Apple likes to be the magician that whips the tablecloth off the table while
leaving dishes, a vase with a rose, and silverware in place. They've exchanged
major portions of the hardware and operating system architecture multiple times
with pain at each transition.
This time, Apple is swapping processors, leaving its long-time partners
Motorola-cum-Freescale and IBM behind with the jointly developed PowerPC chips
that have powered Macs for a decade.
Months ago, Apple declared it would move to Intel’s latest number crunchers, and
at Macworld Expo in early January, the company announced it had its first models
ready to go.
The iMac is the first off the block, shipping now. A new laptop line, called the
MacBook Pro, will appear in February. Both computers use the Intel Core Duo,
which is a single
chip that contains two processors known as cores. The chip uses significantly
less energy than the PowerPC chips they replace. Apple claims raw calculation
improvements of 2- to 3-fold for the iMac and 4- to 5-fold for the MacBook Pro.
Because IBM was unable to deliver its most advanced G5 chips in a form that
wouldn’t produce far too much heat in laptops, Apple was compelled to migrate to
new chips. It made little sense for the company to support multiple system
architectures, and thus the move to Intel was inevitable.
It’s easy for Apple to top its previous PowerBook performance because they were
using last generation PowerPC chips. But it’s a little harder on the iMac side,
where G5s were already delivering a boost.
The iMac looks exactly like its PowerPC-based predecessor. The specs are
slightly different, but the functions are not. This iMac comes in 17-inch and
20-inch varieties; I tested the 20-inch model. It supports a second display
using DVI or VGA for extended video, which is a new feature for the product
line. It omits a modem -- a separate $49 part -- but includes Bluetooth 2.0+EDR,
Wi-Fi, and 10/10/1000 Mbps Ethernet. It also has FireWire (IEEE 1394) at 400
Mbps and USB 2.0 support.
The iMac comes bundled with the iLife ’06 suite of digital media applications,
Apple's Safari browser and Mail program, and a host of other utility software.
Apple said all this software is now built as universal applications that run
native on both PowerPC and Intel chips by containing the programming code for
both. The operating system is native based on the platform it's installed on.
The key measure of this new system is not whether it performs enormously faster
than its predecessor that used a PowerPC, but rather whether it works well.
Without carrying out the benchmarks that magazine testing laboratories are known
for -- and which are starting to appear -- it’s still clear from the moment the
system is booted and programs are launched that this iMac is zippier.
Because most programs written for Mac OS X aren’t yet revised to run natively
using Intel code, Apple included a seamless emulation system called Rosetta that
interprets PowerPC code and converts it on the fly to Intel instructions. Apple
has said that Rosetta works flawlessly for the vast majority of software, and in
my testing of a few dozen popular third-party Macintosh programs, I was unable
to cause a crash or significant performance problems in normal operation.
The most obvious of these packages is Office 2004 for Mac, the latest version of
the venerable productivity suite. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage work
fine via Rosetta, and Microsoft has promised minor updates by March that would
take care of any minor compatibility or performance issues. They have committed
to a fully native version of Office for Mac, but no delivery date has been set.
Adobe programs such as Photoshop also work through Rosetta, although much slower
than on a native system. It’s usable, but doesn’t have the zip of Apple’s iLife
packages. Early benchmarks published by a variety of sources online put the
speed of many programs run via Rosetta at 50 percent of their PowerPC
performance, while programs that are universal run at par or up to 50 percent
However, that’s when either non-native or universal programs are performing
computationally intensive tasks, like resizing an image or repaginating long
documents. For routine interactive use, the speed hit or improvement isn’t
There is a category of software that won’t run at all via Rosetta: programs that
depend on advanced graphics and processor features found in the PowerPC G4 and
G5 chip, primarily the Altivec system that accelerates certain kind of
calculations often used in image, video, and audio processing. Apple told me in
a briefing at Macworld Expo that Final Cut Pro, for example, will simply not
operate on an Intel-bearing machine. Apple’s pro applications are due out in
universal versions in March.
The first Intel iMac is a success in that it can barely be distinguished from
its predecessor. Future models will be judged more harshly on performance, but
there’s a lot of room to grow with Intel Core Duo roadmap.