Macs on Intel — 11 Years Later

June 7th, 2016

I read a piece at Wired this week that reminded me of something that many of today’s Mac users probably never heard before. June 6, 2016 is the 11th anniversary of Steve Jobs’ original announcement that Macs were switching from the PowerPC to Intel. And to say that Mac users of the time were surprised is probably a huge understatement. Indeed, to some it seemed to be a betrayal.

For years, Apple touted the amazing performance of the PowerPC. Macworld keynotes featured bake-offs demonstrating that a Mac would leave an Intel box in the dust. These were real comparisons, not faked, or at least the ones that I duplicated were real. I remember one year convincing HP to supply a computer to compare its performance to my Power Mac. Using Apple’s benchmarking scripts, which included running a number of rendering processes in Adobe Photoshop, I was able to confirm all or most of Apple’s claims.

Now some would suggest that Apple manipulated the test to favor their gear. No doubt that’s true to some extent, but the tests I ran represented operations any graphic artist might do in Photoshop as a part of their workflow. In almost every case, an Intel Pentium with a clock speed more than twice that of the Power Mac would end up second best.

There’s little doubt that Intel’s sales and marketing people made regular pilgrimages to Apple headquarters to try to earn their business. No doubt Apple got a gander at Intel’s future product roadmap to see the possibilities.

Now in the years before the Intel switch was announced, Apple was secretly building a version of OS X to run on Intel. Just in case. There was also a certain statement from Jobs that Apple was satisfied with the PowerPC roadmap, but was keeping its options open.

There’s little doubt Apple had reason to be concerned. PowerPC development had stalled in the early 2000s. IBM and Motorola couldn’t tame the high-end G5 to run on a notebook. It ran too hot and used too much power. Indeed, some Power Mac G5 towers required liquid cooling to keep them running at safe temperatures. I know mine did. If that coolant ever leaked, your Mac would be toast, and you might have an expensive carpet cleaning bill.

Now Intel was obviously aware of the Pentium’s limitations. High clock speeds, lots of heat to dissipate. So a successor was being developed, the Intel Core series. The first two processors, the Core Solo and Core Duo mobile chips, were slated to ship in January, 2006. Desktop versions arrived that summer.

So during the 2015 WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs brought on Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO at the time, to cement the new deal. Apple planned to start moving Macs to Intel in early 2006, with the entire migration set to conclude by the end of the year. In fact, with the introduction of the Mac Pro that summer, the migration was completed way ahead of schedule.

For Mac users, the switchover was mostly seamless. Some of those early notebook processors could run hot, hot enough that if you put your notebook on your lap barelegged it would get too hot. But further development of cooling systems, and Intel’s efforts to reduce power consumption and heat generation resolved that problem over time.

The first Intel compatible OS was 10.4 Tiger, which was in most respects otherwise identical to the PowerPC version. Except that it ran much faster on an Intel Mac. In order to be able to continue to use your PowerPC apps, Apple released a utility called Rosetta that would launch the first time one of those older apps launched. The Intel chips were so powerful, you’d hardly notice any performance loss.

But moving to Intel had yet another advantage, perhaps the greatest advantage of all, and that was the ability to run Windows as a virtual machine and natively. Both seemed to happen at about the same time. In 2006, Apple released Boot Camp, which allowed you to establish a Windows partition and load Windows on it. The word “Boot” told the tale. You had to restart to use Windows.

The virtual machine, however, is the best alternative for most users. Around the same time the first Boot Camp beta arrived, Parallels released a beta of their Desktop app, which managed multiple operating systems. The final version came out early in 2007. A virtual machine means that you can set up a number of drive-based operating systems, and not just Windows. Even the earliest versions of Parallels Desktop supported Linux and other operating systems.

In the old days, when a PowerPC had to emulate an Intel processor, Windows performance was glacial. I remember trying to write books about Windows on my Mac using one of those emulators, and I’d have to wait long seconds or minutes to do simple things. In contrast, Windows was pretty snappy as a virtual machine. If you didn’t use a graphics heavy app, or attempt to play a game, it seemed about as fast as a native Windows box.

Over time, Parallels and a rival company, VMWare, added accelerated graphics, so simple games would work just fine. The power-user games for which you paid a bundle on a Windows box to run won’t do so well on a virtual machine. But for most purposes, using Windows on a Mac works just fine. I’ve done it for 10 years and haven’t encountered any serious problems beyond the glitches that are part and parcel of Windows.

