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  • The Mac Hardware Report: Are You Ready to Buy a MacIntel?

    February 4th, 2006

    Consider this: Your old computer, Mac or Windows, has seen better days, and you have decided you need something new. A trip to the Apple Store or that controversial ad announcing the presence of Intel chips on Macs has tempted you, so you start to read the reviews and see whether to consider a new iMac, or place an order for the forthcoming MacBook Pro.

    But some of those reviews give you reason to pause, because performance is a mixed bag. If you depend solely or mostly on Apple’s own applications, the news is encouraging. Although the tech press can’t confirm all of the claims for stellar performance improvements over previous models, it’s certainly good enough for you. But you worry over reports that the technology to allow those PowerPC applications to run, Rosetta, can cut the speed in half or even worse.

    Is this something bad?

    This all depends on what you use for comparison. Just about all the published reviews of the Intel-based iMac compare it to the previous model and perhaps a few other models in Apple’s current lineup. This makes sense when you just want to determine where it fits in the scheme of things. But do those tests really apply to your needs?

    Well, if you are the type who must always buy the latest and greatest, and you buy a new Mac every year or even more often, I can see where comparisons with current hardware make sense. But I bet you are a rare person among the general Mac user base. Most of you trade up far less frequently. Even your newest Mac may be several years old, and a similar situation will apply for vintage PC hardware. Compared to anything in Apple’s current line, what you have now will seem incredibly slow, even if it was the fastest personal computer on the planet when you bought it.

    It wouldn’t matter if the iMac isn’t really two or three times faster than the model it replaces in the real world, and that the MacBook Pro doesn’t offer a speed boost of four to five times. Even 25% or 50% may mean an improvement of many times over what you are experiencing now. Rosetta? Well, as I’ve said in a previous column, you can maximize its performance in some cases by adding more memory. But don’t be put off by reports that PowerPC emulation is a dog.

    As I said, the comparisons you have read are conducted against current or recent products, not against a computer that’s more than a year old. You may actually find that performance, even in emulation, is several times faster than what you’re experiencing now. And remember that even this slowdown may be a temporary phenomenon. A year from now, all or most of the powerful productivity applications you may depend on will have been updated as Universal binaries, so they run native in the MacIntel environment. So your new computer will only get faster.

    So far, everything is coming up roses. Upgrade from an old computer, and the Mac with an Intel processor will be a lot faster in every respect. Subjectively, it may even seem snappier than the reviews indicate, because Mac OS X seems to sing on Intel, based on my brief tests and some of the reports I’ve examined. Remember that Apple has been building its operating system for Intel on the side for several years, and it has had plenty of time to optimize the code for the best possible performance.

    What about Photoshop? Microsoft Office? Well, say you have an older PowerBook or iBook or even a Power Mac G4. Now you get a chance to work on an iMac, or you find a preproduction MacBook Pro somewhere. Launch Office and work on a couple of documents and you’ll probably find it runs a lot faster. Photoshop may take a little time to get going, but it’s always had a slow startup process. When you begin to run a few rendering filters, you will not be disappointed. Even in emulation, it’ll get the job done faster than on your old computer, and just wait till the Universal version comes out!

    I have a small amount of personal experience to report here. Back at last month’s Macworld Expo, I hogged as much time as I could on the MacBook Pro during my visits to Apple’s booth. To reinforce my memory, I deliberately worked on certain applications on the 17-inch PowerBook that accompanied me on the trip; the laptop has a 1.5GHz G4. While my observations are definitely subjective, both Office and Photoshop seemed faster. Not by a huge margin, but definitely snappier. When it came to Apple’s own Universal applications, such as Safari and Mail, it was a revelation.

    On the other hand, if you must use a Classic application, you may be cut off, since that mode isn’t supported on a MacIntel. Sure, there are third party solutions under development, but one I read about claims emulation performance is approximately one-eighth that of the native processor, and that doesn’t seem terribly encouraging. But maybe it is time to ditch those applications and find a more up-to-date solution.

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