Apple Archive

The Future of PowerPC Macs in the Intel Era

- 2006.05.12

With Apple moving to an all-Intel lineup, what does that mean for the future PowerPC Macs?

Large companies insist that they remain committed to the PowerPC platform, but this poses some issues for the Mac buyer. Right now the only clear differences are that Intel Macs can boot Windows natively, while PowerPC Macs can't, yet PPC Macs can run Classic Mode, but the Intel Macs can't.

Speed isn't so much an issue for many - if you buy a PowerBook to work with Photoshop on the go, you're probably not going to notice a speed increase by switching to the MacBook Pro (in fact, you'll probably see a speed decrease). Photoshop isn't Intel native, and a new version that supports Intel CPUs isn't due until next year.

Not Obsolete

What does this say about buying PowerPC Macs?

Some think that if they buy a PowerPC Mac now, it will be obsolete by the time the G5 Power Macs are replaced with Intel-based models later this year.

But look at how the 680x0 Macs were replaced by PowerPC models. When the first PowerPC models were released in 1994, 680x0 was far from dead. It was not until 1998, four years later, that the most recent Mac OS version no longer ran on them (Mac OS 8.5 was the first version to require a PowerPC chip).

Even after that, some applications were still developed for the 680x0 platform. While almost none are currently being developed for it (the iCab browser was one of the last), it took until roughly 2003 to die out completely. That's nine years

If the average person keeps a computer for four years, buying a Power Mac now and replacing it with an Intel model in 2010 should pose no compatibility issues.

Intel-only Software

That said, there will probably be some applications released during those four years that will run only on Intel processors. While the current idea of universal binaries is great, at some point developers will see no need to develop applications in a form that both PowerPC and Intel Macs can deal with, and those using the older Macs will end up being left behind.

That doesn't mean that your Power Mac will cease to function in four years. My grandmother is still using a Performa 630 (1994), which most likely still has less than 32 MB of RAM and probably a 1 GB or smaller hard drive. Some of the games that she plays have never been updated for newer machines or operating systems, so she would be disappointed to find that an "upgrade" to a faster Mac would actually be a downgrade in terms of letting her do what she wants on it.

By 2010, many Mac users will feel this way about their G4s and G5s. Sure, the latest software might have issues running on them, but some software will never be updated to run well on Intel Macs (regardless of the Rosetta emulator), so the only choice for using some older software will be to keep an old PowerPC Mac around. [Editor's note: Classic mode software that has never been updated for OS X is one good argument in favor of PowerPC Macs.]

You May Want to Keep a PowerPC Mac

People often use older laptops for compatibility with older software, since they don't take up nearly as much space as a full-sized desktop. The current PowerBook G4s are generally nice machines with sharp screens and some nice features, such as keyboard backlighting and scrolling trackpad (which are both included in the MacBook Pro as well).

Since the MacBook Pro was released, prices on G4s have gone down, and it's often possible to find a refurbished or display model for significantly below retail.

If you don't need the latest technology and plan to keep your new Mac as your main machine for a few years, a PowerBook G4 might serve you very well. If what you're looking for is a desktop, both the older iMac G5s and the Power Mac G5s are great machines - but it might be best to go with a Power Mac, because they offer more RAM expansion and dual processors (and one or two dual-cores in the latest models). The iMac G5s are severely limited in these two areas, but for a simple "browse the Internet, manage photos, and listen to music" machine, a PowerPC iMac may suit you fine.

While Apple is busy promoting the benefits of the Intel chips, there's very little advantage in switching to Intel if you're using common applications such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and AppleWorks.

The PowerPC chips are still great processors, and they'll continue to be useful in your older Macs for years to come.

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