Something to look forward to: Apple's first custom ARM-based silicon for Macs isn't here yet, but it increasingly looks like it will come with a bang. The developer transition kits that Apple is sending out uses a chip designed for iPads and they are showing decent performance compared to other solutions even when running x86_64 code under emulation. The first official processor to be used on Apple Silicon Macs is expected to surpass that by a wide margin.
Apple unveiled plans to transition Macs to its own processors based on the ARM architecture during WWDC 2020 last week. While the transition comes as great news for ARM and re-ignites dreams of a future where a MacBook could last an entire day on battery, there was no definitive word about the performance of Apple's upcoming processors.
The company has started sending out developer kits that look like Mac minis, but inside come packing an A12Z SoC paired with 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD. The first benchmarks are in, and it looks like Apple's first ARM-based Mac platform is able to get an average of 811 points in the Geekbench single-core test and 2,781 in the multi-core test. It should be noted that these results were obtained using Apple's Rosetta 2 virtualization/translation solution, so it's more of a representation of how apps would work when they haven't been ported to work natively on the new platform.
While only a rough comparison, Microsoft's Surface Pro X powered by custom silicon based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon SQ1 gets an average score of 726 points in the Geekbench 5 single-core test and 2,831 points in the multi-core test. On first impression, this would look as if the A12Z is only able to edge the Snapdragon solution in the single core test. However, the Surface Pro X tests were performed using a native ARM build of Geekbench 5, which means that Apple's A12Z running at 2.4 GHz and an emulated version of the benchmark nearly beats the custom Microsoft chip, running at 3 GHz on native software.
Compared to the 2018 iPad Pro, which features the A12X Bionic processor that served as the foundation for the A12Z (the latter gets an extra GPU core), it performs rather poorly. But in this instance the iPad Pro is running a native ARM build of Geekbench, which is how it's able to achieve ~1,100 points on the single-core test, and 4,600 on the multi-core test. These results are similar to those of the A12Z-equipped iPad refresh from earlier this year.
The 2020 MacBook Air equipped with a dual-core, Intel Core i3-1000NG4 CPU gets around 1,005 points on the Geekbench single-core test and 2,016 points on the multi-core test. When equipped with the more powerful, quad-core Intel Core i7-1060NG7, the results jump to 1,133 points and 2,990 points, respectively. Meanwhile, a Windows desktop PC sporting a Ryzen 5 3600 processor scores 1,254 points in Geekbench's single-core test and 7,497 in multi-core. Bump that to a 3950X CPU and the single-core score hardly moves, while multi-core goes through the roof to around 15,000 points. This is to say, Geekbench is far from a definitive test.
Apple CEO Tim Cook with a wafer of the new ARM-based processors
Overall, these results aren't all that surprising and not what Apple intends to ship in its first Apple Silicon Mac later this year. That device will most likely sport a much beefier, 5nm or 7nm chip based on the A14 SoC that will power the iPhone 12 and next year's iPad.
The benchmark scores for Apple's ARM-based developer transition kit don't tell the whole story, but they do offer some interesting insights into the impact of Rosetta 2 on performance. It appears that running x86_64 apps that haven't been ported to ARM64 will lead to a performance hit of anywhere between 25 and 40 percent. Apple has planned a two year transition to ARM, and this will be an important factor to consider for developers of popular apps.
It'll be interesting to watch which Mac is the first to be transitioned to Apple silicon, too. Some speculate it will be the MacBook Air, which is a mainstream laptop offering. Others including Ming Chi-Kuo believe the 13" MacBook Pro will be Apple's first choice, followed by a redesigned 24-inch iMac next year.