• The Mac Hardware Report: Stagnant for 2005?

    December 31st, 2005

    A year ago, there were great hopes and dreams about how Macs would improve this year. Perhaps we’d see the arrival of the long-awaited PowerBook G5, a Power Mac with a 3GHz processor, and lots of other great gear. You even heard speculation about a Video iPod, although you almost had to give up hope as the year progressed. When it did come to pass, it was still an iPod; the video was just an added feature, not the main focus.

    In fact, the end results were something less than you might have expected in some areas, and a stunning development that promised to change your expectations of the direction of Apple Computer forever. No, I’m not going to focus on the sales picture, although it was great to see the Mac’s market share increase after years of decline. Whether due to the iPod halo effect, or growing disenchantment with the ongoing problems with the Windows platform doesn’t matter, so long as the trend continues. And industry analysts expect that it will, although you shouldn’t take such expectations as gospel.

    Of course, you had to feel something was afoot when Apple continued to throw cold water on the prospects for stuffing a G5 in a PowerBook, because of the “mother of thermal challenges.” That the fastest Power Mac had liquid cooling in addition to its multiple set of cooling fans and sophisticated cooling pathways clearly demonstrated the potential problems. Sure, a G5 could be placed within an iMac, but its cooling system was no less an engineering marvel, even though it seemed far less extensive. A laptop?

    Some feared it would never happen, and they were right. Upgrades to Apple’s laptop line were relatively modest in the scheme of things. In fact, the last PowerBook update retained the processors of the previous model. Apple used the sleight-of-hand of more screen pixels to demonstrate an improvement, along with speedier memory to eke out a tiny performance advantage. Enhancements to the iBook were also slight, and the official rating of the Mac mini’s processor was the same at the beginning of the year as at the end, except for the possibility that some shipped with an unadvertised processor upgrade of very modest dimensions. The improvements to the iMac ended its easy serviceability, but you can’t argue with the built-in Web camera, the remote and the slightly lower pricing of the 20-inch version.

    All right, Apple did take advantage of a new generation of G5 chips, with dual cores. So it got the equivalent of four processors, sufficient to provide a compelling speed bump for Power Macs. Content creators must be delighted, although we won’t know the real sales impact for a few more weeks. It’s still not 3GHz, of course, but gigahertz doesn’t officially matter any more even for the x86 processor universe.

    At the same time, this is supposed to be the last PowerPC Mac. The next model, which may or may not appear by the end of 2006, depending on whom you believe, will have one or more Intel processors. Or maybe it’ll happen in 2007, although many expect Apple is working as hard as it can to finish its Intel transition as fast as possible to reduce the possibility of a sales slowdown.

    As the year draws to a close, it’s clear that most of the hopes and dreams about the imminent arrival of speedier Macs were dashed except for the Power Mac. The Intel announcement and the reasons why it was made put a quick damper on the rumors and speculation and created new topics to gossip about.

    The speed rating of the forthcoming MacIntels, to use my personal vernacular for such devices, won’t matter. It’ll be the same as other Intel-based PC’s. Regardless, they’ll be much faster and use less power. Your electric bills will go down, and your workflow will increase, I suppose. Of course that depends on what sort of workflow you’re involved with. If you’re just writing and surfing the Web, the snappier performance will be neat, but at the end of the day, the few dollars you may or may not save on electricity will be your only tangible benefit.

    Of course, you and I may have to come to terms with the fact that Mac OS X was a stealth fighter. The sometimes tepid performance resulted from the fact that it was always meant to run on an Intel processor, not PowerPC. Development of versions for the two architectures has proceeded all along and you will be absolutely amazed at what it can do in the land of x86. It will be like Clark Kent taking off his glasses and his civilian duds to reveal his true identity of Superman.

    Is this a reality you can depend on? Well, the unofficial stories from Mac developers who have worked on Apple’s beta hardware with a generic Intel processor are highly encouraging. As 2006 approaches, fasten your safety belts, and put your seats in the upright position as we prepare to take off.

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