Is It Time to Dump Your PowerPC Mac?

June 16th, 2008

I remember when the first PowerPC-based Mac came out in 1994. Despite the promise of greatly-increased performance, my initial encounter was a huge let-down, mostly because there wasn’t a lot of software supporting the new processor. So just about everything, including large portions of the Mac OS, ran in 68K emulation, where performance was reduced by two processor generations, so to speak.

That meant that you’d get performance in line with a 68030 Motorola processor, the one that preceded the 68040 that appeared in the Centris and Quadra series prior to the PowerPC’s introduction.

It took several years before emulation became faster than the real thing, and most software was coded to run native on the new chips. It too another dozen years for Apple to cast its lot with Intel.

The first Intel-based Macs appeared in early 2006 (the transition was announced the previous year), and the final stage of the migration, in the form of the Mac Pro, appeared that summer.

Yet it appears that Apple is rushing to put its older hardware out to pasture, if the reported system requirements of Mac OS 10.6, better known as Snow Leopard, are correct. A screenshot purportedly showing installation instructions of the preview edition handed out to developers under confidentiality agreements (which some, alas, don’t bother to obey) specifies Intel only.

Now to be fair to PowerPC users, who haven’t put up their petitions of protest so far — at least none that I know about — Snow Leopard won’t have a lot in the way of spiffy new features. Yes, there will be native support for Microsoft Exchange 2007. But if you can live without that, consider that most of the enhancements are most effective on Intel-based models, particularly better support for Macs with multicore processors. In addition, more of the processing chores will be offloaded to the graphics chip, which will also help make your Mac run much faster.

Apple is also promising to reduce Snow Leopard’s disk space footprint. The fastest route to that is simply to remove a large portion of the code, which can be easily accomplished by ending support for the G4 and the G5. I suppose Apple is also going to look for other ways to remove the bloat, but certainly supporting fewer models is apparently job one.

If you own a PowerPC, though, be patient. It’s not as if you have to choose between feeding your car’s diet of high-priced fuel just yet. Leopard will continue to receive regular maintenance and security updates, and Snow Leopard is still “about” a year away. it could even take longer, perhaps as late as Macworld 2010, which would make those PowerPC-based Macs nearly four years old at best, and that’s as good a time as any to consider an upgrade to a newer, speedier model regardless of the state of affairs.

Even if Mac OS 10.6 gets here earlier, I doubt that Apple is going to confer end of life status on 10.5, not with a user base in the tens of millions, many of whom will have no more operating system upgrade options.

In fact, until 10.7 comes around, it is quite possible that both Leopard and Snow Leopard will continue to coexist, and the next reference operating system upgrade will probably come late in 2010, if then. Just how far back should Apple retain support?

As to software publishers, there’s no incentive for most of them to stop building Universal applications. If Apple is to be believed, a developer doesn’t have to do a tremendous amount of work to support two processor platforms, although I can imagine that testing and optimization will still be fairly substantial portions of their workload.

However, publishers will eventually find reasons to abandon Universal, claiming, perhaps, that they can deliver better applications quicker if they code strictly for Intel. Adobe has already begun to do this sort of thing with some of their stuff, such as the new Mac version of Premiere, their video editing application. But Adobe apparently also uses its own development tools, so they may find it easier or at least more convenient not to have to support PowerPC with some of their newest products.

However, most of Adobe’s Creative Suite, which has a long history on the PowerPC, won’t abandon that chipset any time soon. I expect the same holds true for a fairly large number of products out there. The lone exception is games, where you’re lucky to get a Mac version, so if it must be Intel-only, that’s the way it is.

Before you blame Apple for being too quick on the trigger, take a long look at the other side of the tracks. Windows Vista is a notorious memory and processor hog. If your PC is more than a year or two old, you may be able to install Vista, but your computer’s former performance level will drop considerably. This is one large reason why Vista didn’t do so well when it comes to upgrade sales. The vast, vast majority of those tens of millions of sales that Microsoft rings up are due to OEM licenses to PC makers, who loaded it on their new hardware.

Even then, far too many Windows users are asking the manufacturers to downgrade them to XP, and they continue to beg Microsoft to keep the other OS on sale.

