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  • When Apple Went to the Dark Side

    March 27th, 2015

    As some consider the implications of 14 years of OS X, what about over nine years of Intel Inside? It also boggles the mind, especially considering how Intel and Microsoft were once regarded as one humongous competitor. The term “WinTel” was the common reference to a Windows PC with Intel parts, although AMD processors were also used.

    As we entered the 21st century, Apple had long since settled in on the PowerPC. The Intel Pentium ran hot and was underpowered for its processor speeds, which ranged up to 4GHz. Today’s fastest Intel parts have attained that rating, but with genuine performance gains. They are powerhouses.

    In those days, it was common for Apple to stage bake-offs between a Mac with PowerPC against an Intel-based PC with a much higher clock speed. Running such benchmarks as Adobe Photoshop rendering functions, the Mac was almost invariably considerably faster. At the time, with Apple’s testing protocols at hand, I ran the very same tests and achieved comparable results. So when people complained that Apple was faking it, I was able to say that I knew the tests were genuine.

    But the situation changed for the worse. Freescale Semiconductor, spun off from Motorola, along with IBM, decided to focus more on building chips for embedded markets. Sales to Apple were relatively few and thus improvements to the PowerPC were few and far between. Despite protests to the contrary, Macs really began to fall behind in absolute performance, particularly on PowerBooks.

    The fastest PowerPC, the G5, required sophisticated cooling schemes to run at the highest possible clock speeds. Apple devised some really complex engineering solutions on the Power Mac G5. The most powerful model even featured a liquid cooling system. As you might imagine, if the coolant leaked, your Mac was toast.

    Putting a G5 into a PowerBook wasn’t possible. The chips ran too hot, and required too much power. The PowerPC was never tamed for note-book use, and thus Apple continued to rely on the G4.

    In one very significant interview, Steve Jobs responded to concerns about the progress of the PowerPC chips, saying that he was satisfied with IBM’s processor roadmap, but that Apple was always considering its options. That pretty much played out at the WWDC in 2005, where he revealed something that was already more or less known if you followed Mac rumors for a while. It seemed that Apple had been working on a secret project to build an Intel compatible version of OS X. By the end of 2006, he said, all Macs would go Intel.

    The first Intel-based Macs were announced at the Macworld Expo in January 2006, and, by summer, the migration was over, way ahead of schedule.

    Those new Macs only had slight exterior modifications, although the internal cooling system of the Mac Pro workstation was far less complicated than the Power Mac G5. No more need for liquid cooling.

    While the new Macs were fast and fluid, the MacBooks and MacBook Pros, to some degree, inherited the tendency of Intel-based PC note-books to run hot. So maybe you couldn’t call them laptops anymore. Over time, as Intel processors became more power efficient, and thus cooler running, the problem was mostly eliminated.

    Now back in the day when the PowerPC chips first debuted, Apple built in an emulator on new Power Macs and PowerBooks to run older apps coded for the original Motorola processors. Performance was decent, but not exceptional, though in later years those apps ran better as PowerPC hardware became more powerful.

    Apple’s solution for the Intel Macs was Rosetta, a utility that allowed you to run PowerPC apps at performance levels that seemed little different from the native processor. But the big advantage of Intel hardware was the ability to run Windows at native speeds. Apple delivered that solution in the form of Boot Camp, which required rebooting to switch to Windows. Third parties created efficient virtual machine apps that let you run Windows and other operating systems with decent performance, except for games.

    In the old days, running a Windows emulator on a Mac represented a huge challenge. While compatibility was decent, performance was glacial. But running Windows in a Mac in its native Intel environment made it possible to have as close to a genuine PC as you can get. Two computers in one.

    Nowadays, the two major virtual machine apps, Parallels and VMWare Fusion, allow you to even get passable frame rates from games, so Boot Camp is hardly needed unless you want the best possible performance. Unfortunately, Apple has killed support for Windows 7 in recent Macs, so you’re stuck with Windows 8 or later.

    There was a downside to the Intel transition. It meant the end of support for the Classic environment for the older Mac OS. Beginning with OS X Lion, 10.7, Apple discontinued support for Rosetta. So PowerPC apps, like it or not, went the way of the dodo.

    Though Intel has had some difficulties meeting schedules for new processors, such as Broadwell, which is roughly a year late, and is only just starting to be used on Macs, it’s not as if Apple has given any indication of looking for other alternatives.

    There have been ongoing rumors that Apple might switch to ARM processors because they are so much cheaper and the company builds its own chip designs. But even if ARM processors could be tuned to match Intel in performance, or come close, there are other issues, such as compatibility with tens of thousands of older apps, that would cause headaches. Even though Apple would no doubt be perfectly capable of building an emulator for those apps, developers would have to undergo yet another painful processor migration. And, yes, I realize many of those developers are already building apps for iPhones and iPads.

    Is yet another processor switchover worth it? If Intel can resume the pace of chip development, Apple may not need to consider other alternatives. While I am skeptical of an ARM-based Mac, Apple is known to do unpredictable things, particularly if it becomes necessary because an existing solution no longer suits their needs.

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