Can We Please Have MacBooks?

Seeing the new MacBook Pro inspires open letter to IT departments and software vendors.

Dear IT Department,

It has come to our attention that Apple has introduced a mobile workstation, the MacBook Pro, that may be superior to what has long been the staple of the engineering department, the Windows-based, Intel workstation.

We are as surprised as you must be. We had not considered Apple hardware for our design and engineering tasks.

We know many of the software applications for design and engineering do not run natively on Apple hardware, but did you know that the MacBook Pro can run Windows virtually and in emulation mode? We hope you are not dismissing Apple on Windows on the basis of Boot Camp, Apple’s application that lets MacBooks run both macOS and Windows. Boot Camp ran on Intel-based microprocessors, which Apple once supported. Boot Camp was clumsy to use. You had to reboot the MacBook to switch from iOS to Windows, and vice versa. The latest version of MacBook Pro, the one that dazzled us at the recent Apple event, has the M1 Pro and M1 Max chip which are based on ARM architecture, so they cannot run Boot Camp.

Isn’t the MacBook for Creative Types?

The new MacBook Pro. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

The new MacBook Pro. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

First of all, you should know engineers don’t appreciate the implication that we are not creative types. Who do you think created all the products around you, or the building you sit in? But, let’s move on, acknowledging that the label is generally applied to artists and musicians.

MacBook Pro used for music production. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

MacBook Pro used for music production. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

Watching my son race through the production of a music piece he is producing for a client on his MacBook Pro is to be amazed at the technology available to the modern musician. With 20+ tracks, synthesized sounds, libraries of beats, pitch correction, etc., he can do more to design a finished product than his old man with a Windows-based CAD program.

It’s all too easy to ascribe an artist’s talent to being a “creative type” and their tools only suitable for their creative purpose. This crowd values images, sound, motion and beauty, aesthetics and elegance—all characteristics that engineers are supposed to pay little attention to, if not ignore. For them, it is important that the MacBook Pro can display a billion colors, making our own renderings appear dull and lifeless. For them, the MacBook can make sound appear from everywhere, making stereo sound stodgy.

In the past, we have shied away from “pretty pictures” and except for the few of us in NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), ignored sound. But was it sour grapes? Were limits our hardware imposed on us making us live with less than lifelike appearance and behavior of our products? With faster hardware, we expect photorealistic rendering. It’s not pretty pictures, but realism. The closer our designs and simulation can approach reality, the less physical modeling and testing we have to do and the sooner our products will enter the market.

The 2021 Apple Event

Apple announces the new MacBook Pro at Apple's October 2021 event. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

Apple announces the new MacBook Pro at Apple’s October 2021 event. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

We listen to Apple events to make sure no technology gets past us. We are used to Apple’s not catering to engineers, as if we don’t exist. We tolerate the pitches to “creatives,” knowing we are not included. But we can no longer ignore the story that is starting to emerge, that Apple is also a company with serious hardware that could be of use.

The emerging Apple story is coupled with another story still playing out: the decline of Intel. Once the unassailable giant, maker of the CPUs we all had in our computers, Intel has been losing it mojo. The widely touted Moore’s Law is in tatters. The company has been under attack from AMD on one front and NVIDIA on another. Now, Apple has opened a new front. On October 18, 2021, we awoke to the news that the Apple had done the impossible. The company we had known for stylish products had gone from system level design to the chip level and, seemingly overnight, created a system on a chip (SoC) that combined the CPU and GPU that was simultaneously more powerful and more energy efficient than anything the giant chip makers had made.

The Apple event is clearly geared to the Apple user, the “creative.” The applications highlighted are for audio and video production. No engineering or design app is shown, nor do we expect to see them. Apple has been known to show design applications on rare occasion. Apple touted Archicad for its Lisa computer, the predecessor of the Macintosh, at CEBIT 1984 in Hannover, Germany. Apple had helped get computers to Graphisoft, makers of Archicad, even though Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain, according to Graphisoft CEO Huw Roberts (Graphisoft has a statue of Steve Jobs at its Budapest headquarters). Then a long dry spell for design applications. Apple showed Shapr3D, the pen-based CAD program, briefly in 2020, the year Apple awarded Shapr3D for best design.

