The Apple/Intel Report: A Clue to What Apple is Waiting For?

August 6th, 2005

The predictions so far as to what chips will find their way into the first Macs with Intel Inside have been based on what’s known about current and future products. But that information appears poised for a huge change, and it’s a change that may provide a significant clue as to one of the main reasons Apple is making the switch.

According to published reports, Intel is unveiling its “next generation” chip architecture” later this month at a San Francisco-based meeting involving technology developers. The new chips are reportedly based on the Pentium M, Intel’s note-book processor, which has been highly praised for its ability to deliver good performance, yet run cool and provide great battery life. The key here is power efficiency, and that’s a point emphasized by Steve Jobs at his June keynote address when explaining why Apple is casting its lot with Intel.

It’s important to note that the new chip design is expected to make its debut in the second half of 2006, which just happens to be around the time the first Macintels are due to appear. The new chips, by the way, will also have multiple cores, meaning they will have more than one processing engine. Imagine a PowerBook with a dual-core Pentium that not only runs much faster than today’s G4-based versions, yet delivers battery life of six hours or more?

In making the move, Intel is clearly abandoning its Netburst architecture, used on the Pentium 4, which was based on getting faster performance simply by increasing processor frequency. Today’s fastest Pentium 4 tops out at 3.8GHz and, along the way, Intel confronted bottlenecks in the chip’s design. The higher clock speeds failed to deliver the expected performance boosts and consumed more power and ran hotter.

Despite IBM’s recent promise of a forthcoming low-power version of the PowerPC 970, the chip known as the G5 on Power Macs, the 970 has been a difficult beast to tame. The top-of-the-line dual 2.7GHz Power Mac has a sophisticated cooling scheme that employs liquid cooling. I’m not about to address concerns over the longevity of the cooling system. Just the fact it’s needed is an indictment against the efficiency of the chip. You’ll also note that the report about a dual-core version limits speed claims to just 2.5GHz, which puts Apple even farther away from delivering on its original promise of 3GHz.

Despite the latest news from Intel, you can expect that the skeptics who don’t believe anything Steve Jobs says will find reason to search for still more conspiracy theories. Besides, it makes for good copy and keeps an issue alive that would otherwise vanish off the map. After all, it’s summer. There are no new Macs to talk about, the Mighty Mouse will soon be yesterday’s news, so might as well rely on a little sensationalism to keep the hit counts high, right?

Rather than speculate any further about the new chips, I’ll just sit back and wait for Intel’s upcoming meeting, and see just how they flesh out the design and possible future chip configurations. Then you and I will be able to engage in some meaningful discussion as to just how the first Macintels may be configured.

But I will continue to stick with the conventional wisdom that the first of those Macintels will be PowerBooks and iBooks. Right now, Apple’s laptop designs are stalled. Yes, perhaps there will be a new model or two with a faster G4, but I wouldn’t expect the changes to be drastic. One hopes it’ll be enough to goose sales for the fall, in time for the holiday shopping season.

My fastest PowerBook is a 1.5GHz version. It still performs quite credibly, and I see no compelling reason to dump it for a minor speed bump or two. But if you don’t have an Apple laptop or the one you have is getting long in the tooth, I wouldn’t suggest you wait for the first Macintel. Yes, it may smoke today’s PowerBook in terms of performance and battery life. At the same time, the first version of anything tends to be buggy, and if you don’t want to be on the cutting edge, it may be a better idea to buy something from Apple’s existing product line, or whatever it’ll produce over the next few months.

Apple’s 2005 laptop line is true and true, based on tested designs. The most significant production bugs are pretty much history by now, and if you need a solid laptop for mission critical work, an iBook or PowerBook would be a terrific choice.

As for myself, I’ll stick with my PowerBook and await with interest what the Macintel generation will bring.

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