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The Tiger for Intel Report: The Case for Rosetta

To be quite fair to Apple, they never promised miracles with Rosetta, the PowerPC emulation environment for MacIntels. You’d be able to run many of your legacy applications with decent performance, but you really wanted your favorite applications to be produced in Universal form.

When the tech sites began to test the first round of Intel-based Macs, they pronounced Rosetta workable, but reported about a 50% speed hit compared to native benchmarks. Photoshop would launch much more slowly and then take its own sweet time processing complicated rendering filters, so be forewarned.

At the same time, most of the people who were buying these new Macs were upgrading from much older hardware, so even in emulation, Photoshop would run at a pretty decent clip. It was all about your expectations. Besides, everything will be right in the world when Adobe releases CS3 next spring, and everything becomes Universal. Get ready to start your engines.

What some of you might have forgotten, of course, is that Apple wasn’t standing still. Almost every incremental update for Mac OS X Tiger included improvements to Rosetta as part of the package. In fact, the 10.4.8 update, as some observed, offered as much as a 30% performance boost. Even better, if you were among the folks who acquired a Mac Pro, you might find Rosetta’s performance level to approach that of a PowerMac G5. And remember, it’s still emulation.

You can also be certain that Mac OS 10.5 Leopard will contain further enhancements. True, Apple hasn’t made any specific claims yet, or even said much about Leopard beyond a few core feature additions and enhancements. But don’t be surprised if there are precise promises about how much Rosetta will be enhanced by January, at the Macworld Expo.

But that’s just one factor in making emulation more and more useful.

Do you recall when Apple switched from 68K to PowerPC? You had emulation there, too, and it seemed awfully slow at the time, at least for a while. But as hardware got faster, and the software improved, it reached a point where emulation was actually faster than the real thing!

However, PowerPC speed bursts were somewhat slow in coming, especially in recent years. Intel, on the other hand, seems to release new chips every few weeks. Well, it’s not that fast, but they aren’t standing still, particularly with AMD in their rear view mirrors, or just ahead, depending on the chip family involved.

Suddenly, the fastest Mac on the planet becomes an also-ran in a matter of months. As folks still extol the virtues of the 3.0GHz Mac Pro, Intel already has released Xeon chips with four processors. Since the chips are available at some retail outlets, it’s actually possible to buy the chips yourself and, if you’re willing to undergo a little pain and some cuts and bruises, you can turn your Mac Pro into an eight-processor powerhouse.

But hold on, as it’s only a matter of time before Apple offers an official version.

As you might imagine, it won’t just be a few multithreading applications that benefit from doubling the processor allotment. Rosetta will benefit as well, and it is poised to surpass the native speeds, even on a Power Mac G5 Quad. That has, in fact, already begun to happen in some cases even before the arrival of any new hardware.

Back in the PowerPC days, it took a few years before emulation blew away 68K. With the accelerated upgrade process hastened by Intel, it’ll happen some time in the first half of 2007. It’ll be a combination of ever-faster Intel chips and the arrival of Leopard.

Then you won’t have much reason to complain about Rosetta anymore. Of course, if you want something to complain about, I suppose there’s always the loss of Classic. Some third parties are trying to bring that back, but it’s not something you can depend on yet.