So Just How Powerful Are Apple’s New Laptop Chips Gonna Be

Apple CEO Tim Cook announces a big silicon shift during WWDC 2020. (June 22, 2020) (Screenshot: Apple)
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces a big silicon shift during WWDC 2020. (June 22, 2020) (Screenshot: Apple)

Apple officially confirmed in its WWDC keynote yesterday that, yes, it would be using its own processors in its laptops and desktops. Not a terribly surprising announcement considering the rumour mill had been churning for months prior to that, but it’s nice to have Apple formally acknowledge the existence of its A12Z Bionic computer processor. What Apple didn’t reveal, though, were specs. No core count. No clock frequency. No TDP. Just a few, quick demos of 4K videos running side-by-side and Shadow of the Tomb Raider running via Rosetta 2 on Apple’s next macOS, Big Sur. It all looked nice, but nothing pointed to how powerful Apple’s chips will actually be.

There have been rumours about its CPU possibly having 12 cores, eight which will handle performance-intensive tasks and four energy-efficient cores that will handle less intensive tasks, all on a 5nm process. Apple did confirm yesterday that its processor will be based on its A12Z that’s in 2020 iPads (a hybrid CPU that uses four performance cores and four power efficiency cores), so its reasonable to assume that its laptop/desktop chip will use hybrid-core technology, too. And since the A12Z is an ARM processor, that means Apple silicon will process information differently than Intel and AMD CPUs.

Basically, the A12Z is a Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC). Intel and AMD CPUs like those found in nearly all laptops and desktops available today, are both a Complex Instruction Set Computer (CISC). Some advantages that RISC processors have over CISCs are better power efficiency and faster performance with some tasks. However, RISCs require more RAM than CISCs to process information because they execute one instruction per clock cycle. They need more working memory to load each instruction since it executes one instruction at a time, otherwise the CPU could be bottlenecked. If you executed the same CISC instructions on a RISC-machine, it could take longer too; CISC was designed to process multiple instructions as efficiently as possible at once.

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But what does all that have to do with processor speed? Well, depending on what kind of program you’re running, Apple’s ARM A12Z processor could be faster or slower than Intel and AMD’s x86 processors simply because of the way it handles instructions.

CPU Performance

Which is why I turned to Geekbench 5. It’s difficult to effectively gauge the performance of Apple’s processors as they’ve traditionally been built for iOS and iPadOS and the apps on those operating systems aren’t designed for the same tasks (or hardware) as those for macOS or Windows 10. But the A12Z found in the latest iPad is still the closest thing right now to getting an idea of how Apple silicon will perform against Intel and AMD in macOS. So while its performance might not even be on par with the A12Z intended for the Mac, we can get a rough idea of how well it will hold up against what’s in Macs and their competitors right now.

The form of the A12Z in the new iPad Pro scores 1114 in single core performance and 4654 in multicore performance. (You can search other results here.) And if you take a peek at the Geekbench 5 result for a 2020 MacBook Pro 13 model, which has a 4-core Intel Core i7-1068NG7 and 16 GB of RAM you’ll see the numbers aren’t too different. The MacBook Pro 13 scored a 1260 on the single core benchmark and a 4676 on the multi-core.

So in Geekbench 5, the A12Z performance is similar to the 10th-gen Intel CPU in both single core and multi-core. Not bad, though it appears to take four more cores for the A12Z to run in the same race with Intel. But remember, the A12Z is a hybrid CPU, so it’s likely that those scores are based on its four performance-dedicated cores, not all eight cores. At a glance, what these scores tell me is that Apple silicon could end up being a mighty processor, if the Mac version really does have those rumoured 4 additional cores (bringing the total to 12 cores versus the current MacBook Pro’s 4).

