The question I most often get from CNET readers is some version of: “Should I buy a 13-inch MacBook Air or a 13-inch MacBook Pro?” That’s a pretty easy one to field, depending on the questioner’s budget and needs. But what happens when seemingly identical MacBooks, or other Mac computers like the iMac or Mac Pro, are available in both traditional Intel-based versions and new versions using Apple’s own Arm-based silicon, as promised by Tim Cook during the WWDC 2020 keynote?
That adds a whole new level of confusion to purchasing decisions, especially for something that’s usually considered a big-ticket purchase like a MacBook or iMac. If you’ve been in the market to buy a Mac, whether upgrading your own system or getting one for a student in your family, do you buy one now? Wait til the next upgrade cycle, maybe in the fall? Or do you wait for the Arm-based new versions of these Mac to arrive?
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And will they look the same? Have the same names? You may recall (at least I do) that when Apple transitioned to Intel chips from PowerPC, it was with an entirely new product line, called MacBook. There has never been a non-Intel MacBook, until now, at least.
Having a single product line, with both Intel and Apple silicon versions, is just a recipe for trouble — no one wants to drop $1,299 on a new MacBook, only to have picked the “wrong” one. Not that we’re entirely sure the same exact product will exist with two platform choices at the same time. At the WWDC keynote, Apple said that its first Arm-based computers will be available by the end of the year, while the entire transition will take at least two years.
Which Apple silicon Mac will be first? My best guess would be the Mac Mini, based on Apple now offering Arm-based Mac Mini Developer Transition Kits, based on Apple’s A12Z Bionic system on a chip, to developers to assist in transitioning software to the new platform.
But even without knowing the exact timeline of the product transitions, we can sketch out some broad advice about how to handle your future Mac purchases. No matter what, this isn’t going to be like flipping a switch. The company says, “Apple will continue to support and release new versions of macOS for Intel-based Macs for years to come, and has exciting new Intel-based Macs in development.”
If you’re shopping for a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air
The 13-inch Air and 13-inch Pro have both been very recently updated. The performance in these systems is considered excellent, especially now that you can get quad-core CPUs in the MacBook Air. If it’s a near-term need, I would feel comfortable buying a MacBook right now. I’d bet the new platform isn’t coming to those systems until 2021 at the earliest.
Here’s why you should wait to buy a new MacBook
If you’re especially focused on Photoshop or Final Cut
Consider waiting. The only real, solid details Apple offered on the new Arm-based platform was that Adobe had early access and already had Photoshop working smoothly on it, and that Final Cut was similarly up and running in native form. That means that future development of those apps may tilt strongly towards Apple silicon from now on.
If you use lots of native apps, and not necessarily the most popular ones
Buy a new Intel Mac, because I can’t say that apps from small indie teams, or ones that are no longer actively supported, will get timely transitions. That means they’ll have to run in an emulated or translated mode via Rosetta 2, which should work, but may not be optimal.
You want the best battery life
Battery life on Intel-based Macs is great, but not miles past Windows-based laptops. With the ability to control not only the software and hardware, but also the platform, I suspect we’ll see big battery life gains from new Macs, whenever they arrive. Consider waiting.
You use Boot Camp to run Windows on a Mac
I can’t imagine this will be officially supported on Arm Macs, so either buy now or wait for more info. Then again, plenty of Windows systems run on Arm platforms now (how well they run is, however, arguable), so it’s not impossible.
You’re a Mac gamer
You are? Really? I think this spells the end of the current weak attempt to get more traditional PC games on Mac via Steam and other platforms (so, no, I’ll never get Fallout 76 on Mac). But the ability to run iOS and iPadOS apps easily, along with game controller support, could make future Apple Arcade games more ambitious — I’m looking at you, Beyond a Steel Sky!
At this point, there are still many unanswered questions about the Intel-to-Arm transition, especially when different models will switch from one platform to another — except that it will take at least two years before Intel Macs are a thing of the past.
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