Apple Silicon ARM Macs and Thunderbolt 3 / USB4 eGPU
I'd like to start a topic on ARM Macs and how they may work with existing as well as future eGPU products. Would love to hear everyone's thoughts.
For the past 8 years, Apple has integrated Thunderbolt technology in all Macs except for the 12-in MacBook. There's no chance they are abandoning Thunderbolt 3 Macs and accessories during this transition. We've learnt adding a TB3 AIB can allow non-supported AMD CPU systems to work with Thunderbolt devices. It's a simple task for Apple to implement Thunderbolt 3 and eventually USB4 on the new ARM Mac lineup.
The biggest blow to this switch is Boot Camp mode for gaming. I don't foresee Apple ever be able to earn the trust of game developers to make macOS gaming a viable option. Linux gaming will be our only hope going forward. I'd probably hang on to the 2020 13-in Ice Lake MacBook Pro so that I can keep using Boot Camp for the next 5 years. After 2025, all bets are off.
The switch to ARM on Macs enables Apple to make significant changes to the macOS preboot environment and enforce far more control over security. Notably, however, Apple claims that while these changes enhance security, hobbyists and security researchers can turn off most protections, similar to how we can today.
ARM Macs will incorporate a secure boot process similar to iOS and iPadOS. At maximum security, this implies signed macOS versions, with verification of the entire boot chain done early on. Additionally, the new system is designed for:
- Support for multiple macOS installs
- Support for multiple macOS versions
- macOS recovery flows
Meaning there is feature parity in terms of flexibility of macOS installations. But there's more. Startup options will now be a dedicated UI instead of just keyboard shortcuts. This can be accessed by long-pressing the power button. Target Disk Mode has been replaced with Mac Sharing Mode. Security is fully configurable using
- Secure Boot
- Authenticated Root Volumes
- System Integrity Protection
Here's a look at the user interface:
On Intel Macs, disabling SIP or ART will affect every installation of macOS. In a sense, those security policies are global for every Mac, rather than every install. With Apple Silicon, security policies will be applied per OS, meaning that one can have a fully secured (SIP/ART/SB enabled) install + unsecured volume to test and fiddle around with.
The login experience will be far better as well. Similar to iOS, ARM Macs can boot into the OS even with FileVault enabled, providing an accelerated UI for unified login with Accessibility support. Besides that, strides have been made in data protection in scenarios such as hibernation.
Recovery's Recovery - If for some reason macOS Recovery is inaccessible, a separate System Recovery mechanism exists locally beyond the Internet Recovery system that runs a minimal version of macOS to reinstall macOS and macOS Recovery.
There are only two security modes on ARM Macs:
- Full security - like the iPhone
- Reduced security - support for unsigned macOS versions and notarized 3rd party kexts
Kernel Integrity Protection on ARM Macs will prevent any modifications of the kernel in memory - meaning EFI patching will likely not be possible. I am not sure if we can load unsigned kernel extensions from identified developers in reduced security mode.
Yes I do agree that USB4 will be standard on the next generation of Macs. With respect to eGPU however, I see little progress as long as we are restricted to the limitations of Thunderbolt 3. This ties in perfectly well with excluding bootcamp - where Apple never supported eGPUs to begin with, and for modern gaming titles, it really doesn’t work well anymore. I presume Apple will implement Thunderbolt 3 interoperability with USB4. Finally, I think with the switch to Apple Silicon, they will negate performance advantages for eGPUs on most Macs. I think so because it’s highly likely that Apple will match or surpass most, if not all of AMD’s desktop GPU offerings with their custom GPUs, and since macOS only supports AMD graphics, any genuine performance-related incentives might be lost (save specific technologies like ProRender). Couple that with rather poor performance scaling for eGPUs on macOS in practice, and we might have a convincing case here. If NVIDIA was an option however, things could be different.
Honestly, I have huge doubt about whether will keep this egpu bussiness. First, the Blackmagic eGPU Pro has been discontinued, making the only eGPU solution obtainable from Apple Store worse than the configurable upgrade on the 16 inch Macbook Pro. This might not sounds like much, but I feel like this move shows the rather lacking support from Apple.
I think Apple will release the first "Macbook ARM" with something like a MacBook Air or Macbook, targeting at less power centric users. Just like the original 12 inch Macbook, Apple had used that to test out their new design langauge and the USB C port, so I expect much of the same here.
Besides, ARM on windows is absolutely terrible at the moment. The most recent attmept, Surface Pro X is a huge disappointment and deterrent for me to even consider purchasing an ARM based mac for windows gaming and modelling. Maybe these SOC will not longer bootcamp as Apple has been marketing their new virtualisation machine heavily.
Last but not least, there is no working device with arm soc thunderbolt 3 capable as far as I know, making the grooming future even less hopeful.
I think Apple will still support eGPU in the next few releases, but I doubt it will make its way in the ARM MacBook.