I suppose I should feel sorry for some of you who just don’t have enough money now to consider buying a new Mac. But that’s a decision you don’t have to make just yet if you have other priorities. When the time does arrive, maybe Apple will continue to have some highly affordable options that won’t break your budget, perhaps in the form of the Mac mini or a hoped-for successor.

Meantime, hold the petitions. When it comes to Apple, they won’t change a thing.

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14 Responses to “Is It Time to Dump Your PowerPC Mac?”

  1. Dave Barnes says:

    I sold my PowerMac to a photographer friend last August. I got him to switch from Windows XP to Mac OS X.
    He used it until May of 2008 when he sold it and bought a new 3.06 GHz iMac. He loves his new iMac.
    The PowerMac went to the used Mac store where someone got a good machine at a great price.
    Everyone wins.

  2. David says:

    For many people there is no actual productivity gain from a new computer. Thus scrapping a PPC Mac that serves your needs in order to get an Intel Mac that more than serves your needs is a great idea if your goal is to make Steve Jobs and AAPL shareholders richer. However, the writing is on the wall and eventually it won’t be possible to get up to date software for a PPC Mac.

    The old belief that Macs last longer than Windows PCs is actually backwards. Almost every piece of Windows productivity software in the world is compatible with Windows 2000, an operating system that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Over on the Mac side of the fence many 10 year old systems cannot even run a modern web browser and are therefore being dumped in the trash. The pace of Mac obsolescence continues to accelerate as developers rush to adopt new technologies that are incompatible with older operating systems. Despite being the OS that shipped with new Macs in October 2003 Jaguar is rapidly becoming as obsolete as OS 9. Even Panther, the shipping OS in April 2005, has been marginalized. Now we’re talking about dropping support for Macs that were still being sold two years ago.

    While there are definite software advantages to removing legacy support, forcing everyone to buy new computers every few years isn’t a very efficient use resources. In this era of $5/gal gasoline and melting polar ice caps we should slow down and look at the big picture.

  3. Andrew says:

    Apple has frequently abandoned entire generations of legacy hardware and software in the interest of advancing the Mac platform. Clearly there are good points, such as stability, ease of use and performance, but also negatives, such as the incompatibility discussed in the article.

    Is this a better approach than Microsoft’s, which has is to retain backwards-compatibility at all costs? I believe that for a consumer machine Apple’s way is clearly superior, while for specialized big-business with highly propriety (and expensive) software, backwards compatibility is of far more importance. As an example, Office 97, an 11-year-old application suite, installs and runs perfectly well on Windows Vista. Office 98 for Mac, of course, cannot be installed at all on an Intel Mac, and even on PPC can only be installed in the Classic Mode under Tiger or an older version of OS X (or classic Mac OS).

  4. Melangell says:

    My 12″ 1.5 Ghz PowerBook won’t be going anytime soon just because I love it so much. I do admire the brass that Apple displays by doing what needs to be done to advance the platform, but I DO realize that many Mac users don’t immediately throw out their older computers because they still do what they need them to. I knew plenty of 68k Macheads who kept and used them for years after PPC Macs came out.

    On Adobe… Excuse me, Gene, but I must use profanity. For the sake of your site, I use Farscape phraseology… Frell Adobe!

  5. Ted Hoofar says:

    Yes, it IS time to dump your PPC macs…on my doorstep. A dual processor Quicksilver would be nice.

    This kind of article both annoys me and amuses me. It’s as if the action line is that every piece of Apple hardware and software contains some kind of incendiary device timed to self-destruct with the release of the latest version. Apparently those devices failed to go off in my Panther-loaded Pismo, or my Tiger’d MDD, or even my OS9 Sawtooth. Life goes on well beyond Apple’s expiration date.

    The amusing part is the number of suckers that actually believe it and feel compelled to empty their burning pockets immediately for the latest and greatest Apple offering for fear they or their children will somehow be deprived of all there is in life if they have to continue using iLife 05 instead of iLife 08. Then the old obsolete “com-pyoot-er” gets dumped on the used market for me to buy at a marginally lower price. Ah, the circle of life continues.

