• The Apple/Intel Report: Should You Buy a Macintel 1.0?

    June 25th, 2005

    Despite the fact that I don’t consider it a very logical move, I realize some folks have decided to put off buying a new Mac until they contain Intel processors. Yes, I understand that you want the latest and greatest, and I expect Apple is going to do something to help you change your mind, such as cut prices of existing models. But that won’t completely stop the fence-sitters.

    But I have another point of view that may make you think twice about whether waiting is a good idea. No, it’s not because that decision might affect Apple’s bottom line. I am sure that’s something Apple has also accounted for, even if it has to suffer a few quarters of lower sales, or at least lower than expected.

    My argument, instead, is to look at the lessons of history, the version 1.0 syndrome. Do you remember the very first Macs with PowerPC processors? Did they operate perfectly and did they leverage the power of the new chip? Well, they did run all right for the most part, but not as fast as you might have hoped, largely because it took time for developers to build native software. Emulation basically made a PowerPC Mac run no faster than one with a 68030 processor, a model two generations behind. And that itself is something that should give you pause.

    Yes, the early chatter is that developers aren’t going to have to work all that hard to recompile their software to run as Universal Binaries. But that’s only the applications built in Apple’s Xcode programming environment. If developers used CodeWarrior, as many have, the application’s source code has to be brought into Xcode, which may involve days, weeks or months of extra work.

    The other factor is the PowerPC emulation scheme that will be used on the Intel-based Macs. Rosetta will basically emulate a G3, meaning that the AltiVec performance enhancements offered by the G4 and G5 won’t be supported. Now don’t take the fact that Photoshop seemed to take forever to launch during that WWDC keynote, when run on a test Mac with an Intel processor. I expect that Rosetta will be optimized, and that the chips Apple will use are apt to be a lot faster than today’s Pentium 4. That may be sufficient to pick up some of the slack and allow emulated software to run at a pretty speedy clip. But such things as printer drivers won’t operate in that mode. You’ll have to wait for driver updates to get those devices to work on the Macintel, or whatever it’s going to be called. Maybe the peripheral makers will get the work done in time, but what about older products? Will you have to cast them aside?

    Also, do you really expect software publishers to just give away the Universal Binary updates? Some will, of course. But it’s quite likely that new versions will just be rolled into a regular feature upgrade, which means you’ll have to pay to buy the native product. How much? Well, what did the last upgrade for these applications cost you? Yes, I believe that Adobe, Microsoft and most of the software publishers out there will be ready around the same time the new Macs are available, but it also means you’ll have to consider those upgrade fees when you figure whether you can afford a Macintel. Sure, you will, in most cases, be able to run older versions in emulation, but does it make any sense to buy a computer that won’t perform any faster than your present Mac?

    And what about Classic? The chances that you’ll be able to run your Classic applications on a Macintel are at the low end of zero. If you need these programs, you’re out of luck, unless Apple or a third party finds a way to make it happen, but don’t hold your breath.

    Yes, I’m sure Apple has considered all the ramifications of the processor transition very carefully. I have little doubt that the Intel-compatible versions of Mac OS X will be near as reliable as the PowerPC versions. Applications that can be updated quickly ought to just work as well. But the ones that require extra work may not be quite as stable. There may be early release bugs that will create problems.

    Then there’s the hardware itself. Based on what Intel says, Apple is going to use the same off-the-shelf processors as a regular PC box. But the makeup of the motherboard may be quite different when compared to the competition. First and foremost, Apple will have to incorporate hardware that will restrict Mac OS X to a Mac, and that itself will make the product different from the run-of-the-mill Dell or HP. Although Apple already uses industry standard components on its computers, the cooling scheme for an Intel processor will no doubt be different from the one used for the G5. Early production bugs are apt to rear their ugly heads, and that may also be good reason to wait for version 2.0 before diving in.

    What’s more, I’m quite certain Apple will have to keep some PowerPC Macs in the lineup even after the transition to Intel Inside is officially complete. Just as they had to keep dual booting models available to serve the needs of business and educational customers, you can be sure that you’ll be able to buy a Power Mac even after they are technically discontinued. Even more important, with millions of Macs with PowerPC in service, it will be years before Apple pulls the plug on operating system support. Software publishers will have little reason to stop building Universal Binaries until sales to PowerPC users drop precipitously.

    In short, the Intel transition may indeed usher in a new era of ultra-powerful Mac desktops, and cooler running iBooks and PowerBooks that also sport greater battery life. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy the Mac you need now. For many of you, waiting would be a bad move.

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