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.
It's not all good news. The latest version of MacOS, Monterey, left a few features out for Intel-based Mac owners. So far, none of these are earth-shattering losses—you'll miss out on things like copying text from an image, or blurring the background in FaceTime. But it's indicative of the direction the rollout is going. In general, Macs tend to receive OS updates for many years. But considering that Monterey omitted some features for Intel Macs, expect fewer new goodies if you're not on Apple silicon going forward.
Do I Need an Intel Mac to Keep My Old Apps?
The primary cause of concern about switching to a Mac without an Intel processor is that your favorite apps won't be supported. It's understandable, but you should be fine. There’s a reason Apple isn’t switching immediately to its own processors and cutting off Intel support all at once. Besides the fact that older Macs will still be in use for years to come, developers will need to update their existing apps to work on the new processors. Fortunately, Apple has been more prepared this time around than when it originally switched to Intel.
Updates from major developers like Adobe have gone shockingly well. It's been a little over a year since the very first M1 laptop arrived, and already most of Adobe's products support the M1 processors, including Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Lightroom, and a beta version of After Effects. Likewise, Microsoft's Office suite supports universal MacOS binaries that will automatically load the right version of the app, whether you're on Intel or an M1.
Apple initially claimed that “the vast majority of developers can get their apps up and running in a matter of days,” and so far in our experience, that's been true. No transition is without its hiccups—if like me, you didn't download the M1 version of Google Chrome, you might have ended up with a substantially slower browser—but after living with an M1 Macbook Air since it came out, it's hard to even spot the difference most of the time.
It’s still possible for there to be bugs if you use a niche-yet-critical app for work. If that's your situation, have a look online on various forums to see if anyone else using that software has run into issues on the M1 platform. Most people won't need to buy an Intel Mac just to maintain backward compatibility.
Get What You Need and Don’t Worry About the Rest
Major transitions like this can cause some buyer’s anxiety, but we've had more than a year of new M1 Macs, including the more powerful models that arrived late last year. The transition has been going well.
Right now, there are older Intel-based iMacs and MacBooks available on the market from various retailers and some directly from Apple. If you absolutely need a 27-inch iMac right now, you'll be limited to Intel, but the machine will do what you want just fine and will still get support for several years. But expect Apple to upgrade many of the products in its lineup to include ARM-based processors; if you can hold out a little longer, you'll end up with a machine that will play better with your other Apple devices, and it'll likely last even longer.
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!How Bloghouse's neon reign united the internetThe US inches toward building EV batteries at homeThis 22-year-old builds chips in his parents' garageThe best starting words to win at WordleNorth Korean hackers stole $400M in crypto last year👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones