In November 2020, Apple began making a big change to its Mac lineup. Although Macs have used processors from Intel since 2006, new Macs from here on out will feature Apple-designed chips like the ones in iPhones and iPads. Apple says that using its own “Apple silicon” chips will improve performance and battery life for Macs and provide less tangible benefits relating to security and privacy. This transition started with the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini in the fall of 2020 and continued with the 24-inch iMac in the spring of 2021; the full lineup of Macs should complete the changeover by the end of 2022.
During this transition period, Apple will support both Intel Macs and Apple silicon Macs with new features and software updates, before eventually dropping Intel Mac support in favor of focusing on newer, faster models with its own chips. So the question is: In the early phase of this transition, when some Intel Macs are still hanging around but Apple silicon Macs aren’t all here yet, is it still a good idea to spend money on an Intel Mac?
The short answer is no, unless you need one for a specific reason. We’ll do our best to help you make that decision, and we’ll continue to update this guidance as the transition to Apple chips plays out and the company makes more public comments about how much support Intel Macs will receive over the next few years.
What’s the problem?
Apple’s processors and Intel’s processors can’t just run the same software. Each uses a different “instruction set,” meaning (very simply) that software needs to talk to them in different ways to get them to perform the same tasks. Because of this, software developers will need to do extra work to optimize their applications to run well on both Intel and Apple processors. Eventually, as Intel Macs age and Apple silicon Macs become more prevalent, those developers may stop working to make their apps run on Intel Macs at all.
If you’ve been using Macs since the turn of the millennium, you might remember something similar happening when Apple transitioned from PowerPC chips to Intel processors in the mid- to late 2000s. Apple and third-party app developers supported both PowerPC and Intel Macs for a couple of years, but the last PowerPC Macs didn’t get updates for nearly as long as the earlier PowerPC Macs, a development that shortened their useful lifespans. The concern is that history will repeat itself, and that the last few Intel Macs will be worse investments than both the Intel Macs that preceded them and the Apple silicon Macs that will follow.
Try to wait for an Apple silicon Mac
Our long-standing advice to people who need a new computer right this minute is to buy one. There’s always something new coming around the corner, but you never know how long you’ll need to wait for it or what features it will include. But unless you need to replace a computer that’s broken, we think you should try to wait for Apple silicon before buying an expensive new Intel Mac like the 16-inch MacBook Pro or the 27-inch iMac.
That’s partly because the Apple silicon Macs that Apple has released so far have been very good—as fast as or faster than the Intel Macs they replace, but with much better battery life (for laptops) and lower power usage (for desktops). For the 24-inch iMac, Apple also took the opportunity to update its design for the first time in nearly a decade, adding fun colors and making the screen larger; we expect the current 27-inch iMac to follow in that model’s footsteps. These are improvements that are worth waiting for, especially if you’re spending a couple thousand dollars on a computer you plan to use for years.
Apple silicon Macs will also get new macOS releases for longer than Intel Macs, and an increasing number of macOS features will be exclusive to newer, Apple silicon Macs as new versions are released. Apple silicon Macs are the only models that can also run iOS and iPadOS apps, and some features of the upcoming macOS Monterey, such as Portrait mode for FaceTime calls, will work only on Apple silicon Macs.
Intel Macs will continue to receive at least some new macOS features “for years to come,” and they won’t suddenly become bad now that Apple is changing processors. If you have an Intel Mac you’re happy with, especially one released in 2018 or later, you don’t need to run out and upgrade. But if you’re able, you should definitely put off buying any new Macs until you can buy one with Apple silicon in it.
Who should still buy an Intel Mac right now
The main reason to buy a new Intel Mac model right now is if you need it for a specific task that isn’t supported by Apple silicon processors; this goes both for new Macs that haven’t been updated with Apple silicon, such as the 16-inch MacBook Pro or the iMac, as well as older refurbished models of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini.
