The Future of Mac Reliability

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Apple silicon and its implications for Macintosh reliability. Before the arrival of Apple silicon, a typical Mac logic board included a CPU, separate RAM, an Apple W2 or some other sort of secure enclave, chips to manage inputs and outputs, (often) a discrete video card, Apple’s separate machine-learning chips, and a bunch more bits and pieces that all now exist as the single System on a Chip (SoC) that is Apple silicon. So does combining everything in one SoC make the Mac more or less reliable? A case could be made for both points. Without all the digital tethers needed to tie all those separate pieces together, Apple silicon should have less that can go wrong with it and be more reliable. On the flip side, if something does go wrong on Apple silicon, the machine is probably dead.

When trying to predict whether these new Apple silicon Macs will be more or less reliable, it is important to remember this is not Apple’s first SoC rodeo. They’ve been making SoCs for the iPhone and the iPad for years.

A few days ago, I was on the telephone with an old friend, and he commented that his wife still loves the iPad I helped him set up about nine years ago. It is an iPad 2 and still working fine. I told him, “You should buy your wife an updated iPad. They have a good one for $329.” He had me on speaker because then his wife chimed in, “I don’t need a new iPad. This one still works like new.” Her nine-year-old iPad running on an Apple SoC still runs “like new” after nearly a decade. I realize this is anecdotal, but looking at iPads in particular that have a bit more cooling (even if it is just a big aluminum heat sync) and don’t get abused as hard as iPhones, I’m aware of a lot of very old iPads still in use.

Moreover, again anecdotally, I’m not aware of anyone I’ve spoken to who told me their iPad SoC failed. I know plenty of folks who broke the screen, but nobody who had the SoC fail them. Think about your friends and family circle. I suspect you’ve had the same experience.

I take this as a good sign for the new Mac SoC designs. The Mac SoC is a successor to those early iPad chips. Indeed, the new iPad Pros run on the current Mac SoC, the M1. If I were a betting man, I’d say that old running Macs are about to become much more common in the coming years. I sure hope so.

Assuming I’m right, the problem then becomes software. Even though my friend’s wife still loved her iPad 2, I’m sure her operating system has to be years old. Apple is generally good about supporting old hardware with new software updates, but what will they do if it becomes common for Macs to run reliably for 10 or 12 years? There is just so much to this Apple silicon Mac transition that seems to be rewriting the rule book. Exciting, right?

The Idea of Shortcuts on the Mac

This week Jason Snell wrote an excellent article about the need for Apple to bring Shortcuts to the Mac. I’ve been thinking about that article a lot. My position on Apple bringing Shortcuts to the Mac has always been, “wait”. The reason being that automation is alive and well on the Mac. With a much more open platform and the existence of Apple events, AppleScript, Keyboard Maestro, Hazel, TextExpander, and the ability to run virtually any scripting language via the terminal, there is very little that I can not automate on my Mac.

The iPhone and iPad, however, are a much different story. Apple had no automation tools on its mobile platforms until Shortcuts came along. Shortcuts is, practically, the only way to automate on mobile and for years now there has been lots of low-hanging fruit on mobile that Shortcuts has yet to pick.

I wanted Apple to keep the Shortcuts team working exclusively on mobile so it could get better rather than spend its time moving Shortcuts over the Mac. However, Jason’s article has moved me on this. While my argument about waiting made sense a few years ago, nowadays we’ve got Apple Silicon Macs and Shortcuts on mobile is a lot more powerful than it used to be. Moreover, even with all the above-mentioned Mac automation tools, there is room under the tent for one more. If done right, we’d be able to pull Shortcuts actions into scripts and Keyboard Maestro and make those tools even more powerful.

So put me on team Mac Shortcuts. Let’s hope WWDC 2021 brings us Automators some new toys.

Face ID Macs Likely with Apple Silicon

9to5 Mac did some sleuthing in the latest Big Sur beta and found references to the TrueDepth camera system currently found on some iPhones and iPads. Specifically, there are references to “PearlCamera”, which was Apple’s internal code name for the TrueDepth camera.

It makes perfect sense that they would add Face ID to Apple silicon Macs. They have already built it into very similar chips currently shipping on iPad and iPhone, and people would love to have Face ID on their Macs, just like everything else Apple makes. Indeed, you could argue it will be more useful on a Mac since I rarely am sitting at my Mac wearing a face mask. All that said, I would be shocked if Face ID shows up any time before Apple starts shipping Apple silicon Macs.

ARM-Based Macs Appear Inevitable

This week, Mark Gurman posted that Apple will announce a transition to ARM-based Macs at WWDC later this month. It is interesting how those of us on the outside have slowly arrived at the term “inevitable” concerning Apple putting a variant of the chip it makes for its phones and tablets in its computers. I think it will be an easy case to make to Apple customers.

By making their own chips, Apple cuts out a middle man, giving them more flexibility on price and raising their profit per unit. Moreover, no longer does Apple (or its customers) have to wait for Intel manufacturing delays to get sorted out before Apple can ship new Macs.

The most significant benefit, however, will be battery life. With a decent-sized battery and a power-efficient A-series chip, Apple could easily double (or triple) laptop battery life. I hope Apple looks at this as an opportunity to dramatically increase battery life and not dramatically decrease weight (by keeping existing battery life and just removing more of the battery).

It is interesting that while the existing Apple A-series chips are powerful, they’ve got nothing in a class that could power the iMac Pro or Mac Pro. Will Apple scale up the A-series for their more power-hungry Macs or stick with Intel for those. My money’s on former and not the later.

If you run Windows on your Mac, this probably isn’t good news. In your shoes, I’d buy one of the last Intel-based Macs and spec it up, so you’ve got several years of use in the tank.

Either way, I sure hope the rumors are true, and we get some news in a few weeks at WWDC. An ARM transition for the Mac is the kind of thing that pushes all my nerd buttons. If you’d like to learn more about this, former Apple engineer David Shayer wrote up a detailed breakdown of the hypothetical ARM transition over at TidBITS.