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The Apple/Intel Report: A Brief Look at the Performance Equation

Despite the misleading spin about what Steve Jobs really said to explain Apple’s move to Intel chips, let’s take him at his word, which is more than sufficient to raise some fascinating possibilities. We’re talking about lower power chips with greater performance than what IBM could offer, and that includes those new dual-core chips.

But what will that mean in the real world? Well, you can glean a few clues from unofficial reports from Mac developers who have paid $999 to lease the Developer Transition Kit, which includes a Power Mac with a Pentium 4. Even though the statements aren’t officially confirmed, we hear about a more responsive Mac OS X user interface. Of course, now that cat is out of the bag about Apple’s stealth project of developing an Intel version simultaneously with the PowerPC version, you have to wonder. Why would it seem snappier under an Intel chip that the PowerPC supposedly “smokes” it various and sundry application benchmarks?

Of course, the user interface isn’t included in those benchmarks, but why would Mac OS X seem so well optimized for that other computing platform? One very logical answer comes from columnist Rob Enderle, writing in TechNewsWorld, who speculates on the what we might expect from Apple in 2006:

“Desktop hardware will be visibly changed as well as Intel favors BTX designs for cooling and noise containment. What’s new in this area is small form factor, high performance products. When I say high performance, I’m not just blowing smoke, as the labs I’m in contact with are reporting performance improvements that even I find hard to believe.

“Speculation is that since the UNIX kernel the Mac OS starts with is optimized for Intel before being ported to the Power platform, the result, up until now, has been a significant performance setback. Going back to Intel removed this inefficiency, which the applications have had to make up. The result, we understand, is like suddenly finding your emergency brakes were stuck on. Now Intel test systems are acting like they have permanent after-burners.”

Now I’m not about to comment on his speculation about form factors and pricing. Trying to anticipate Apple’s moves even a month ahead is difficult. Steve Jobs and his crew are notorious for telling us that they do not intend to build a specific product, and then do just that a few weeks or months later. I don’t need to remind you about the Mac mini, the $500 Mac, the iPod with video, Flash-based iPods, and all the rest.

However, Enderle makes a lot of sense when he talks of native Mac OS X performance. You might think that Apple would have to optimize performance for Intel processors, but the fact is that the reverse has been true. Mac OS X’s kernel was already built for Intel and had to be optimized for PowerPC, and it still carries a lot of baggage. Even though Tiger is better than previous versions of Mac OS X in this regard, run it on a Blue & White Power Mac G3, with standard issue processor, hard drive and graphics card, with nothing added but a huge memory upgrade. Consider how “the world’s most advanced operating system” just about keeps up with Mac OS 9 in a user interface comparison and you’ll understand what I mean.

Now take a look at Windows XP, even on an basic box from Dell or Gateway. Sure, the integrated graphics chip will deliver simply awful performance on your favorite PC games, but the user interface seems to just fly. This accounts for a large part of the perception that the typical PC is faster than the Mac, even if you can demonstrate otherwise with key graphic applications.

Consider how Microsoft’s applications behave on the Mac. Sure Word and Excel seem responsive enough, but Entourage can be absolutely glacial in some functions, such as deleting a bunch of old messages. Does that mean it’s secretly optimized for Intel or just coping with the bottlenecks of an operating system that, itself, was originally designed for x86?

I have been very optimistic about Apple’s switch to Intel from the very beginning. It’s not just the advantage of higher performance from iBooks and PowerBooks, but the benefits of even greater battery life. It’s not just being able to lug a Power Mac around without suffering a back ache. It’s the performance factor. The operating system will look the same, but imagine it running at warp drive. Thank you, Mr. Enderle, for raising a very sensible issue that we have overlooked for far too long.