In recent days, you’ve read preliminary reports about the performance of the new MacIntels. It makes sense for the iMac, since it is really shipping and some actually own one. The picture gets somewhat murky with the MacBook Pro, since it isn’t available yet. The only units seen are preproduction units and it’s always possible things will be altered somewhat by the time the actual product reaches your favorite Apple dealer.
There’s also another obstacle. Most of the applications traditionally used for testing haven’t been converted to Universal form, so they will run native on both PowerPC and Intel processors. When you test older apps on a MacIntel, at best you can measure the speed of Apple’s Rosetta emulation technology, not the potential of the new models.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped people from posting tests of one sort or another. In order to get MacBook Pro scores, a few persuaded the Apple people at the Macworld Expo to allow them to have some extended face time with the new laptops to run a few tests. As an academic exercise, I wouldn’t take them too seriously, although it’s nice to know that the Apple people were patient enough to allow those tests to run.
Apple’s own published benchmarks include a set of SPEC that show off a multiprocessor computer to its best advantage, and a handful of application-related tests. Of course, these tests were performed with one of the small number of Universal apps available from Apple, such as the Pages component of iWork ’06 and an apparent prerelease version of Final Cut Pro. We know that Apple chose that ones that most favored its new hardware, but, from past experience with such test procedures, I’m certain the results are being reported accurately.
Is it fair to come to any conclusions just yet? Well, the scarcity of Universal applications handicaps the MacIntels big time. But with native software, they shine. In addition, perceptions of user interface performance appear to be quite positive. While such things are highly subjective for the most part, it does seem that, when they’re in their element, a MacIntel seems to run Mac OS X faster than a PowerPC. Finder windows open and resize more rapidly and Universal applications seem to launch with fewer bounces in the Dock. This appears to confirm the news emerging from the developer community from their prerelease MacIntel boxes.
At the same time, in some respects, it’s 1994 all over again. That year, the first PowerPC Macs appeared. There were few native applications and, in fact, even the operating system was mostly emulated. Legacy applications ran much more slowly, and, as now, only a small number coded for the new processor architecture were available. As the operating system became more efficient, and faster processors became available, even emulation exceeded the performance of the older Mac hardware. But it took a year or two for things to settle down.
I don’t expect things to progress near as slowly this time. Apple has had five years to optimize Mac OS X for Intel in its test labs, and developers had enough advance warning to start their work in earnest. That the new computers came out months ahead of schedule, or at least Apple’s official schedule, is no doubt going to push developers to work that much harder to get their products ready. In fact, there are new Universal updates every day, still a trickle but it’s going to become an avalanche before long. Sure, it will take a while for sprawling productivity applications from Adobe, Microsoft and others to get in line, but it’ll give other companies a chance to get the upper hand. Take Quark Inc., for example, which has suffered because of the late arrival of QuarkXPress to Mac OS X, and the perceived loss of customers to Adobe InDesign.
Later this month, a public beta of a Universal version of QuarkXPress 7.0 will be out; at present you can get the betas in PowerPC and Windows versions. The final product is slated for release in the second quarter, according to what Quark representatives are promising, and, based on the condition of the beta, it appears they are being very realistic.
If you take home a new iMac today, and stick with Apple’s own software, or the small number of Universal apps hitting the marketplace, you’ll enjoy a definite performance advantage. If it’s a mixed bag, many functions will appear to run slower compared to most any Mac released in the last year or two. This is the price of being on the cutting edge. However, as your applications are updated, and both Apple and its developers learn to better optimize their products for Intel’s new processor lines, your computer will only get faster.
Here, at the beginning of the transition to MacIntel, this is one of the few opportunities to see such a phenomenon at work.
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