In late 2020, Apple started rolling out laptops and desktops built with the company’s own ARM-based processors, similar to the ones it already uses in its phones and tablets. It’s a seismic shift that’s in the process of rolling out since Apple still sells Intel-based Macs. If you’re looking to upgrade your computer, you have an important choice to make: Should you pick up a Mac with the new processors, or stick with Intel for now?
Updated January 2022: We’ve updated this guide with details from our reviews and experience after more than a year of living through the transition.
Why Apple’s Custom Processors Matter
Longtime Apple fans will recall that Apple made a similar transition from its PowerPC processors to Intel chips back in 2005. Among the benefits at the time, using the same processor architecture that comparable PCs used meant it was easier for developers to bring popular Windows apps to the Mac (or at least emulate the ones that didn’t get direct ports), ushering in a thriving era of compatibility and development for Mac users.
Today, Macs are much more common, and it’s not difficult to convince big developers to make apps for Apple’s platforms (some will even fight in court for the privilege). But Apple’s other devices, including the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, use Apple’s own custom processors. As such, they live in their own separate world. Developers making apps for both Macs and iPhones would have to do extra work to make their apps available on both platforms. With the switch to Apple’s own processors, it will be possible to write an app once and run it on most Apple devices with minimal modification.
And that’s to say nothing of the speed and battery life enhancements. Before the Apple M1 processor came out, there was some uncertainty about whether Apple could deliver better speeds than the Intel processors it was leaving behind, but in all our reviews since—including the Macbook Air, iPad Pro, and the Macbook Pro—we’ve been blown away by the M1 platform’s processors—especially with the recent M1 Pro and M1 Max.
Many major apps were updated to work on the new processors pretty quickly, and most of those that weren’t can still be used via Rosetta Stone 2, though there’s occasionally a performance hit. Overall, Apple has largely (so far) delivered on the promise of better performance while making the process of developing for all Apple products simpler.
The only hiccup we’ve seen is the fact that MacBooks using the M1 processor can only output to a single external display—this wasn’t the case on Intel-powered Macs. If you’ve got a dual-monitor setup right now, that’s not going to work for you. That said, the pricier 14- and 16-inch MacBooks with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips resolved this and can support up to four external screens.
Will My Intel Mac Be Obsolete Soon?
If you need to buy a Mac right now, and the only ones that suit your needs are Intel-based, you might reasonably wonder if it’s going to be out of date soon. That isn’t likely to be the case. (At least, no more than every computer is out of date the minute you buy it.) Apple says it will support Intel Macs for years, and there are still reportedly some Intel-based Macs that haven’t been released yet.
If you purchase AppleCare+ with your Mac, then you’re promised at least three years of service support from the time you buy it, which means that even if you buy one of the Intel-based Macs that Apple currently offers, you won’t be stranded without support for a while. However, that only applies to accidental repair damage and priority tech support. You can keep using your Mac long after that, often with minimal issues. Furthermore, Apple provides service and parts for Macs for up to five years after they’ve stopped being sold. In other words, even if you bought a new Intel-based Mac today, it would likely still receive OS updates, qualify for service, and have spare parts available in 2027.