You might consider an Intel Mac if you make extensive use of professional apps such as Adobe Premiere or any others that haven’t been updated yet and you need those apps to run quickly right out of the box (many of Adobe’s apps, including Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, and InDesign, have been optimized for Apple silicon as of June 2021). Apple’s Rosetta translation software—which allows software made for Intel chips to run on the new Apple silicon chips—is good, and for tasks like compiling code or transcoding video, where the processor just needs to crunch on data, Apple silicon Macs running Intel code can actually outrun Intel Macs running Intel code. But in our tests, Intel apps that rely on you to do a lot of scrolling, clicking, and interacting with the user interface—web browsers, for instance, or software for editing photos, audio, and video—were definitely less responsive on an Apple silicon Mac. This problem will gradually go away as developers update their apps to work with Apple silicon, and it might not bother you if you’re replacing a years-old Intel Mac that struggles with this software. But the transition could take months or years, depending on the apps you use, and the performance penalty might be annoying in the meantime.
If you run Windows on your Mac in any form—either by shutting down macOS and booting up Windows via Apple’s Boot Camp software or by running Windows on top of macOS using virtualization software like Parallels or VMware Fusion—you’re also safer buying an Intel Mac. Boot Camp won’t be available on Macs with Apple processors at all. Virtualization software may be able to run Windows on Apple silicon eventually, but the Rosetta emulation software that Apple is using to run Intel apps on Apple chips explicitly does not support virtualization. At best, the makers of virtualization apps may be able to come up with their own workarounds, but Windows will likely run slower on Apple chips than it does on Intel chips.
How long will Intel Macs get new updates?
Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised software updates for Intel Macs “for years to come,” but that’s a pretty vague statement to hang a multi-thousand-dollar purchase on. Apple is also notoriously secretive about its future plans. But what we can do is look at Apple’s last processor transition and its current support policies to come up with a good guess.
Apple announced the transition from PowerPC to Intel processors at its developer conference in June 2005. The company then released the first Intel Macs in 2006 and completed the hardware end of the transition by the end of that year, ahead of its original schedule. That meant you could still buy PowerPC Macs as late as 2006. Three years later, the Mac OS X 10.6 update dropped support for PowerPC Macs entirely, and those computers stopped getting new features or access to then-new apps like Google Chrome. PowerPC Macs did receive security updates until 2011, five years after they had last been sold, but no new features or other upgrades.
More recently, when Apple has dropped support for older Mac models in new versions of macOS, it has stuck to its timelines for “vintage and obsolete products.” For purposes of hardware and software support, Apple considers a product “vintage” if it’s between five and seven years old and “obsolete” if it’s more than seven years old. Macs on either of these lists are the most at risk for being dropped when new macOS versions are released; for example, when macOS Big Sur came out in November 2020, Apple dropped support for all Macs released in 2012 and a handful from 2013. When macOS Monterey is released in the fall of 2021, the company will drop support for almost all Macs released in 2013 and 2014, as well as 2015’s 12-inch MacBook; for the record, this is a shade more aggressive than Apple has been about dropping support for older Macs in the recent past.
Without confirmation from Apple, we can’t say how long Intel Macs will continue to be updated. But judging from the Intel Macs that Apple dropped in Big Sur and Monterey, we’d expect Intel Mac models released in 2020 to receive at least three or four years’ worth of new macOS updates and security updates for a couple of years after that. Apple has also sold many, many more Intel Macs than it ever sold PowerPC Macs, so third-party software developers should be inclined to support those Intel Macs for as long as Apple is still releasing new updates for them.
PC processors from Intel and AMD use an instruction set called “x86_64” or just “x86,” a reference to the original Intel 8086 processor used in some of the earliest modern PCs. Phone and tablet processors from companies like Apple, Qualcomm, and MediaTek use an instruction set called “ARM,” a reference to the company that invented it.
About your guide
Andrew Cunningham is a senior staff writer on Wirecutter’s tech team. He has been writing about laptops, phones, routers, and other tech since 2011. Before that he spent five years in IT fixing computers and helping people buy the best tech for their needs. He also co-hosts the book podcast Overdue and the TV podcast Appointment Television.