Should you be an early adopter of Apple's new ARM processor?
At the WWDC 2020, Apple announced that they are moving to its own processors, designed in house, for desktop and laptop computer systems. Macs, which for more than 10 years have been built on the x86 processor architecture, are making the transition to ARM processor architecture that is more commonly found in the mobile space.
This is huge news that will affect filmmakers and leaves many of us wondering when the best time is to make the leap over to the new ARM processors. Luckily, most of us already have at least one device with them (your cell phone or tablet), so it's not unfamiliar territory.
ARM is designed for lower power consumption and low heat generation. This makes it a great architecture for mobile use because you not only want your phone battery to run all day but you also want it to stay cool despite not having fans built into the phone. However, over the last few years, various ARM manufacturers have started to release more powerful desktop and even server-class ARM processors since lower power consumption and less heat is something that is interesting to just about everybody.
Because the architecture is different, the software running on it needs to be optimized for it, which has slowed down adoption so far outside of the mobile space. While Microsoft did release a version of Windows for ARM years ago, it didn't take off, and this move from Apple to put macOS on ARM is a massive transition for the computing industry. It promises lower power bills, less heat, and faster processing as Apple gets to custom design precisely what they want out of the platform. But of course, it will come with some hiccups as users move to an entirely new platform.
Switching from PowerPC-to-Intel
Some of you are old enough to remember when Apple did this about 15 years ago—switching from PowerPC-to-Intel x86 CPUs back in 2006. If you were a filmmaker then, it was a process you had to navigate, and there are some lessons to learn from back then that are going to be applicable today.
The smaller Apple of 2006 was focused more on the computer business. Mobile wasn't really a business beyond the iPod at that point. When Apple went to Intel, the excitement was about the increase in performance, but it was also about being able to run Windows (or Windows applications) on your Mac. That opened up a whole host of other software that could potentially run on a Mac since Windows also ran on x86. It would be easier to port software over from Windows to a Mac that had Intel processor.
We're now seeing a somewhat different move with the switch to ARM since the big catalog of software this opens up to Apple isn't on competing Windows machines. It's the world of mobile software for iPhone and especially iPad that will now be available on your desktop. With the switch away from PowerPC, there was software you were worried would not get updated to the new platform, but there was enough new software to make it worth it. Apple is betting the same will hold true today.
What happened in 2006 will likely be repeated now. Developers will work to get their software ready for ARM Macs, and for those that don't, new replacements will appear that might not have otherwise. This is a moment for refreshing workflows, and you will likely discover that you get introduced to a whole host of new tools through the transition. I kept a PowerPC G5 tower at my production company up through 2010, just in case we needed it for any legacy software, but honestly, I don't think we had a single moment after 2007 where there was a vital piece of software we needed that couldn't install on Intel.
Apple will also allow you to keep using those older applications using a tool called Rosetta 2, calling back to the original Rosetta which did the same job for the PowerPC-to-x86 switch. This lets the ARM system keep running older software designed for Intel, and the demo at WWDC was very impressive. Rosetta 2, which is natively built into macOS Big Sur for ARM macs, works by translating instructions from the older x86 architecture to the new ARM architecture. The issue with Rosetta is that it will inevitably slow things down, since it is setting up a layer of interpretation between the application and the system architecture, and that takes time to process.
While that slowdown might not be an issue for your favorite calendar app, it is going to be an issue for something like a software plugin. If you have a favorite video or audio plugin and you love really dialing in settings shot by shot, slowdowns created by virtualization can be very frustrating. Imagine dragging a slider and having to wait a few seconds to see its effect instead of seeing it instantly. We saw in the last transition that it was smaller companies, like boutique plugin makers, that often made the switch from one software architecture to another the slowest.
Bootcamp and Parallels
In addition, while Microsoft does have a version of Windows that runs on ARM, it is currently only available for OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers. So it can be purchased by Asus, for instance, if they wanted to make an ARM laptop, but it can't yet be purchased by the general public who might want to install Windows on their Apple computer via Bootcamp or software like Parallels. This is a big worry since Rosetta won't let you install x86 Windows either.
If your workflow involves using Windows-only software, waiting to make the move to ARM, or keeping an Intel machine around, is likely going to be necessary. For instance, most color calibration software is still Windows-only (such as Calman or Lightspace), and I keep Parallels on my laptop just for calibration purposes. Although I only open up Parallels every couple of months, it's still a vital workflow tool that I can't live without. I hope that Windows for ARM Macs is something Microsoft supports soon.
So, should you wait, or get in early? Apple says the first ARM Macs, a 13" MacBook Pro and a 24" iMac, will ship this fall and the transition will take 2 years. That means we are looking at the very real possibility of an ARM Mac Pro by 2022. If you are thinking about a new laptop, should you get the last Intel Macbook Pro 16", or wait and get the first ARM 16" Macbook Pro or a 13"?
Either way comes with risk.
The decision is easiest if you primarily use Apple software. Work exclusively in Final Cut Pro X? Make the jump to ARM right away. Apple excels the most when combing software and hardware holistically, and we can reasonably assume that the ARM version of FCP X will be a pretty amazing application and we'll get great performance from that connection. Apple will obviously keep developing FCP X for Intel for at least the next few years, but the big push will be for ARM.
But if you work largely in Premiere or Resolve, it's a trickier conversation. Adobe and Blackmagic Design will obviously roll out ARM versions of their software the same way there are currently for Intel, Mac, and Linux versions, and a lot of the benefits of moving to ARM will still play out there. But you do run the risk of some of your favorite plugins, or small workflow apps, not immediately working. Especially since Apple has released a 2-year timeline for moving over to Intel. Only 6 months ago Apple started shipping a new Mac Pro with Intel chips. There will be at least 3-4 years of solid support for Intel Mac systems running our filmmaking pro apps. So if you want, you can probably wait to move over to ARM.
Whenever you do make the switch, even if you don't ever use Apple software, a whole host of exciting developments do come into play that are going to be useful for filmmakers. For instance, Artemis is currently the most popular digital photoboarding tool but is iOS or iPadOS only. I would love the ability to shoot photoboards with Artemis on my iPhone, then pull up Artemis on my Macbook Pro for editing, re-arranging, adding notes, etc. That is the kind of thing that is going to happen easily with ARM chips that just wasn't worth developing for a small company before when it would require the work of supporting x86 architecture. As film sets and post-production become more integrated, this move is going to allow a lot of cool integrations from mobile to desktop systems.
I personally will be diving in as soon as I can. Of course, I review this stuff and expect folks to ask me how it is, but I also generally walked away from the PowerPC-to-Intel switch with a mostly positive experience. Workflows kept working and were faster, cheaper, and more flexible. There was never a nightmare scenario where some vital tool was broken and we didn't realize it until too late and there wasn't a replacement. We kept working right through it and we will likely keep working right through this.