dependent on TSMC. Apple isn’t actually physically building their chips inside the company but they’re outsourcing the manufacturing to the Taiwanese firm.

Long Term Savings and Higher Profit Margins: Though the initial investment is high manufacturing their own chips leads to lower costs and higher profit margins in the long run for Apple.

The Transition Wasn’t Sudden

Apple’s transition to Apple Silicon was a massive decade old plan. Early signs of this shift were obvious with custom co processors in Macs and the increasing power of their A Series iPhone chips.

Intel’s Manufacturing Problems

Stuck on 14nm: Intel struggled for years to move to its 10nm manufacturing process. The delays meant smaller more efficient chips were out of reach. Apple’s A series chips were already on TSMC’s more advanced 7nm process widening this gap pretty early on.

The 7nm Problem: Even when Intel eventually transitioned to 10nm it was initially full of problems. Yields were low and the performance per watt gains were underwhelming.

Supply and Competition: Intel faced internal production issues and a rising demand for chips across industries which impacted production timelines and Apple’s access to the latest technology.

ARM’s Architectural Efficiency

RISC vs. CISC: ARM’s RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) architecture uses simpler instructions that generally execute faster and with less power. Intel’s x86 is CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) which is focusing on powerful instructions at a slight cost of higher power usage.

Mobile Heritage: ARM’s background in mobile design means its chips are optimized for bursts of performance followed by power saving modes. This is pretty much how most people use laptops anyway and Apple knew that.

Apple’s Ecosystem Play

Co processor Legacy: For years Apple added co processors to Macs along with Intel CPUs for things like the Touch Bar and secure encryption. This was really just a practice for designing more integrated systems.

Software Control: Apple has always controlled their software stack. Apple Silicon lets them optimize macOS and their apps down to the hardware level for better performance.

Apple Tax Narrative: Apple was frequently criticized for high prices on its devices. Designing their own chips could cut costs long term, allowing Apple to either offer more competitive pricing or enjoy even higher profit margins. But in practice we haven’t seen that happening. Since they have a loyal customer base that pays pretty much whatever Apple is asking for they were able to just pocket the profit for their shareholders. And honestly, can you blame them?

Other Things

Industry Trend: Microsoft made efforts with ARM powered Surface devices and other manufacturers are experimenting with Windows on ARM. Apple’s move, while bold, echoes a general industry shift.

The Future: Apple Silicon opens the door to unique devices like the Mac Mini or the thin and light Macbook Air which might not have been feasible with Intel processors.

The Result

The success of Apple’s M series chips in MacBooks has shown that the gamble paid off so far. Their devices come with fairly impressive performance, long battery life and a good experience within the Apple ecosystem.

The Future

Intel is pretty noisy these days about their fab business. They are building some massive and fairly impressive facilities in Ohio and Phoenix and Microsoft and even Nvidia + some other big names have already signed contracts for Intel’s future fab outputs. The 18A 2 nanometer process seems to be something that might finally give an edge to Intel over TSMC.

Intel’s purchase of some of the most advanced $300 million ASML lithography wafer making machines in the world should soon put them ahead of any chip maker in the world. Would Apple simply have no choice but go back to making their Apple Sillicon chips in Intel’s fabs? There’s a chance.

And then there’s the geopolitics. Apple might soon not have a choice but pick Intel because Taiwan has a high chance of being invaded by China which would render the TSMC factories useless.

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