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  • The Secret of Getting Maximum Mac OS Performance: Go Intel!

    March 18th, 2006

    What if Apple had switched to Intel processors at the very beginning of the Mac OS X era? This may seem a perfectly absurd question, but stay with me now. From a practical standpoint, it may have had disastrous results for developers. Imagine the pain they underwent moving their products from Classic to Mac OS X, and imagine having to recode for a new processor at the very same time. You can see where many might have just deserted the platform altogether, but consider what might have resulted had they simply endured the extra pain of a double migration.

    Let’s look at the reality of Mac OS X. From the beginning, it looked great, and, while things may have moved swiftly under the hood, it felt slow. Sure, Apple has made it run faster over time, and having a G5 certainly didn’t hurt. But I can tell you that I can easily bring the Tiger Finder to its knees on a double processor G5 simply by initiating a few separate copying operations and then attempting to display the contents of a folder.

    I rather suspect that one of the big requests on anyone’s Mac OS 10.5 wish list is a speedier Finder, one that’ll deliver a level of performance that’ll still the complaints once and for all.

    On the other hand, the people who are buying MacIntels are finding something that, unless they read the reviews, they didn’t expect, and that’s a noticeable leap in Mac OS X’s performance level. Now I observed this phenomenon when I first worked on one of the new models for a short time at the Macworld Expo, over at Apple’s booth. I had read some of those unconfirmed reports on certain rumor-oriented sites that the Intel version of Mac OS X seemed to come into its own, that it seemed much snappier even on the test computers Apple leased to developers.

    Now I had the official confirmation. But it wasn’t just the interface. Safari and other Universal applications seemed to launch almost instantaneously. To think that Apple successfully kept this secret to themselves over the five years that they had developed a version of Mac OS X for Intel.

    But it wasn’t just my subjective evaluation here, and it doesn’t seem to require the fastest MacIntel maxed out with memory. Macworld’s Rob Griffiths has written a lengthy report about his first week working on a Mac mini with Core Duo processor and basic 512MB of RAM. Move right past the initial setup experience, and scroll down to his perceptions of the Finder: “Yes, the Finder is an application, and it’s also Universal. This is one of the most impressive areas of the new mini’s performance. It’s sad to say, but this version of the Finder runs rings around the version on my Dual G5.”

    The perception of snappier performance isn’t limited to the Finder, nor the rest of Apple’s Universal application lineup. Griffiths writes, “Although Safari is a Universal application (and runs quite well), so is Camino, which has been my browser of choice lately. It loads amazingly quickly, and once running, page loading times are quick enough to be immeasurable. Moving between tabs, or browsing back and forth in history, are both near-instantaneous tasks, with minimal delay. Camino is quite fast on the G5 as well, but there’s a ‘snap’ to it in Universal format that seems to be missing on the G5. Of course, things happen so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to quantify this feeling, but using the two back-to-back, it’s definitely real.”

    Do you recall how Windows users would rag on Mac users about how their browsing experience was superior? Sure, you could sit there with a stop watch and show that differences were, at best, a second here, a second there, and maybe even less. But you had to admit they had a point here, that things just seemed to jump into view more rapidly, even if the PC box was strictly low-end. How could that be?

    Yes, Apple spent years showing why the PowerPC was better at number crunching than a Pentium, and they did so well that many of you are probably’s still skeptical of the move to Intel. How could the slower processor suddenly become faster? But let’s just assume Apple’s benchmarks, within their stated parameters, were right on. Let’s also assume, for the sake of argument, that today’s Intel processors have matched or exceeded the PowerPC. A snappier interface, however, is often more perceived than measured, and there’s a subjective element to it.

    In the end, I have to agree with Griffiths, even though may experience with a MacIntel is far less than his. Maybe Mac OS X was really meant to run on Intel all along.



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