Apple’s CPU design chops and its willingness to tackle custom silicon work have created an odd situation in computing — one in which the coprocessors the company designs into its products are now treated as major announcements in and of themselves. It’s a baffling, Apple-specific treatment of coprocessors that likely leaves the company’s competitors in fits. But it’s also a handy way of keeping tabs on what the company is rolling out, and what platforms are slated for updates in 2018.
According to an extensive report from Bloomberg, Apple is working on multiple new projects, including a new iPad refresh, with three updated Mac models, all of which supposedly use new custom coprocessors (new laptops and at least one new desktop).
The best candidate for the desktop chip would be the redesigned Mac Pro, which is supposed to be arriving at some point in the not-too-distant future. Last year, Tim Cook admitted that Apple’s diminutive Mac Pro made the wrong bets for the company, with its odd form factor, dual custom graphics cards, and heavy reliance on Thunderbolt 2. The new system’s capabilities and options aren’t yet known, but Apple has said it’ll introduce a new high-end workstation model for customers who don’t want an integrated display like that offered by the recently introduced iMac Pro (pictured above). An updated iPad is also in the works, though it may skip the A11 Bionic in favor of an “A12” CPU, when it debuts.
Part of what’s interesting about the larger Apple “story” around these products is how they’re often used to fit a narrative of superior product design. There’s real truth to this — as we’ve previously stated, Apple’s CPU cores are the highest-performing single-threaded ARM CPU cores you can buy. Apple’s investment into its own custom ARM implementation has paid off since it bought PA Semi in 2008, no question. Its custom T1 and T2 controllers allowed it to differentiate its platforms, its W1 chip is baked into its wireless AirPods, and its T2 chip is inside the Apple Watch Series 3. These parts have unquestionably helped Apple build an empire in which it has a much larger share of the profits in the smartphone industry than its relatively small market share would show.
But we’ve also seen how some of that same engineering exposes Apple to liabilities it might not otherwise be carrying. Despite what the Bloomberg report states, Apple’s exposure to Meltdown and Spectre is worse than ARM’s, because Apple’s custom architectures made use of some of the same aggressive performance-enhancing characteristics that Intel’s do. We know that Intel has performance fixes coming in-silicon for Meltdown and Spectre; we don’t yet know whether Apple has anything equivalent or when it’ll deploy any such solution. Smartphones run on tight timelines; Apple’s A12 SoC may or may not have any solutions baked into silicon. And designing silicon solutions to complex problems hasn’t protected Apple from several high-profile security flaws of its own making in the past few months. Apple’s biggest tech story of 2018 may not be its processors, but what it’s doing to fix those CPUs.
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