The Apple and AMD Rumors Persist

July 30th, 2010

So when Steve Jobs was asked once about whether Apple was committed to the PowerPC some years back, he replied yes, but added Apple always wanted options. Well, it’s certainly clear, in retrospect, what he was actually talking about.

At the time he made that pronouncement, Apple was evidently negotiating with Intel to move to that processor platform, while, at the same time, developing a version of Mac OS X to support the new chips.

As seamless as the transition might have seemed from a hardware standpoint, except for some teething pains with the first Intel-based Mac note-books, a tremendous amount of work had to be done to make it happen. Indeed, it took a while for software companies to get with the program, even as Jobs tried to show us how you could build a Universal app — native to both the PowerPC and Intel — by just clicking a check box in the Xcode development environment.

Of course it’s never that easy. There was a lot of hard work involve in making an app work properly under both platforms, and the process can often take weeks or months to complete —and sometimes years in a few notable cases.

But that was yesterday and these days most new or revised apps strictly support Intel. Apple helped pave the way with the release of Snow Leopard, which ditched the PowerPC as a supported platform with, surprisingly, little negative feedback from Mac users who had grown accustomed to these processor migrations. Besides, the user base of Intel-based Macs had already pretty much eclipsed the PowerPC.

Now recently, there have been suggestions that Apple is poised for a less severe processor transition, at least in part, from Intel to AMD. But why might this be so?

Well, according to some published reports, not confirmed of course, Apple isn’t too happy with Intel’s recent actions, such as the dispute with NVIDIA that prevented use of their integrated graphics with the latest Intel chips. For the current iteration of MacBook Pros, Apple opted to rely on Intel’s pathetic integrated graphics for basic tasks, with the ability to automatically switch to a discrete NVIDIA graphics card when resource damands required extra power.

It so happens that the newest iMac and Mac Pro desktops are all equipped with ATI graphics, which, as you know, happens to be owned by AMD. But Apple has switched between ATI and NVIDIA for years, depending on which graphics chips were best suited to a specific product family.

The other bugaboo is, allegedly, the fact that Intel is busy shrinking its entry-level Atom processors to power mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. What’s more, Intel will reportedly be building reference hardware and software platforms, so a handset maker could basically put one into production with minimal development expense.

So, in short, Intel might not just be Apple’s chip partner, but a serious competitor, assuming, of course, that Intel can truly build a processor to rival the ARM chips used by smartphone makers these days. Even Apple’s own A4 is, fundamentally, a customized ARM, and there have even been unfounded rumors that Apple actually wanted to acquire that company, although the logic of such an acquisition has yet to be explained to me in a sensible fashion.

I should mention, in passing, that Apple has contracted with Samsung, a rival smartphone maker, to build many of its processors. So Intel’s competitive move shouldn’t be the deal breaker.

Besides, Intel has supposedly had an edge in delivering the speediest PC parts, while AMD offers value at a lower price, and that may be important. If you look at the current Mac Pro configurations, you have to spend nearly $5,000 to buy a version with a six-core Intel Xeon, from the new Westmere family. Two processors takes the price well into the stratosphere.

It so happens that AMD has six-core versions of their high-end Opteron server chips, but they appear to suffer in straight-on performance comparisons with the Westmeres. At the same time, with a huge potential savings, maybe Apple could get away with an Opteron as a low-end bridge between the four-core Intel Nehalem chips and six-core Westmeres.

Offering interchangeable configurations with both AMD and Intel chips is a common practice among PC box makers, since they are essentially equal as far as operating system compatibility is concerned. While you may not be able to plug in one or the other, designing an alternate chassis for AMD’s parts shouldn’t be such an expensive proposition for Apple, nor would providing special support in Snow Leopard.

At the lower end of the scale, a Mac mini equipped with AMD might allow Apple to reduce the price from the exorbitant — for an entry-level PC — $699 to something more affordable without seriously sacrificing performance.

And, of course, losing a few sales might inspire Intel to make a few changes more favorable to Apple’s needs.

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10 Responses to “The Apple and AMD Rumors Persist”

  1. Guy says:

    I had to laugh a bit at the Mac Mini reference in regards to cutting its cost by using AMD chips. Keep in mind that Apple has the highest margins in the PC world today which accounts more for the Mac Mini no longer being at the original $499 entry. The price of the Mac Mini has more to do with those margins and making a Mini with all the accompanying peripherals (keyboard, mouse, monitor) more expensive than a better equipped and cheaper entry-level iMac.

    I currently have a 24-inch 2.16 iMac that is now approaching 4 years old and I’m starting to think about its replacement. The Mini with its 2.5 inch single drive really isn’t an option and a I5 or I7 quad-core iMac is going to cost me nearly $2K. This is the first time in a long time I’ve given serious though to building a Hackintosh. Don’t really want to since that adds a lot more work with upkeep down the road, but if want a quad-core Mac with the ability to have multiple internal drives, what are my options with Apple? A high-end iMac with a second SSD drive that will cost me an arm and a leg or a Hackintosh at roughly 1/2 the cost that will certainly be flexible and have options that Apple refuses to give me.

