The Clearest Evidence Yet That Apple, Inc. Might Be Working on an ARM-Based Mac

By Markets

The A10 Fusion is truly a desktop-class chip. Image source: Apple.

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Speculation has persisted for half a decade that Apple, Inc.(NASDAQ: AAPL) may be working on an ARM-based Mac, which in turn suggests that Apple could slowly transition away from Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) as its processor supplier. From vague executive comments to rumors of ARM-based prototype Macs, there have been many different types of leaks and evidence that an ARM-based Mac will one day be a reality. We're now getting even more evidence that such a device is in the pipeline.

A storm is brewing

In the latest version of macOS Sierra 10.12 that Apple just released to the public, the Mac maker quietly added support for ARM-based chip architectures within the operation system kernel. Specifically, there was indication for supporting a "Hurricane" chip family. This may be a reference to a custom Apple A chip, as prior generations were codenamed Cyclone (A7), Typhoon (A8), and Twister (A9). The new A10 Fusion chip's internal code name has not been discovered quite yet, so it's possible that Hurricane refers to the A10 Fusion.

It's worth pointing out that the A10 Fusion chip found inside the iPhone 7 is theoretically faster than all of the MacBook Airs (which run on Intel chips), according to the popular Geekbench benchmark. The new quad-core processor is even comparable to some MacBook Pros from 2013. While the scores aren't 100% comparable due to a variety of factors, the point still stands that Apple's chip team has made incredible progress and the A10 Fusion is a monster of a chip.

It then stands to reason that if Apple really wanted to, it could conceivably design a chip that could satisfy low-end performance requirements like what the MacBook or MacBook Air need. Keep in mind that the A10 Fusion's performance is limited by physical and thermal constraints, since we're talking about a smartphone processor. A more appropriate candidate would be something like an A10X Fusion, which is rumored to power the 2017 iPad Pro. The X variants offer higher performance, often including additional graphics cores, and don't face the same types of limitations. Imagine what Apple could do if it was designing a chip for a laptop form factor.

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If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

There's another distinct possibility here. It just so happens that Intel announced in August that it reached a licensing agreement with ARM Holdings (NASDAQ: ARMH) to manufacture ARM-based chips at its foundries. That was a landmark deal that downplayed the long-standing competition between ARM-based chipmakers and Intel, underscoring that there's more to gain by collaborating.

Intel may now produce ARM-based chips for both Apple and Qualcomm, opening up a massive portion of the mobile market that Intel's foundry strategy can address. Taking this a step further, it's not inconceivable that Apple could collaborate with Intel on designing some world-class ARM-based processors for both iOS and macOS devices in the future.

Apple's A chips may not be able to compete with Intel at the high end of the spectrum, but Apple could conceivably start at the low end with Apple-designed, Intel-produced chips. Either way, Apple is definitely working on something here. It's not just rumors anymore.

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Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Qualcomm. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.