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Tuesday, Nov 06, 2012 6:27am
Apple VP Mansfield could be leading Intel-to-ARM switch
A fresh report from Bloomberg has reinforced rumors that Apple may be developing its own chips for use in its Mac range in addition to its mobile products in years to come. If true, it signals a transition from Intel chips and would help to contextualize Apple’s move to make Bob Mansfield the head of its new “Technologies” group, which is combines research into wireless, battery and semiconductor designs. At the time of Apple’s announcement of its executive reshuffle, it noted that the new group under Mansfield has “ambitious plans for the future.”

According to Bloomberg, Apple’s engineers believe that the its mobile chip designs using ARM architecture will soon have enough performance to power its Mac notebooks and desktops. “Three people with knowledge of the work” provided the information to Bloomberg, two of which also expressed the view that such a development is almost inevitable as the features of the mobile and desktops continue to merge. With the departure of the former Apple VP of iOS, Scott Forstall, Apple’s current iOS and Mac OS development teams have now also been unified under the leadership of VP Craig Federighi, lending further credibility to the report.

Apple’s newest mobile chips, the A6 and A6X, utilize a custom-designed architecture compliant with the ARMv7 specification. They have also been revealed in benchmarks by Anandtech to be potent, scoring wins in numerous benchmarks when compared against the competition. In particular, the quad-core graphics performance of the A6X design crushes all comers, while the triple-core GPU found in the A6 as used in the iPhone 5 similarly leaves its competition trailing. If there has been a shortcoming with Intel’s recent notebook chip designs, it has been the relative performance of their integrated GPUs.

Samsung’s newest Chromebook is also the first to drop Intel processors in favor of an ARM-designed dual-core Cortex-A15 design that has also been shown to outperform the previous generation of Intel’s Atom dual-core processors. ARM is also currently working on 64-bit designs that are due to arrive by the end of 2013 and make their first appearance in 2014. With Mac OS X now a 64-bit OS, it is unlikely Apple would make any such transition before this time, although it has previously been rumored that Apple has already been testing MacBook Air-like designs with ARM-based processors.

While the overall performance of the newest ARM designs may not yet be powerful enough for Apple’s high-end designs, it is conceivable that its MacBook Air line of notebooks could be the first to make the transition away from Intel processors. With iOS derived from the full Mac OS X kernel, Apple is already effectively running a variant of the Mac OS X system that is optimized for ARM chips. With the wealth of software already made for iOS devices, a switch to ARM-based designs for its Mac line could be relatively easy to accomplish if it ultimately chooses to make the switch.

Apple’s 2010 acquisition of Instrinsity and 2008 buyout of PA Semi, two chip design startups specializing in low power designs, positioned it so that it could offer better hardware differentiation between itself and the competition in the mobile space. This has been manifested in the performance of the A6X design in the fourth-generation iPad, which leaves even Samsung’s new Exynos 5 Cortex-A15 processor found in the vaunted new Google Nexus 10 trailing in its wake.

Mobile users who have been touting Android over iOS because of the processing power of Android hardware are beginning to realize that Apple is quickly developing significant mobile CPU and GPU advantage. It would seem that Apple is intent on continuing this trend across its portfolio, as it further aims to differentiate itself from the competition in both software and hardware.

When Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple in late August, 2011 he said “I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it.” Jobs was, of course, instrumental in the acquisitions of both Intrinsity and PA Semi. It seems that his legacy will continue to shape Apple for many more years to come yet.