I don't foresee Apple ever be able to earn the trust of game developers to make macOS gaming a viable option.
They should help bolster Proton for Metal.
After the transition and further support period ends (when Bootcamp is laid to rest), what are the chances of Windows emulators being any good for gaming? I've read that Rosetta 2 may make it possible to run these emulators into the (more) distant future and some them (Parallels) even support eGPUs.
As someone who only recently purchased an eGPU, I have really enjoyed the experience (excellent performance and easy-ish setup with the help of this forum) so it seems a real shame that it won't be as useful in the future. Perhaps by the time this all comes to fruition, there will be a solution/workaround.
@rob5underscores, eGPU existed prior to Apple's official support in macOS 10.13. I'm sure eGPU will continue to exist when Apple calls it quits. As long as the 2019 Mac Pro is available, driver support in macOS for AMD GPUs should remain in place.
The strongest appeal of a personal computer to me is the ability to put my own touch on it. With Apple's aggressive push for operation efficiency, they take a lot of control from partners as well as the consumers. This transition to Apple Silicon Macs is a good opportunity to explore new options. 😀
I think the writing is on the wall, the Apple will stop making desktops, and even laptops (as we know them) at some point in the future.
They will be replaced with 27inch iPad Pro with built-in stand, and 16inch iPad ‘mini’ with holographic keyboard (which we will hate, but learn to live with).
I will be happy to buy them, as productivity device. But unless Apple buys Epic and start bribing the developers for exclusive deals, my gaming futures will be on Ryzen based DIY Windows machines.
But my magic 8 ball is saying “fuzzy”.
This whole thing just feels weird. On one hand it makes sense if you look at it from Apple's perspective and ignore the niche of bootcamp users, multibootees, gamers, eGPU users etc.
On the other hand, I can't help but think that a large part of Apple's growth on the computing part after 2006 was due to the x86 support on the hardware and software side. It did a lot of things; suddenly a lot of components are available, you could buy PC graphics cards and PC RAM and PC CPUs and they would work. You could run Windows on a Mac (with the ironic reports that the best mobile hardware for Windows was an Apple laptop or something like that), you could hack macOS to run on non-Apple hardware. You could have WINE on a Mac with usable programs, and virtual machines with no translation overhead because you didn't need to emulate a CPU architecture. But in reality, none of those things matter to Apple or to most users. All of those options were just happy side-effects for some of us.
I have this small hope that Microsoft gets it Windows on ARM stuff together with x86 translation support for 64-applications, and that bootcamp on ARM with Windows support comes into existence. And perhaps if (somewhere in the future) a desktop Mac with PCIe exists with an ARM CPU from Apple in it, that maybe that is still compatible with generic PCIe cards. I no longer have the need for that stuff, but just to feel like it is still possible is something I'd like to see.
In the end, it seems to me that the true change is the way personal computing happens. We're moving away from sub-optimal generic do-it-all machines, and getting a more optimised, more effective replacement with some restrictions to make it possible. In the end it's something like getting rid of magnetic media and optical media and the parallel ports and serial ports. That was unheard of at one time, but turns out to be 15+ years ahead of its time. (not saying that was either good or bad, and if it were a gamble it could have worked out totally bad as well)
Maybe this change isn't all bad and maybe it's a sign that I've not changed enough with the concepts of computing.
I’m going to be honest, I’m not too optimistic about the future of Bootcamp in general and eGPUs in particular.
If I try to think from Apple’s perspective, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of value for them in supporting Windows. The vast majority of their “average” users would lose nothing in the transition to ARM (assuming that Rosetta’d apps work as well as the ones shown in the demos at WWDC). On the other hand, the (hopefully) increased battery life and the unique selling points of “hey all your iPhone apps work on your Mac too!” would likely be enough to attract even more of these “average” users to the Mac platform. It also seems like the “pro” customers they really care about are people working in the video production industry (hence the effort in developing Afterburner cards for the Mac Pro). People running high end Windows software are, I imagine, not too high up on the list of their priorities.
All of this is to say that Windows users make up a small chunk of Mac users, and Windows eGPU users make up an even smaller chunk of Mac users. It doesn’t seem likely that they would be bothered about catering to folks like us.
Also, some food for thought- Apple has shown its intent in terms of not being interested in “traditional” gaming and that seems unlikely to change with the introduction of their own silicon. They’re pushing Apple Arcade hard and the key idea is that you can play the same games on your iPhone, iPad or Mac, which necessitates them being graphically non-taxing. With their abysmal record of encouraging big-name game developers to publish titles on the Mac platform, it isn’t likely that gaming on the macOS is going to catch up with Windows at any point.
Finally, I think that the way to provide extra graphical power for future ARM-based Macs might not be through eGPUs but through proprietary solutions. Apple has already designed some custom solutions like the aforementioned Afterburner cards and MPX modules and I imagine that they would go with something similar as an external attachment. But now I’m just speculating wildly, so I’ll end this post and stick to established facts in future comments 🙂