The Mac Hardware Report: Living in Suspension

February 18th, 2006

For the longest time, most of you ignored the move to Intel processors, buying more and more of the existing PowerPC versions, despite fears of a slowdown. The first official “pause” apparently occurred in December, as rumors rose that the first MacIntels were about to be introduced.

Now I’m not about to say Apple rushed out its first MacIntels months ahead of schedule to combat a dip in sales, although that makes sense. Nor would I say it was done to prod more developers into releasing Universal versions of their applications, but that makes a lot of sense also.

However, the right circumstances came about, which included the release of sufficient quantities of Intel Core Duo chips to fill the empty spaces on the new Macs. Had Intel encountered any delays, or dedicated its initial sales to larger partners, such as Dell or HP, the new computers would never have been released. Now maybe Intel’s CEO, Paul Otellini, couldn’t say no to Steve Jobs, or maybe he rejoiced at getting his new customer’s products out ahead of schedule. Maybe he just likes appearing in public wearing a bunny suit.

The arrival of the first Intel-based Macs merely whet appetites, because you now begin to lust after the models that weren’t updated. A personal example: I have a two-year-old 17-inch PowerBook. It runs well, but has always impressed me as being a little slow. None of the upgrades since then have offered compelling performance boosts, so I’ve pretty well decided to live with what I have.

When I attended Macworld Expo last month, I made it a point to spend as much face time as possible with the MacBook Pros on display. The crowds surrounding the new laptops were long, but I was patient enough to wait for my turn, without attempting to push anyone aside. That may sound like common sense, but, as I child, I would have found ways to sneak past people at get my place at the front of the line. But that was long ago and far away.

When I got my hands on one, I noticed the crowd had dispersed enough to give me enough time at the touch pad without hogging the computer, and I quickly tested the things that concerned me about my PowerBook. I launched Mail, Safari, and then Microsoft Word and Photoshop. The first two, Universal applications, opened almost instantaneously, and my Internet surfing seemed as snappy as on my dual processor Power Mac G5. Impressive! Although in emulation, both Office and Photoshop ran somewhat faster than that PowerBook. The Mac OS X user interface simply soared, as if it was always meant to operate on Intel.

That evening, I ran through some of the same operations on my PowerBook, and it only reinforced my impressions that the MacBook Pro represented a huge performance improvement. Sure, the reviews will emphasize the severe speed hit with Rosetta, but not necessarily when compared to the older PowerBook, even the most recent model.

The lack of a dual layer CD burner didn’t upset me. The lack of a 17-inch screen did. The difference isn’t vast, but I left disappointed that the larger screen wasn’t part of the first release. I feel certain that one will be offered in the near future, after the MacBook Pro is in full production and initial demand has been met. But that might be a month or two from now, at the very least, so my particular needs won’t be met until then. Oh well, I didn’t have the spare cash anyway, so nothing lost, right?

But I can see where the lack of an Intel-based version of the Mac of your dreams may be highly disappointing. Sure there’s nothing wrong with the present PowerPC models. In fact, they might run legacy software noticeably faster and, when it comes to Classic, if you need it, you’ll have to depend on a possible third party solution of unknown compatibility and speed. Or switch everything to Mac X versions, if available.

We’re probably only weeks away from the arrival of MacIntel versions of the iBook and Mac mini. There’s little logic in a delay, and only the availability of parts would slow things down. A little patience goes a long way.

When it comes to the Power Macs, actually they are plenty fast as it is, and the Intel chips that are destined to supplant those duo-core G5 processors aren’t even out yet. True, they may arrive in the second half of the year, and I rather suspect Apple’s Intel transition will be largely complete by fall. So where does that leave you if you must have the fastest Mac on the planet now and can’t wait? Well, consider the applications you want to use. Will Universal versions be ready? If they are close at hand, or just a few months away, and Apple won’t like this, just hold off on your purchase plans. Or prepare to live with software that won’t function at full efficiency.

If the wait will be long and you have to figure out what to do about Classic applications, I wouldn’t hesitate. A Power Mac G5 Quad may not be the fastest PC on the planet in all respects, but it’s no slouch. And Apple could use a few extra sales along about now.

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