In an interview, executives Tim Millet and Bob Borchers discussed what pulled Apple away from Intel. They also shed light into what they’re doing to make the Mac a gaming platform once again, how the Apple silicon architecture can make it happen and when the best time is to buy a new Mac.
Millet is the Vice President of Platform Architecture and Hardware Technologies; Borchers is the Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing. Both were interviewed by Matthew Panzarino for TechCrunch.
What pulled Apple away from Intel?
It’s hardly a secret that Apple is always experimenting with different platforms for their products. Upon revealing the transition to Intel processors in 2005, Steve Jobs revealed that they had been building versions of Mac OS X for Intel since the very beginning.
I have no doubt that when Apple first started their own silicon ambitions with the A4 chip in 2010 that they began dipping their toe in the water with prototype Macs running on their own in-house platform. As a just-in-case scenario, they probably still prototype Macs with Intel processors inside for comparison.
According to Tim Millet, Apple began exploring a Mac transition in earnest around the time of the iPad Pro: “Once we started getting to the iPad Pro space, we realized that, ‘you know what, there is something there.’”
Indeed, the enormous capability of the iPad Pro led many on the outside to speculate. If Apple can build a largely battery-powered device in such a thin enclosure without any active cooling that exceeds the power of the MacBook Pro… imagine what the same chips could do with more cores, more space and more cooling in a Mac.
Millet continues, “We wanted to have the ability to build a scale of solutions that deliver the absolute maximum performance for machines that had no fan; for machines that had active cooling systems like our pro class machines.” They knew from the beginning that they wanted one solution they could scale across their entire product line — optimizing performance-per-watt helped them build just that.
Meanwhile, Apple’s highly collaborative partnership with Intel proved to be a double-edged sword. While they pushed each other to innovate, Millet notes that “our competitors’ products benefited from that interaction as well sometimes.”
The MacBook Air was a product Apple never could have built with their older-yet PowerPC architecture. But even Intel had to be pushed into the form factor, as it required a custom-designed shrunken down version of the Core 2 Duo chip. A few years later, Windows PCs copying the MacBook Air’s ultrabook design began to hit the market… running the very same Intel processors.
Without Intel in the picture, Apple engineers are working with fellow Apple engineers to build the entire product at once. Borchers says this goes deeper than tightening a feedback loop — there’s no feedback loop to speak of when it’s a collaborative process from conception to execution. “You [just] sit down at a table and push each other. ‘Okay, well, what if we got rid of the fan?’ And it doesn’t require this latency in the system, which I think has efficiency gains, but it also unleashes your creativity in new ways.”
A return to gaming on the Mac
Gaming on Windows PCs, meanwhile, has exploded. If Apple wants a piece of that pie back, they have a chicken and egg problem. They have an uphill battle to court both AAA developers and serious gamer customers. Millet acknowledges as much, saying, “I don’t think we’re going to fool anybody by saying that overnight we’re going to make Mac a great gaming platform. We’re going to take a long view on this.”
Apple is collaborating closely with game studios to make sure its Metal API offers everything they would ask of it. “We worked hand in hand to make sure that they were going to have all the tools that they needed to accelerate the important APIs that we’re going to deliver to [companies like] Capcom, for example. So that when Capcom approached us, it wasn’t going to be this awkward port for them. It was going to be a very natural ‘Ah, you do support these modern APIs that gamers are needing,’” Millet explained.
It’s not so simple when Apple silicon is such a different breed of computer to the Intel x86 architecture that has powered the PC since 1981. Because PCs have separate bins of memory for the CPU and GPU, Millet speculates, “Game developers have never seen 96 gigabytes of graphics memory available to them now, on the M2 Max. I think they’re trying to get their heads around it […] They’re used to working in much smaller footprints of video memory.”
Of course, that leads to a limitation of Apple silicon that, naturally, neither Millet or Borchers commented on: Windows PCs are highly expandable. GPUs bigger than entire game consoles can add enormous power that simply isn’t possible on a single chip. And you can add any PCI graphics card to any compatible motherboard, allowing you to upgrade your computer at any time.
Apple has yet to show its hand for the highest-end market. The Mac Pro, the most PC-like product of all the Macs, has not made the jump to the new platform. But if rumors are to be believed, it also might not be expandable.
There’s never a bad time to buy a Mac anymore
Finally, Millet answers an age-old question: when’s the best time to buy a new Mac these days? He says, “I really, with full sincerity, believe now is always a good time… Nobody should be shy about it.”
As I said on The CultCast (although not as elegantly) the story of the new MacBook Pro is simple: last month, you could buy an excellent laptop; today, you can buy a 20% more excellent laptop.
Of course, it’s not about M1 to M2 — it’s still about pulling customers with aging Intel Macs over to Apple silicon. “We’re just trying to make it more and more of an easy decision to move…to an even more amazing system,” says Borchers. That’s where they can throw out numbers like 10× instead of 10 percent.
On one last note, Borchers sings directly to my ears in praising the Mac mini: “We feel like the Mac mini form factor is such a great way to unleash creativity and, frankly, goodness in the world that we wanted to be able to put it in as many people’s hands as possible.” This is a change in pace, to say the least, from their positioning of this machine during the Intel era — and I couldn’t agree more.