It’s been a long while since Mac users had reason to get excited over a new chip. It’s not that Intel isn’t packing heat—just yesterday the first round of Coffee Lake laptop chips were unveiled with six cores and the promise of 5GHz speeds—but ever since Apple transitioned to x86 processors, cores and clock speeds don’t mean quite as much to the Mac as they once did.

Back when Macs ran on RISC processors, speed was the only thing that mattered. While the rest of the PC market had Intel inside, Apple’s computers had giant chips on their proverbial shoulders, as the Mac sought to convince Windows users that they were faster and more power efficient than their Pentium counterparts. Steve Jobs famously held bake-offs on stage to drive home that very point, and Mac users eagerly awaited each new update to see how much higher the bar would be raised.

PUBG on a MacBook ProLeif Johnson/IDG

A custom chip could make future generatinos of MacBooks exciting again.

That’s not really the case anymore. By the time the latest Intel chips reach the top-of-the-line MacBook Pros, most of the excitement is gone and people are already looking ahead to the next generation of chips. Last year’s MacBook Pro refresh brought the latest Kaby Lake processors to Apple’s notebooks, but they didn’t deliver much in the way of speed or graphics improvements. And no one would be surprised if the MacBook didn’t see the new Core i9s until sometime in 2019.

But all is not lost. A Bloomberg report earlier this week offered the strongest evidence yet that Apple is indeed working on its own desktop and notebook processors, which could hit the first Macs by 2020. And it could be just the shot in the arm Apple needs to give its computers their proper place at the top of the food chain.

Bringing up the rear

It’s understandable if Mac users were a little jealous reading all the Intel news on Tuesday. Not only did the first laptops land with new Core i7 high-performance mobile H-series chips, but Intel also teased the next-generation of Core i9 chips that pack enough power to play desktop-caliber games on a laptop.

intel core i9 logosIntel

The latest Intel processors probably won’t appear in a Mac for a while.

But it’s this quote from Fredrik Hamberger, general manager of Intel’s premium and gaming notebooks, that hurt Mac fans the most: “We spend a ton of time working with our OEM partners optimizing power performance, you name it, tweaking thermals to get more performance.”

In a different time, one of those OEM partners would have been Apple. Back when the Intel transition was in full swing, visions of optimized Intel chips danced in our heads, but in reality, we only got modest, mostly off-the-shelf upgrades. In some cases the early Intel counterparts lagged previous generation G4 and G5 chips, and the only thing the Intel transition really succeeded in was making Macs upgrades predictable and bland.

The Intel-Apple partnership never really materialized, and over the past 10 years, Macs have mainly been as good as their PC counterparts, not better in any meaningful way. That’s why Apple is looking elsewhere for the future of the Mac, and after its success with the iPhone, it’s no surprise that a Mac chip is in development.

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