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The Mac Hardware Report: Ready to Ditch Your PowerPC Yet?

When Apple’s momentous switch to Intel processors was announced in June 2005, Steve Jobs said that the migration would continue until the end of 2007. Now maybe that’s what Apple felt at the time, but, as most of you know, the entire process was completed 16 months early, in August.

At the same time, a number of tech writers said that the long, slow process of moving to another processor family would halt Mac sales big time. More and more customers wouldn’t want to buy existing models, knowing that they’d be obsolete real soon. Well, maybe that’s a large reason why Apple rushed to get its work done, although there were some hardware defects that may have resulted, as owners of the first MacBooks and MacBook Pros could tell you. Not that it happened to me, mind you. I suppose I am destined to always miss all the fun.

But there were still reasons to stick with the PowerPC. If you needed to use a Classic Mac OS application, you were out of luck with a MacIntel, since Classic no longer exists. Yes, there are third party possibilities under development, but they don’t appear to be good enough to use for real work. This remains a significant issue, unless you can find a Mac OS X variant that’ll get the job done.

Now none of this has affected me in any way, since I can’t remember launching the Classic environment in the past two years. I keep the Mac OS 9 System Folder around, probably out of inertia, on my remaining Power Mac. Maybe I’ll ditch it some day, when I feel I need the drive space.

Then there is Rosetta, the clever technology that lets you run PowerPC applications on an Intel-based Mac. Yes clever, but not terribly speedy. Apple doesn’t really quote real specs, except to say that you’ll get good performance with most of your legacy software. It all depends on what you consider to be good, and whether that’s acceptable to you.

If you depend on, for example, Adobe Photoshop to process large images, and you have a fairly recent Power Mac G5 at hand, you would expect a fairly decent speed hit at first. Over time, Rosetta’s speed has improved by roughly a third, according to various benchmarks. This has become a fairly significant matter. In fact, Photoshop runs about as fast on a Mac Pro as on any recent Power Mac G5, give or take a few percentage points. You wouldn’t notice the difference without a stop watch in most cases.

Rosetta really suffers most, however, when it comes to application launch times, where it still doesn’t always approach that of a PowerPC. On my MacPro, for example, Microsoft Entourage 2004 seems particularly lethargic proceeding from the opening screen to the mail window.

When it comes to older PowerPC games, you’ll probably get playable performance on the speediest Intel-based Mac. But you have to hope for Universal versions of the more recent titles that stretch the capabilities of your processor.

The situation becomes a little more debatable on the lower-cost Macs that use Intel’s integrated graphics. Here, anything that stresses the graphics hardware is apt to suffer, although playback of digital video seems to be fairly good, at least according to most test reports.

At this point, however, unless you are one of the few who buys a new Mac every year or so, any MacIntel will provide a huge performance boost. Universal applications launch a lot faster than you have a right to expect, and Mac OS X components, such as the Finder, seem to have taken a few huge doses of steroids.

Is it time to ditch the PowerPC? If you don’t need Classic, if you haven’t upgraded computers more frequently than once every two or three years — a fairly normal figure — the answer is yes. Even if you have a fairly recent Power Mac G5, you might want to start saving your spare change.