The Apple Silicon That Never Was

Over Apple’s decades-long history, they have been quick to adapt to new processor technology when they see an opportunity. Their switch from PowerPC to Intel in the early 2000s made Apple machines more accessible to the wider PC world who was already accustomed to using x86 processors, and a decade earlier they moved from Motorola 68000 processors to take advantage of the scalability, power-per-watt, and performance of the PowerPC platform. They’ve recently made the switch to their own in-house silicon, but, as reported by [The Chip Letter], this wasn’t the first time they attempted to design their own chips from the ground up rather than using chips from other companies like Motorola or Intel.

In the mid 1980s, Apple was already looking to move away from the Motorola 68000 for performance reasons, and part of the reason it took so long to make the switch is that in the intervening years they launched Project Aquarius to attempt to design their own silicon. As the article linked above explains, they needed a large amount of computing power to get this done and purchased a Cray X-MP/48 supercomputer to help, as well as assigning a large number of engineers and designers to see the project through to the finish. A critical error was made, though, when they decided to build their design around a stack architecture rather than a RISC. Eventually they switched to a RISC design, though, but the project still had struggled to ever get a prototype working. Eventually the entire project was scrapped and the company eventually moved on to PowerPC, but not without a tremendous loss of time and money.

Interestingly enough, another team were designing their own architecture at about the same time and ended up creating what would eventually become the modern day ARM architecture, which Apple was involved with and currently licenses to build their M1 and M2 chips as well as their mobile processors. It was only by accident that Apple didn’t decide on a RISC design in time for their personal computers. The computing world might look a lot different today if Apple hadn’t languished in the early 00s as the ultimate result of their failure to develop a competitive system in the mid 80s. Apple’s distance from PowerPC now doesn’t mean that architecture has been completely abandoned, though.

Thanks to [Stephen] for the tip!

An M1 Mac mini sits next to a white Wii on a wooden table. In the background are various Edison-style LED light fixtures with an incadescent-like light profile.

This Wii Has An Apple M1 Inside

The conveniently tiny logic board of the M1 Mac mini has lead to it giving the Mini ITX format a run for its money in case mods. The latest example of this is [Luke Miani]’s M1 Wii. (Youtube via 9to5Mac)

[Miani] chose the Wii as a new enclosure for this Mac mini given its similar form factor and the convenient set of doors in the top to maintain access to the computer’s I/O, something he wasn’t able to do with one of his previous M1 casemods. The completed build is a great stealth way to have a Mac mini in your entertainment center. [Miani] even spends the last several minutes of the video showing the M1 Wii running Wii, GameCube, and PS2 games to really bring it full circle.

A Microsoft Surface power brick was spliced into the original Wii power cable since the Wii PSU didn’t have enough wattage to supply the Mac mini without significant throttling. On the inside, the power runs through a buck converter before making its way to the logic board. While the Mini’s original fan was too big to fit inside the Wii enclosure, a small 12V fan was able to keep performance similar to OEM and much higher than running the M1 fanless without a heat spreader.

If you’d like to see some more M1 casemods, check out this Lampshade iMac or the Mac Mini Mini.

Continue reading “This Wii Has An Apple M1 Inside”

Porting Firefox To Apple Silicon: Tales From The Trenches

For any smaller and larger software product that aims to be compatible with Apple’s MacOS, the recent introduction of its ARM-based Apple Silicon processors and MacBooks to go with them came as a bit of a shock. Suddenly one of the major desktop platforms was going to shift processor architectures, and with it likely abandon and change a number of APIs. Over at Mozilla HQ, they assumed that based on past experiences, Apple’s announcement of ‘first Apple Silicon hardware’ would also mean that those systems would be available for sale.

Indeed, one week after the November 10th announcement Apple did in fact do so. By then, Mozilla had worked to ensure that the Firefox codebase could be built for Apple Silicon-based MacOS. Fortunately, through the experiences of running Firefox on Windows-on-ARM, they already had gained a codebase that was compatible with 64-bit ARM. Ultimately, the biggest snag here was the immature Rust language and dependency support for Apple Silicon, which set back the first release.

When it came to the distributing of Firefox on Intel- and ARM-based Macs, the decision was made to package both versions of the application into a so-called Universal Binary. While this pads out the size of the installer, it also means easier distribution and would not affect the built-in updater in Firefox. This also allowed for an easy fix for the Google Widevine DRM module, for which no Apple Silicon version was available at first, allowing the same module for Intel to be used with either Firefox version via the Rosetta 2 binary translator in MacOS (as we covered previously).

After this it was more or less smooth sailing, with some Rosetta 2-based glitches and MacOS Big Sur-related bugs that spoiled some of the fun. What this experience shows is that porting even a big codebase like Firefox to Apple’s new platform is fairly straightforward, with lack of support from toolchains and other dependencies the most likely things that may trip one up.

The Rosetta 2 feature, while helpful, also comes with its share of gotchas as the Firefox developers found out, and of course there is a lot more optimization that can (and should) be done for such a new platform.