Today, the performance difference between a Mac and a PC is usually not significant, except for those costly Windows gaming boxes with high-end graphics hardware. Had Apple not gone Intel when it did, the Mac platform might have seriously suffered over the years. PowerPC development was focused on embedded systems, not on Macs, and Apple’s business wasn’t large enough to encourage continued improvement of desktop chips.

You might not even have a Mac platform in 2016 had Steve Jobs and crew not made the decision to engage in the second processor switch in the company’s history. The first, from the Motorola 680×0 processors to the PowerPC, occurred in 1994.

Some suggest Apple’s next processor transition on the Mac is to AMD. But if that were to happen — and the potential is certainly there — what about Windows compatibility? Would Apple be able to build sort sort of hardware emulator that would provide good performance and compatibility for Windows and Intel apps? Is the Mac business even large enough to fund that level of development?

In any case, Mac users have to be glad the Intel transition happened when it did. It really helped the Mac live long and prosper.

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5 Responses to “Macs on Intel — 11 Years Later”

  1. DaveD says:

    Was one of those users of PowerPC-based Mac shocked at the announcement of another processor switch, but I am truly amazed as to how well the migration plans were executed. Including the switchover from 32-bit to 64-bit within the later x86 processors and the earlier move from classic Mac OS to the modern Mac OS X. Apple had to provide software developers the tools for the long successful transitional period. This highlights how important WWDC was and still is.

    I tip my hat to Apple for a “massive” job well done.

  2. David says:

    The Rosetta software that allowed PowerPC code to run on Intel processors was the key to the switchover. It worked so well that most users were unable to tell whether an application was Intel native or not.

    The previous switch from 680×0 to PowerPC wasn’t nearly as smooth. Sure old applications generally worked on the new architecture, but the performance was unbelievably bad. I tested some very basic image adjustments in Photoshop 3.0 on a PowerMac 7600 and Quadra 650. The 7600 was theoretically 7x as fast as the Quadra, but it lost every race by a wide margin.

    • gene says:

      I agree with you. 680×0 emulation was really slow, and it took several generations of PowerPC upgrades before performance was decent. For most people, the first Power Macs seemed no faster than their predecessors.

      The Intel switchover was far smoother.


  3. dfs says:

    No history of this changeover would be complete without some acknowledgement of how bad the situation had become. Consumer demand for ever-increasing speed had made Motorola push the PowerPC chip to the point that heat dissipation became a serious problem. The next-to-last Mac Pro had a humongous number of fans (I forget how many –seven? nine?) and if a plastic barrier weren’t placed just so within the case the whole thing ceased to work. Next, the final model was the world’s first and I hope only liquid cooled desktop computer. Nothing could be clearer than that when it came to the all-important factor of speed the Mac these Rube Goldberg dodges couldn’t go any further and the development of the Mac had hit a dead end, and that if Apple didn’t figure out some way forward the implications for its corporate future were going to be very unpleasant.

  4. Brian M says:

    The PowerMac G5’s (which the G5/PowerPC 970 chip were IBM produced, not Motorola) plastic shield was an airflow deflector, the computer wouldn’t stop working, the fans would just run at top speed to make sure enough air was flowing through the right spots – there was a physical switch where the shield “plugged in”, you could manually activate the switch so the fans would go back to normal.

    The intel Mac Pro’s redesigned the interior so the deflector wasn’t needed and used 4 fewer fans (2 less for CPUs – less heat, other 2 were saved by different PSU & moving it up to the optical bay – PSU fan pulls air across optical bays, then hard drives moving down with PCI slots to share cooling).
    In a similar manner to the G5 with compromised cooling if certain temperature sensors fail in any intel based Mac, the system defaults to running the fans at top speed as a safety measure so components don’t get damaged by overheating, seen it in Mac Pro’s, iMacs and various MacBook models.

    The Intel transition was smoother for average users, but for Pro’s – video, audio, graphics, many of the intensive functions were faster on PowerPC for at least a year or two after (altivec really was quite good) – assuming the software itself was “ported” – like Adobe’s suite was a year later. I know many pro’s that didn’t get an intel machine until 2008/2009.

    I was just getting into Macs during the 68k to PowerPC transition, and agree the last ‘040 systems were faster than the first PowerPC’s – 601 & 603’s especially, that PowerPC 7200/75 I first bought still ran the last time I tried it 2-3 years ago. Once the software was updated for PowerPC it generally ran faster – especially the 604’s.
    this is an interesting read on 68k -> PowerPC from “The Apple Museum – The PowerPC Triumph”

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