• The Macworld Expo Report #4: The Rest of the Story

    January 14th, 2006

    As I prepared myself for the possibilities of Apple’s new products, I rated the odds of seeing a demonstration of Apple’s next OS, Leopard, a 50/50 rating. Now maybe Jobs didn’t want to muddy the waters with too much material, or wasn’t far enough along to demonstrate anything. I suppose there’s more than enough time to take the wraps off the new system and maybe even have it available at the same time as Windows Vista. That’s a story for another time, though.

    I did have a little time to work on the MacBook Pro, and it was an impressive encounter. Safari and other native or Universal applications seemed as snappy as on a dual-processor Power Mac G5 and that’s quite an accomplishment. Head-on, I didn’t notice the slightly slimmer form factor, for otherwise it seemed close enough to the standard 15-inch PowerBook that it would be hard to tell them apart for the most part, until you notice the presence of the tiny circle signifying the presence of the iSight camera above the display, and the remote control sensor at the front of the unit.

    The operating system itself, like Microsoft products, has a four digit build number. Apple confirmed that the Intel version of Mac OS 10.4.4 is a separate distribution. That means the DVD that comes with the new computers will not boot a PowerPC Mac, nor can you obviously install it on the wrong platform. Apple spokespeople would not say if a single Universal installer is in the offing. It would, of course, require merging the two systems. I can see where the situation might, or now, becoming muddled in a company that wants to build a single disk image for all the Macs on site. But maybe that’ll be remedied in Leopard or a future Tiger update. In any case, just getting things to work months earlier than promised was no mean achievement, and this shortcoming is not too serious. And, oh yes, you can’t run Classic on the MacIntel variant of the iMac and the MacBook Pro. The Rosetta translation technology won’t support it, and it’s an open question whether third parties will attempt to fill the gap, or even if it’s possible.

    Since the MacBook Pro, as the name implies, is a professional laptop, some might regret the absence of a FireWire 800 connection. Although FireWire 800 devices are available, many include ports for either FireWire 400, the original protocol, or USB 2.0. In most cases, FireWire 800 hard drives are not noticeably faster than their regular FireWire counterparts. It’s also possible that this shortcoming can be remedied by an Express Card peripheral for the new computer, which is what Apple is suggesting for those who need it.

    Also gone is the PC Card slot, which Express Card replaces. If you have already spent money for peripherals that support the older standard, I suppose you could always hope for some sort of adapter. In addition, in keeping with the trend that began on desktops, there’s no internal modem. So if you want to get online in a hotel without a broadband connection, prepare to pay an extra $49 for the Apple USB Modem. Ah, another appendage for your laptop. Can you feel the love?

    I still, by the way, hope for a 17-inch version of the MacBook Pro before long. Clearly Apple is close-mouthed on the question, but since the 15.4-inch model hits the mainstream for this product line, they focused on getting this one out first. The other models should follow.

    The other remaining issue is whether you can dual-boot into Windows XP on a MacIntel. One published report, not yet confirmed, says you can’t for various hardware-related reasons, although I suppose a future Windows update could address that. Whether Mac OS X for Intel can be cracked to run on a vanilla PC is another question. It’s been done with the betas, but no we have the final hardware platform, so time will tell. At the very least, the beginning of the processor transition seems hugely successful in the most important respect. The new computers are undeniably Macs. You will simply think of them as fast computers with the usual Apple bells and whistles.

    You can also expect a rash of Universal software updates, free at least for the early versions. But you’ll still have to pay for upgrading the big productivity suites, such as Adobe CS and Microsoft Office. However, Quark Inc, smarting no doubt because it’s had trouble keeping up with the steady stream of updates for its main rival, Adobe InDesign, got a leg up in this arena. There’s now a pubic beta of QuarkXPress 7 that will install an Intel version on the new Macs.

    As to the Expo itself, I think Apple will get the top honors in most respects. There are more exhibitors, crowds are heavy, but I didn’t notice any killer apps, and hardware seemed to be mostly updates or extensions of existing concepts. But with hundreds of booths to see, I hope to be amazed. Right now, of course, developers are working overtime to get their products in sync with the Universal binary. The job is easy for some, but has caused sleepless nights for others. And once the new versions are available, developers are going to have to confront the possibilities of Leopard and what changes it might bring.

    I’ll have a wrap of my Expo wanderings in my next column.

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