Thoughts on Intel Macs

I'm getting a lot of email asking me about the new Intel-based Macs. I'm also reading a lot of deeply wrong information about them and Apple's history in general around the web, so I'm posting this to kill two birds with one stone. This post will be long and a bit technical, so brace yourself. If you run into terms you don't understand, consult wikipedia.

For those of you unaware, Apple just announced they are shipping two new Macs based on Intel processors. There's a new iMac and a new portable called the MacBook Pro.

My Thoughts
I'll start with the iMac. Many people, and I am counted in this category, were really surprised to see the iMac be the first machine to move to Intel processors. The iMac G5 recently underwent a revision and represented a pretty compelling configuration. Since it's based on the G5, it's performance was competitive with other machines in its class. Since it's a desktop, the relatively high power consumption and heat dissipation aren't the insurmountable issue they are for portables.

With that said, the move to Intel still offers a very significant benefit: multiple processor cores. My first dual processor Mac was a Umax S900. I'm not a heavy Photoshop user, so in those pre-OS X days that second processor was wasted (unless I was running BeOS). In those days, I regretted the money I spent on a second CPU.

Once we reached the OS X days, the second CPU found in the Power Mac G4 models I used suddenly came alive. Although individual tasks did not get any faster in most cases, the responsiveness of the machine when multitasking was incredible. Even if one processor was saturated with work, the second was free to handle my email, web browsing, or just the OS UI. It made a very busy machine seem like it was not busy at all. Since that time, every Power Mac I've owned has been dual processor. I've also dreamed of the day when my laptop could be a multiple processor machine, but more on that later.

So even though it appears that the single thread performance to the Intel Core Duo is similar to the existing G5 in many cases, you now get two equally capable processor cores in the same package. That means multitasking on the iMac will be a much more satisfying experience. It also means that those tasks that take advantage of multiple processors will see a significant boost in performance. Tasks like encoding video for a DVD or iPod, working with filters in Photoshop and participating in multiway iChat conferences will all benefit.

Also, don't miss that the graphics system is now based on the ATI X1600. Yum.

Now the bad news.

The one area where the G5 and most of AMD's products really hurt Intel's offerings is Front Side Bus technology. Better articles can be found on the subject, but this is a real, measurable issue. How much will it affect day to day use? I don't know yet. Of course, this is less an issue on the MacBook Pro since the G4 has really, really terrible FSB performance.

Also, there's is very little in the way of Universal Binary software at this point. That means most of the software you own (or can buy, for those new to the Mac) will run in emulation. I've used Rosetta first hand with a diverse mix of applications. For most people buying an iMac, this should be a non-issue. Mac OS X 10.4.4 and all it's applications are native now. So are iLife '06 and iWork '06. Other apps you may use, like Microsoft Office for example, will run fine in Rosetta. When I say fine, I'm talking late-model G4 or low-end G5 here. Since I know a lot of people still using G3-based Macs, you're still talking about compelling performance.

For those of you using pro-level apps, including Apple's own, sit tight. They will either run poorly or not at all. You should wait until native versions of your applications are released before you move to any Intel-based Mac. Be aware that we are probably talking about paid upgrades.

Now, onto the MacBook Pro. When comparing it to the recent PowerBook G4, it's very compelling. The G4 in the PowerBook line really held it back. I think even emulated software has a shot at running near or even beyond the speed of G4 PowerBooks. Native software will blow the G4 away.

The built-in iSight camera is awesome. The inclusion of Front Row seems neat. The lack of a dual layer DVD burner is puzzling. I'm not too worried about the lack of FireWire 800.

The bad news is a lot of PowerBook owners use their portables for professional applications. The same ones that may not run on Rosetta at all. If this is true of you, wait until your applications are available as a universal application. Apple also did away with the PC Card slot, so if you use a cell network based modem, you're out of luck (for now).

The Wrong Stuff

  1. The term "PowerBook." I see a lot of people saying Apple dropped the PowerBook brand to distance themselves from the PowerPC. That's probably true, but the term PowerBook predates the PowerPC by years. Every Mac OS based portable Apple has ever released, aside from the Macintosh Portable, has been a PowerBook. It was a great name and I'll miss it. MacBook Pro makes a lot of sense, but seems a little dry. My guess is the iBook will be called MacBook or MacBook Express when it migrates, although that does make it lose sync with the iMac name.
  2. Apple's performance claims. I read a lot of complaining about Apple now claiming Intel chips are faster than the PowerPC after years of saying the opposite. Although Apple is certainly guilty of finding and then emphasizing the most extreme cases in such performance claims, this is not a total snow job. When the PowerPC came on the scene, it really was a better architecture with more legs. It offered higher clock rates and great performance-per-clock. It was relatively free of legacy ISA to hold it back when compared to x86. Over the years, the performance crown passed back and forth between the PowerPC and the x86 family. These days, the future is clear. The PowerPC is moving towards goals other than mainstream computing. Intel is very much focused on the mainstream desktop computing market. They make a logical partner for Apple as a result. Apple will switch horses in each product family when it makes sense to do so based on overall performance and power consumption. With all that said, Apple-like all companies-will never clearly communicate and downsides to its products in it's marketing. When you combine this with Apple's desire to simplify everything as much as possible, you can end up with some pretty outrageous claims. They may be true in some cases, but certainly not in all.
  3. Apple's not innovative. So many people seem to wish that the rumor sites ran Apple Engineering. There's a lot of disappointment that Apple didn't introduce a Mac with enhanced media functionality, like DVR. There's disappointment that the iMac Core Duo and the MacBook Pro are so similar to their predecessors. Apple is really trying to make this transition happen quickly. I imagine most engineering resources are focused on getting Intel Macs out quickly, not on radical redesigns of the product families. This also reinforces a core message that much of the user-base needs to be reassured about: an Intel Mac is still a Mac.
  4. Intel Macs should be cheaper. I'm all for cheaper Macs, but notice that Apple is using the very latest technology from Intel. PC vendors make cheap PCs by using older, cheaper technology. Apple may eventually go down that road with the Mac mini or a future product, but that would be a poor choice for the launch of a new era with the Mac. As usual, the price on the iMac and MacBook Pro are competitive with PCs with the same feature set.
If I missed something or you have additional questions, just drop them in the comments.