  6. Largin Testin says:

    I just got os 10.3! I have noticed that there are a larger number of apps that require 10.4 or better out there, ( which annoys me), and I have begun my search for a <40 buck install dvd of it. Yes, i survive at the utter periphery of macness but I am perfectly happy to be there rather than at $399 dell land where the entire internet wants to eat my files alive. I have 10.3, 10.2, 9.2.2, 9.1 and a new ubuntu Cd startup I have not tried yet as start up drives available to me on my digital audio G4. Let the guys that spend 2 g’s worry about being obsolete. I am already there.

  7. ARJ says:

    I just sold my 3.5yr old 1.5GHz PowerBook G4 17in w/ 1GB DDR RAM and ATI Mobility Processor w/ FCP 4, an external harddrive and keyboard, and some other extras for $1130. The internal keyboard has pooped out so it became more of a ultra-portable desktop since I needed external keyboard/harddrive to use it [internal storage was down to 1gb for me…]

    I could have lived for another year with it since I still have access to some G5 towers at school, but with Snow Leopard coming onto the scene, I figured why not unload it before too many people get wind of the upgrade.

    Although 10.6 isnt going to be that big of a deal, 10.7/.8/.9 will be. And if PowerPC Support stops at Snow, there is no way its coming back.

    Hopefully Apple doesnt decide to switch to AMD or back to its own flavour of processor anytime soon, so that I can keep my shiny new iMac around for as long as the internal monitor holds up.

  8. An AMD processor is x86 compatible, so it shouldn’t require any huge engineering leap to support them as well. No more so than, for example, another Intel processor family.


  9. Bill says:

    I’ve no plans to get rid of my second-generation eMac (kids’ computer)

    Though it now runs 10.3.9 mostly instead of 9.2.2. – in fact, I just replaced the optical drive on the above (CD to DVD burner)

    OTOH, I couldn’t go back to my 12″ 1.33GHz Powerbook running 10.3.9 after using my 2.0 GHz C2D Macbook.

    The latter is SO much faster running Tiger (no plans to upgrade the OS)

  10. Ted says:

    My B&W G3 450 (from June 1999) is running Tiger 10.4.11 and it does everything I need it to do quite well (including using modern web browsers, wirelessly). Apple customers are not forced to buy new computers, they just do, good or bad.

  11. Tristan says:

    PPC G4 is pretty slow. This week my MBP CD 2.16ghz is headed to Apple repair, and I’m on my backup system, a PBG4 1.67ghz w/2gig RAM. Browsing is a lot slower, especially with video or javascript, and Office 2008 is a dog. I wouldn’t expect to run the next generation of software on it. Maybe the G5s have more longevity, but my impression is that the Intel dual core chips are so well designed that they just blew away PPC.

  12. John Smith says:

    If Apple dumps PPC in the next year I will dump them. I have a huge investment in my 3K Powerbook for them to make it obsolete because they are too damn cheap to support PPC. Want to turn your back on your products Apple? Sure! Just watch your loyal customers turn their backs on you!!!!! I know many G5 and late model Powerbook Owners that are just as annoyed by the word that Apple is going to obsolete their hardware.. Think your going to sell us new machines? WRONG!!!!!! Screw us once. Not Screw us twice!!!

  13. @ John Smith: Sounds like a severe overreaction. I expect that Leopard will be supported for another year or two. Bear in mind that it’s been 3 years since Apple began the Intel transition, and that most of the improvements in Show Leopard will not really make so much of a difference to users of PowerPC models.


  14. tiotrip says:

    I own an ibook G3 that runs at 800 or 900mgz running 10.3 (got it for 50$ two/three years ago), a powermac dual mirrors dual 1.25 G4, and a 12″ power book G4 1.5 and as soo as the new macbook pro appear I’ll upgrade to either the latest model or the current one BUT I WILL NEVER (unless I really, really need that money {i’m no junkie yet}) get rid of may old macs…I LOVE them!!!!; especially the duals mirrors tower as it was a very, very expensive investment. If anything I want to explore Ubuntu on some of them.

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