    Maybe it’s time Apple got out of the Mac hardware market.

    • Dennis says:

      Maybe it’s time you gave greater reflection to your last sentence, in your post “Guy”. Apple is and will remain, unlike the other firms in the industry, a builder of hardware as well as software. Their business model of hardware/software service integration, is unique, as well and while not perfect; more than meets the expectations of their customers, including those, such as your self, who chose not to buy their hardware.

      • Guy says:

        @Dennis, I’ve been a Mac user since 1987 and with the exception of a UMAX C600 (which was a really great machine for its time) have always had Macs of one form or another in the house. The iMac I currently have was the first all-in-one I’ve had since a Performa 575 (1994) and a Mac Plus (1987). I had PPC 300MHz desktops and then a QuickSilver 933 that I loved. But now unless I go real big, I can’t get multiple drive Macs without spending a lot of money (iMac with an SSD or a Mac Pro) or not enough performance (Mac Mini Server with slow 2.5-inch drives).

        Apple designs their machines but they don’t build them anymore going with various Chinese makers and that’s fine. I’m not complaining about that. But why not just publish a standard and have a compatibility checker for installed hardware and let others make it instead? It’s not really a quality issue anymore. The same factories are churning out Dells and HPs. Let them do it and hold them to a higher standard. It’s not an issue of cost until the machines start hitting over $1500. Charge a premium for an OEM license, whatever, just let me have my internal storage options. I’m so tired of multiple enclosures all over my desk.

    • Chris says:



      I know it’s really tempting to go the Hackintosh route but I’ve done it and while it was fun for a while I think for most people it’s just not worth it. I’ve built about 5 of them so far, mostly quad cores in nice Lian Li cases that will give a Mac Pro a good run for their money performance wise for not much more than the cost of a Mac mini. And at first the hassle of installation and occasional tweaking when Apple broke something in a software update seemed like a necessary evil and worth it given the bang for the buck but the thing is there’s always some little thing that doesn’t quite work or some little thing you have to fix or keep track of that you wouldn’t have to deal with on a real Mac.

      Being able to build a powerful Hackintosh piecemeal, starting with parts you already have and upgrading can be really seductive too. That’s how I ended up building 5 of them. At the end of the day though I kind of wish I’d have stopped after the first one and just gotten a couple minis instead.

      Now that Steam is finally available for Macs I can see gaming as one of the better reasons to build a Hackintosh since you’d have to buy a pretty high end Mac to get decent 3D performance. Otherwise I’d just put a fast SSD in a mini or lower end iMac and spend my spare time on something more productive.

      If you do end up going the Hackintosh route I suggest looking up Kakewalk. It’s the easiest method I’ve found, as long has you stick with the recommended hardware.

      • Guy says:

        @Chris, Honestly Chris I would prefer not to for all the usual reasons. I don’t even care about component swapping other than storage. OS X is typically flexable enough that the installed as built card is good for at least 2-4 years (my current one has an 256MB 7600 card which amazing enough won’t play Steam games but whatever).

  2. john says:

    New Opterons with 12 and ( soon) 16, 24 cores will be the top of the Apple desktops, not entry level choices…
    Entry level will be equipped with Apple own chips…
    And ATI cards with OpenCL will put nVidia CUDA processor in shirt pocket…
    Write it down, to remember…

  3. Richard says:

    AMD are supposed to have a top-of-the-line server chip to compete with Intel on performance sometime next year so offering AMD processors is not strictly a “value line” option in the long run. The pricing of AMD’s current hex core CPUs is certainly attractive.

    As far as a Mini goes, I would love it if Apple were to offer one with an AMD CPU that trounces the current Intel CPU and costs less to boot…by the way, Steve, how about eSATA and USB 3 for the Mini while you are at it?

    The good thing about the Mini from Apple’s perspective is that, if priced right, everybody will have at least one of them in the house to do a variety of things in addition to their other Macs.

    The thing about AMD that is the “joker in the deck” is their ability to put substantial graphics on the CPU as their processor process shrinks.

    I am not clear about whether the just announced iMacs will all have a second drive bay or only the ones ordered from Apple with a SSD, but it would be very nice, indeed, to slip in one of OWC’s SSDs and a large rotating drive. I am one of the people who has always chaffed at the drive mounting restrictions of Apple products in general and iMacs in particular. It is nice to see some attention given to this area.

  4. Dave Barnes says:

    “I am not clear about whether the just announced iMacs will all have a second drive bay or only the ones ordered from Apple with a SSD”

    The non-SSD iMacs ship without the SSD mounting hardware.

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