macbook pro from the side

The Apple Silicon Mac will be more radical than we think

What might Apple’s ARM-based “Apple Silicon” Macs look like? Not the shape of the machines themselves, but their features? These won’t just be today’s Macs with new brains. Notebook and desktop Macs will work very differently than they do today.

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Bringing Apple’s super-powerful, battery-friendly chips to the Mac will have some obvious consequences. The chips run cooler than Intel’s x86 chips, so ARM MacBooks will need no fans, and can therefore be much thinner. Or they could stay the same size and fit in way bigger batteries.Or, on desktops and pro MacBooks, fans could keep these already-efficient chips cool while they run much harder than they do inside an iPhone or iPad. That’s all cool, but it’s not that exciting. You might no longer get sweaty hands while typing on the MacBook Pro, but how about some really crazy new features? How might Apple Silicon change the Mac in radical ways?

Touch screen

This one seems almost obvious, so we’ll get it out of the way first. A Mac based on iOS-like hardware could have a touch screen. This would be handy for all kinds of things, and would be a kind of second-class interaction method, like how mouse and keyboard are second-class interactions on the iPad.

How often do you reach up to touch the screen of your MacBook already? I do it any time I’m using  my iPad next to my Mac. ARM Macs will also run iPhone and iPad apps, so touch will definitely help out there. But things get really crazy when you consider the next point…

Screen rotation (both kinds)

Imagine a Mac whose keyboard could fold back behind the screen, just like an iPad’s keyboard folio cover. With a skinny ARM Mac this needn’t be unwieldy. Then, when you turn the MacBook into portrait orientation, it would rotate the screen, just like on iOS. Imagine that your 13-inch ARM MacBook is running an iPad news-reader app full screen. Or the Notes app. Just use your Apple Pencil (why not?) to take hand-written notes on your convertible Mac “tablet” computer. It might be a little odd to have the keys behind the Mac, but that’s how the iPad does it, disabling key input whenever it’s stowed around the back.

Instant-on, iOS-like sleep

The Mac takes an age to wake up, compared to the iPhone. ARM should bring true iOS instant-wake to the Mac. Add in Face ID, or even just keep using Touch ID and Watch unlock, and the whole game changes. Waking your Mac to quickly check an email, message, or whatev, is no longer a chore. It’s as simple as tapping the screen to wake it (yes, let’s add tap-to-wake, too).

ARM not only means faster waking from sleep, it could also mean iOS-style sleep. The Mac already has Power Nap, which lets it partially wake up to complete backups and downloads, but it’s currently nothing like the iPhone. iOS devices are always doing something. Imagine that your sleeping Mac could also show incoming notifications, or update apps, or run an iCloud (or local) backup, or grab the latest New Music playlist.

This could be huge.

Cellular

Another easy guess. iPads an iPhones already know how to work with an always-on cellular connection. The Mac should have it too. Right now you can tether your Mac to the iPhone, which is al

logic pro sampler screenshot
This is Logic Pro on the Mac, but it looks like a touch-friendly iPad app. Image credit: Apple

most as convenient as having the internet built in. But more important than speed-of-connection is the behavior of the computer when connected. A current Mac is a greedy piggy. When it’s connected to the internet, it will download anything and everything, as fast as possible. Recent versions of macOS have been better-behaved when connected via an iPhone hotspot, but I expect Big Sur on an Apple Silicon Mac to be much more respectful of the differences between Wi-Fi and cellular. Just like iOS.

Apple Pencil on iMac

The Apple Pencil would be great on the convertible MacBook I dreamed up above, but it would be even better on a giant iMac drafting table. Imagine an modern iMac, somewhere between the anglepoise-style G4 iMac and the new Pro XDR display. The arm would articulate the screen into a drafting table orientation and it would become an amazing photo-editing platform. Or just an easy-to-tap touch-screen for audio recording and editing in Logic, for example (the  new Logic Pro X 10.5 samplers are definitely touch-ready).

The best part about speculating on the new Apple Silicon Macs is that they are almost certain to be radical. Unlike the Intel transition, where the incoming Macs were just like the old ones, reassuring buyers that nothing major had changed, this transition will likely be the opposite. Apple’s Intel-based Macs have long trailed its iOS devices in performance, power-efficiency, and overall neat features. Meanwhile, the Mac is just another PC, in terms of hardware specs. Just look at the PC notebook section next time you’re in a computer store. It’s all MacBook clones, with aluminum bodies and black keys.

macbook pro 16 on a table
An ARM MacBook Pro will almost certainly be able to balance on the edge of a table. Photo Charlie Sorrel.

An all-new Apple Silicon Mac could be a showcase device, designed to embarrass x86 computers the way Apple’s A-series chips already embarrass all other mobile chips. It’ll be faster, thinner, lighter, quieter, cooler, and quite possibly even cheaper than any Mac today. And then list all the features that Apple can add, the ones discussed above, that become either feasible or possible with an ARM chip running the show.

The Mac goes from being a well-built PC with a great operating system, to being something new, a machine that none of the PC makers have a hope of copying any time soon. It’s pretty exciting.

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