Back in June, Apple announced a major change to its Macs: Starting in late 2020, its new laptops and desktop computers will move away from Intel and use processors built by Apple using the same ARM architecture it uses on phones and tablets. It’s a seismic shift that won’t happen all at once (especially since Apple just updated the Intel-based iMac), but it leaves consumers with an important choice to make. Should you buy an Intel-based Mac now, or wait for one with Apple’s new custom silicon?
Why Apple’s New Processors Matter
Longtime Apple fans will recall that Apple made a similar transition from its PowerPC processors to Intel chips back in 2005. Among the benefits at the time, using the same processor architecture that comparable PCs used meant it was easier for developers to bring popular Windows apps to the Mac (or at least emulate the ones that didn’t get direct ports), ushering in a thriving era of compatibility and development for Mac users.
Today, Macs are much more common, and it’s not as difficult to convince big developers to make apps for Apple’s platforms (some will even fight in court for the privilege). But Apple’s other devices, including the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, use Apple’s own custom processors. As such, they live in their own separate world. Developers making apps for both Macs and iPhones would have to do extra work to make their apps available on both platforms. With the switch to Apple’s own processors, it will be possible to write an app once and run it on most Apple devices with minimal modification.
There’s also a possibility that Apple’s new processors will be faster than Intel processors would be, but that’s still a bit of an open question. The company has suggested that the processors in its iPhones and iPads are so efficient that when translated to larger devices, it will give Macs a leg up on the competition. However, it hasn’t cited any benchmarks for laptop or workstation usage yet, and over the short term, it’s possible that apps automatically converted to work on the new processors will take performance hits that eat through any gains (more on that later). However, over the long term, Apple-made processors could offer better performance and make developing for all Apple products simpler.
Will My Intel Mac Be Obsolete Next Year?
If you need to buy a Mac right now, and all that’s available is an Intel-based Mac, you might reasonably wonder if it’s going to be out of date soon. That isn’t likely to be the case. (At least, no more than every computer is out of date the minute you buy it.) Apple says it will support Intel Macs for years, and there are even some Intel-based Macs that haven’t been released yet.
If you purchase AppleCare+ with your Mac, then you’re promised at least three years worth of support from the time you buy it, which means that even if you buy one of the new Intel-based Macs, you won’t be stranded without support for a while. However, that only applies to accidental repair damage and priority tech support. You can keep using your Mac long after that, often with minimal issues.
In general, Macs tend to receive OS updates for many years. Big Sur, the newest version of macOS, will roll out to Macs released as far back as 2013, indicating that even seven-year-old Macs are still getting the latest software. Furthermore, Apple provides service and parts for Macs for up to five years after they’ve stopped being sold. In other words, even if you bought a new Intel-based Mac today, it would likely still receive OS updates, qualify for service, and have spare parts available in 2026.
It won’t be the hottest hot rod on the block anymore, but you won’t be on your third new Mac by then, either.
Do I Need to Buy An Intel Mac to Keep All My Old Apps?
If you’re worried that buying a new ARM-based Mac will mean none of your old apps are supported, it’s an understandable concern, but you should be fine. There’s a reason Apple isn’t switching immediately to its own processors and cutting off Intel support all at once. Beside the fact that older Macs will still be in use for years to come, developers will need to update their existing apps to work on the new processors. Fortunately, Apple seems more prepared this time around than when they switched to Intel, but the very first Macs using ARM-based processors might still be waiting for some of the benefits.
While Apple has many major developers on board—Adobe and Microsoft are already porting over their Creative Cloud and Office suites respectively—smaller developers will need to update their apps. Apple claims that “the vast majority of developers can get their apps up and running in a matter of days.” In the event that the one little app you depend on from a developer who made it as a side project doesn’t get updated immediately, Apple is also relying on Rosetta 2 to emulate those older apps and keep them running. This is similar to the Rosetta tool the company used when transitioning to Intel.
All of that means that, in theory, upgrading from an Intel to an ARM-based Mac should be relatively seamless and won’t leave any apps behind. It’s still possible for there to be extra bugs, and perhaps some apps won’t run quite as well as they used to right away, but it’s unlikely you’ll upgrade and find crucial apps missing. So if you were planning to buy an Intel Mac after newer Macs are available, just to maintain backwards compatibility, you probably won’t need to.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to wait for reviews of the specific hardware to come out before making any buying decisions. But there’s no dramatic compatibility cliff coming that you’ll have to jump off of once ARM-based Macs arrive. If anything, it might be a compatibility speed bump.
Get What You Need and Don’t Worry Too Much About the Rest
Major transitions like this can cause some buyer’s anxiety, and everything we’ve discussed so far is, admittedly, a little bit based on speculation. It’s not impossible that Apple will come out tomorrow and say that all Intel-based Macs will be dead by 2021, but given the company’s track record and explicit promises, it’s unlikely.
Which means that whether you buy an Intel Mac is up to what you prefer. Would you rather have access to the latest tech, with iPad apps on your Mac as soon as possible? Then wait a bit for the new ARM-based Macs. Do you need a new computer but without too much disruption to your existing routine? You can get an Intel-based Mac without too much worry that it’s going to be obsolete any time soon.
No matter which direction you choose, you’re probably fine.
More From WIRED on Covid-19
- 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters!
- San Francisco was uniquely prepared for Covid-19
- The pandemic could derail a generation of young scientists
- Tips to treat and prevent face mascne
- Parenting in the age of the pandemic pod
- Bill Gates on Covid: Most US tests are “completely garbage”