M1=Mission Possible

Better than Intel? Apple just made making chips look easy. The M1 Pro and the M1 Max systems on a chip (SOCs) are the brains of the latest MacBooks. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

Better than Intel? Apple just made making chips look easy. The M1 Pro and the M1 Max systems on a chip (SOCs) are the brains of the latest MacBooks. (Image courtesy of Apple.)

The M1 chip is an an overnight sensation years in the making. Apple had bought P.A. Semi in 2008 and two years later, produced the A-series chips for iPhones, iPads and the Apple Watch. In 2020, Apple announced the end of 15 years of using Intel chips in MacBooks. The latest chips, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, are made by the Taiwanese foundry, TSMC.

We may be giving too much credit to Apple in making the M1 Pro and the M1 Max. Both designs are based on chip architecture licensed from ARM, as opposed to the Windows-running x86 design by Intel. CEO Tim Cook has long professed a need for Apple to have more control over what goes inside the company’s computers and devices. While the M1 may give Apple more control than Intel allowed, remember the chips are still manufactured under contract (to TSMC) and the design is licensed to Apple by ARM. ARM is currently owned by Tokyo’s Softbank but is fielding a $40 billion acquisition bid by another chip maker, NVIDIA.

Combining CPUs and GPUs on one SOC makes for a shorter path for electrons, resulting in faster speed and less heat dissipation. Less heat is most important for lightweight mobile devices that still need all-day battery life. It is less important for laptops, but at least the MacBook Pro may stay on during a coast-to-coast flight—though it may still melt your chocolates.

Forget the Good Looks—This Stuff Works

We may have dismissed Apple hardware for its looks. Seriously, how could something obviously created as eye candy be counted on for brute performance? But as the event plays on, the products start to sound like they are the result of good engineering, not just good industrial design. We hear about fans that are needed only sometimes due to less heat dissipation and cooling channels that vent out from an aluminum chassis. And then it all makes sense. The shiny case we had dismissed as an eye-catching gimmick was more than that. Aluminum is an excellent heat conductor. Maybe Apple was always about good engineering.

A Plea to IT and Software Vendors

So, dear IT department, let us not dismiss Apple products as too pretty. You should not see the few of us that have crossed into Apple’s camp as outliers. Perhaps they are early adopters, pioneers. Perhaps they have taken the initiative of determining what truly is the most bang for the buck, the best tools for the job. They may feel as if they are helping you, the IT department. Remember, you were once tasked with the same initiative.

As engineers, we are trained and conditioned to judge a product by its merits, not its appearance, or slick marketing. In this case, we ask no less of you, our IT department.

For the engineering design and software vendors, engineers have a similar request.

That few design and engineering applications run natively on Apple macOS is the most widely cited reason for not using Apple computers. Another reason given is that Apple computers are not powerful enough.

But we can see from the latest MacBook Pro that this is no longer the case. It may not have been the case for some time. We were not paying attention. But the fact that power-hungry apps like photo editing and video production were running on MacBooks should have clued us in. It’s hard to believe our large assemblies and meshes could take as much RAM as full-length movies and as much processing as 3D animation.

Just like those “creatives,” we engineers are bound by computing limits. Engineers have to wait an interminable amount of time for the results of FEA and CFD. We hold back on attempting much real-world behavior (plastic deformation, animation, fatigue, transient flow, multi-scale modeling, more…) because we just don’t have the horsepower. The most promising design technology to come down the road in the last 20 years (generative design) goes unused because it just takes too long to fully optimize a shape. We urge software developers of engineering and design applications to consider the MacBook, too.