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The development of Rosetta & Apple processors

A summary of the last 15 years

The roadmap of the previous PowerPC processors G3, G4 & G5 no longer showed any significant leaps in performance and were only marginally faster. Intel pulled away with the development of its processors. This motivated Steve Jobs to have his development team develop a completely new MacOS in 2005. We remember, at that time the current MacOS version was 10.4 (Tiger). The last PowerMac with its two G5 2.5GHz processors had internal water cooling and MacBooks only came with G4 processors. The bang for the new era came when Steve Jobs announced the switch to Intel Macs on January 10, 2006 at the WWSF in San Francisco. MacOS Tiger was then available for PowerPC and now for Intel Macs. The first device with an Intel processor saw the market in 2006 and was called the MacBook Pro 15". Only the newly developed Tiger for Intel processors (10.4.4) ran on it.

Mac OS X Snow Leopard DVD

The user didn't notice anything. The Finder remained the same and all programs worked as before. But there was a huge change in the background. In order for PowerPC based programs to still work, Apple introduced Rosetta. With Rosetta it was possible to continue using all PowerPC based programs. When installing the operating system, one noticed that the installation file suddenly had twice the capacity. From Mac OS 10.7 (Lion) the Rosetta functionality was removed again. This meant that anyone using a program with PowerPC code was not allowed to run MacOS upgrades. The new Macs only came with the current MacOS. Starting with version 10.7, Apple introduced the annual upgrade strategy. 1 year after 10.7 appeared 10.8 etc.

When the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, Steve Jobs already showed his foresight, another operating system was needed. In 2007, Apple introduced an ARM-based operating system to the iPhone. It was a tremendous feat for Apple to bring 2 completely new operating systems onto the market almost simultaneously. One for Intel Macs and another for the iPhone. The development of the in-house ARM chip from Apple was not yet mature, so Apple had to fall back on the ARM1176 processor from Samsung. The first ARM-based Apple chip only came into the world on June 24th, 2010 with version A4 in the iPhone 4. Steve Jobs wanted his own chip to be built into the first iPhone in 2007, but development was lagging behind. The Apple A1, A2 or A3 were just internal processors for the prototypes.

Unfortunately, the performance increase of the processors had a negative side of the coin. The energy consumption increased proportionally with the increase in performance. With its own ARM chip design, Apple always focused on energy consumption. With that goal in mind, Apple asked Intel to develop a chip that uses less power.

Intel then launched the first Core M chips in 2014, which Apple immediately installed in the MacBook Air. With this move, Apple was the first manufacturer with these new Core-M chips on the market. The increase in performance of the processors took its course. The development of the in-house Apple Ax chips progressed very quickly. One of the most important factors in keeping processor power consumption in check while increasing performance at the same time is to reduce the space of a single transistor in the chip. A processor today contains billions of individual transistors. The current Apple A14 chip (2021) is manufactured using the 5 nm process (5 millionths of a millimeter). In other words, each transistor in the Apple A14 is about 70,000 times smaller than a human hair.

New areas such as Bionic or Neural Engine were added to the Apple Ax processors. Speed ​​measurements of the processors in single-core or multi-core mode showed that the Apple Ax processors in iPhones or iPads were always at the forefront. The difference in performance compared to Intel processors has steadily decreased. In the Apple forums, people have been wondering for several years when Apple would launch the first Mac based on ARM processors.

In addition to the main processor, the computer chips also require a very powerful graphics unit. Apple made it 7, resp. 8 graphics units (GPU) to accommodate in their own chip. Furthermore, an extremely powerful 16-core neural engine was accommodated in the chip. A neural engine is used for Face ID, Animoji and other machine learning tasks and can handle up to 11 trillion operations per second. This means that calculations for providing artificial intelligence can take place directly on the smartphone or Mac, as has usually been the case in the cloud up to now.

The first ARM-based chip for Mac saw the light on November 10th, 2020 and was christened Apple M1. This M1 was installed in the MacBook Air, the Mac mini and the 13" MacBook Pro. Another new era begins. The first M1 iMac followed in April. In order for the M1 Mac to continue to function, a completely new mac OS had to be developed again. Since it was a completely new operating system like 15 years ago, a new version number had to be defined.So it wasn't followed by a 10.16 (predecessor Catalina has the number 10.15), it was directly upgraded to version 11 and bears the name BigSur.

As with the change from PowerPC to Intel 15 years ago, there is now another change from Intel to the in-house Apple M1 for Mac. To ensure that all programs with Intel code work on an M1 computer, a Rosetta environment was integrated, as it was then. Thus, all Intel programs can be executed.

In order to be able to use the speed of the ARM architecture, adjustments to existing Intel programs are required. Boot Camp no longer works on an M1 computer, this is the native support of Windows on a separate partition.

The name Rosetta

The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of a stone tablet with a priestly decree carved into three blocks of scripture (hieroglyphs, demotic, ancient Greek) with the same meaning. The trilingual inscription from 196 BC honors the Egyptian king Ptolemy V and praises him as a benefactor. The stone tablet, named after the place where it was found near the shore of the Mediterranean, made a significant contribution to the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, a pictorial script. (Source Wikipedia)

In the following blog "Apple M1 Chip" we go into possible scenarios of how you can continue to work with your existing programs on an M1 Mac.

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