The number of its performance-dedicated cores will need to at least match what Intel and AMD have if it really wants to compete. Take for example the Acer’s Predator Triton 500 laptop with an Intel Core i7-10785H. That is one of Intel’s performance mobile processors and it has six cores. On the single core scale it scores 100 points higher than the iPad (1223) and on multi-core it scores close to 2000 higher (6408). This is likely because Intel can take advantage of all six cores running at the highest clock speeds possible, while the iPad’s A12Z only has those four cores dedicated to performance. That means current A12Z processors found in the iPad would struggle compared to the 16-inch MacBook Pro being sold right now, which shares the same processor as the Predator Triton 500. More cores will be absolutely necessary to compete with and surpass Intel’s best performing mobile processors. They appear to be decently matched in single core and multi-core speeds (when applicable).

Yet I don’t foresee it taking away the multi-core processing crown from AMD on either the laptop or desktop front. AMD is a beast when it comes to putting out multi-core performance. Here’s Geekbench 5 results for my personal rig (which I built in early 2019) with a last-gen AMD Ryzen 7 2700X, GTX 1080 Ti, and 16 GB DDR4 RAM, running Windows 10 version 1903:

  • Single core: 1064

  • Multi-core: 6971

The Ryzen 7 2700X is an 8-core CPU too, and like Intel can take advantage of all eight cores running at the highest clock speeds possible, whereas the A12Z can’t. But according to these numbers, Apple could be on par or slightly outperform AMD on single core performance.

But that’s a much older desktop CPU. Now let’s look at the A12Z compared to a newer mobile CPU from AMD. Here’s some more results for the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 with an AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS, an 8-core mobile processor:

  • Single core: 1104

  • Multi-core: 6226

And why not compare it to AMD’s latest budget desktop CPU too. These are the numbers for AMD’s Ryzen 3 3100 4-core budget-desktop CPU:

  • Single core: 1085

  • Multi-core: 4723

Again, AMD holds the multi-core title, however the iPad’s A12Z has slightly better single core performance than the Ryzen 3 3100 and the Ryzen 9 4900HS. Compared to current Mac products available, like the the MacBook Pro 13, the A12Z appears just as fast in single core and multi-core processing as Intel and AMD’s low to mid-range options. If it manages to scale performance in the multi-core space it could, theoretically, compete for AMD’s multi-core crown. But scaling cores that way can be difficult so Apple will absolutely have a challenge ahead to both scale performance in the hardware and take advantage of that increase core count in the software.

GPU Performance

Now let’s consider GPU performance — Apple gave us a reasonable glimpse of it during the keynote with its Shadow of the Tomb Raider demo. However Apple didn’t go into many details on how it set up its demo device. We know the game was playing back via Rosetta 2 emulation and was playing at a resolution of 1080p. It appears to have been playing back at 30 frames per second or better and with a graphic settings somewhere in the medium-high range. That would put it right up against the performance of Nvidia’s GTX 1050 — if Apple’s demo was actually running from an integrated GPU and not a dedicated GPU, but we’re going to assume it was an integrated GPU.

For an integrated GPU, that kind of performance is crazy. Even the best APU on the market, AMD’s Vega 11, can’t pull off that kind of performance. According to Tom’s Hardware, current Ryzen APUs with Vega 11 graphics are about 2.5 times faster than Intel’s UHD Graphics 630. Looking at Shadow of the Tomb Raider specifically, Tom’s shows that the GTX 1050 is 74% faster than the Vega 11 and 150% faster than UHD 630 (at 720p). The Vega 11 manages an average of 50 fps, so that would not only mean that the game is playing at more than 30 fps during Apple’s demo, but it would also mean Apple would have the fastest integrated GPU on the market.

But without knowing all the game’s settings, it’s hard to say for sure. If Apple silicon can pull off the kind of CPU and GPU performance suggested by the iPad’s current performance and Apple’s very carefully selected demo than it could certainly surpass what Intel and AMD are shipping right now. Which would also explain the rumours that its planning to put the new A12Z in its MacBook Pro first. This is the kind of magic it needs if it hopes to scale its chip across all its laptop and desktops in the coming years and replace Intel not just on laptops, but on those Xeon-based Mac Pro’s as well.

The performance really could be as incredible as Apple claims. But we won’t know for sure until we can put this new processor through its paces in a macOS environment. So while we have a basic idea of just how fast Apple’s switch to ARM could make the Mac, we won’t know more until later this year.