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  • The Mac Hardware Report: Are You Seeking the End of the Rainbow?

    December 24th, 2005

    It’s fair to say that living on the cutting edge can change one’s perception of reality to a certain degree. If you cover the tech world as I do, you may even get a chance to play with some of the great “toys” that are released on a regular basis. You start to look at products with an eye to exploring the newest and best in the industry. Anything less is unacceptable.

    Of course, being able to examine such devices from time to time doesn’t mean you can keep them. For the most part, tech writers have to return such gear after a few weeks, to make room for more products. Everything you write, though, is viewed from the standpoint of whether something advances the state of the art or, at the very least, is a better value than the competition.

    But that separates people like me from the average consumer. When you want a new computer, choosing a brand new model may not enter into the picture, and the forthcoming arrival of Macs with Intel processors may not be exactly life-altering experiences. Whether the part bears the name Freescale, IBM or Intel makes no difference. It’s a non-issue as long as the end result is a computer that meets your expectations. Even if you are familiar with the impending transition, you’d probably look at me sideways if I asked you to identify the chips Apple uses, for example, in its AirPort systems. Does it really make any difference?

    Take this holiday season. If you wanted a new Mac, did you consider for a moment that better models will be out next year, perhaps as early as just a few weeks from now? Are you part of a larger group that decided to postpone buying plans to see how the dust settles? When Apple made the first official announcement about moving to Intel Inside in June, some tech pundits predicted that sales of new Macs would be gutted. People like you would sit on the sidelines, waiting for the promised greatness of a new processor family. Even Apple was taken in by the oft-repeated fears, and kept its financial guidance conservative.

    In retrospect, it didn’t really happen. Or at least wasn’t a significant hindrance to stellar sales figures. As a practical matter, it is safe to predict with an excellent degree of certainty that all Macs will be replaced by newer, faster and sometimes cheaper models within six months or a year. You can say that year in and year out even if Intel was never a factor.

    It is, in the end, just a chip, right? If your new Mac works properly, it makes no difference, or shouldn’t. Of course, the switch to Intel is different, because of the emotional baggage of the infamous Wintel connection. For years, you were told that Microsoft and Intel were in bed together in a vast conspiracy to dominate the world and build mediocre products.

    If Intel is mediocre, why was Steve Jobs touting the advantages of the Apple’s new partnership with that company?

    Let’s assume that the Rosetta PowerPC emulation scheme works transparently, that the Intel version of Mac OS X and the new computers work well. Yes, it’s fair to be concerned that the early production versions will have irritating defects, but maybe things will be all right.

    In 2006, you will be able to safely ignore the whole thing, unless you’re a programmer, of course. Apple apparently doesn’t want developers of Mac software to enjoy time off for good behavior. While you and I might be taking a weekend off to escape the grind, many of those developers will be working late into the night to alter the products to support two very different processor families. To some, it’ll be a piece of cake. Check a box, tweak a few things, and build the application. It’ll just work. For others, they will be required to labor for weeks and months to reinvent the wheel.

    None of this will mean a thing to you, unless you have to pay those developers an upgrade fee to get the new version. Then you have to add that to the price of buying a new computer with all those changes inside.

    But you know, it won’t make a difference to most Mac users. I realize you are well connected because you’re reading, or at least tolerating, my daily commentaries. But the majority of folks who use Apple products don’t really care about the niceties of x86 chips, Mac OS X for Intel and all the rest. Whether or not a new model is 5% faster in rendering some obscure Photoshop function doesn’t carry much weight. If you need a new computer, it’s for the practical reason that you are no longer satisfied with the one you have. It could be sheer performance, but maybe it’s just the inability to run the very latest software, or just because you’ve grown tired of the thing.

    Besides, the state-of-the-art hardware that Apple will release in 2006 will be eventually supplanted by the achievements of 2007. Today’s fastest Mac, the G5 with two dual-core processors was obsolete in the test laboratory long before it was released, and the same can be said for every single computer ever to emerge from Apple’s design studios.

    You want the latest and greatest? Maybe. Do you need it? Not likely, unless you have the money and the desire to seek the end of the rainbow. But that’s not my bag.

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