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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