Mac Musings

Why Macintel? Because Apple Can

Dan Knight - 2005.06.08 - Tip Jar

The week's big Mac news is that Apple will be switching from Freescale and IBM PowerPC processors to Intel Pentium CPUs between June 2006 to June 2007.

Reason 1

There are two key reasons for this. Probably the biggest reason is that Steve Jobs is ticked at IBM for leaving him with egg on his face over the 3 GHz G5. When the Power Mac G5 was unveiled on June 23, 2003, the top speed was 2 GHz - and Jobs promised 3 GHz within a year based on IBM projections.

Two years later, the Power Mac G5 tops out at 2.7 GHz, still 10% shy of what we all hoped to have a year ago. In fact, based on Moore's Law, if IBM had shipped a 3 GHz G5 a year ago, odds are pretty good that they'd have a 4 GHz G5 today.

What happened?

A lot of things happened. IBM has had a lot of production problems, and chip yield hasn't been as high as Apple wanted. That's one reason there's no PowerBook G5 - and probably never will be. Another reason is heat. With the technology IBM is currently using, the G5 runs very, very hot.

The other thing is that IBM has been busy developing new CPUs for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. As John Siracusa points out over at ars technica, the three next generation game consoles will probably account for 20 million IBM-powered systems per year. Compared with that, what's 3-4 million G5s for Apple?

As Siracusa points out, IBM has the technology to meet Apple's needs, but it appears they're willing to lose Apple as a customer now that the gaming industry has grown the PowerPC market so drastically.

Reason 2

The second reason for the switch to Intel CPUs is because Apple can. The Pentium architecture is a far cry from the 8088 and 80286 processors used in DOS PCs during the early Macintosh days. Feature for feature, the Pentium 4 holds its own against the G5. Not only that, but Intel offers a lot more speed options and a wider variety of CPUs (such as the Celeron line, a version of the Pentium aimed at the low-end market).

Not only has Apple been quietly porting OS X and other Mac apps to Intel hardware - the NeXT operating system that forms the basis for OS X was being sold on Intel hardware before Apple acquired NeXT.

As Siracusa notes in his article, the Pentium architecture is far less elegant than the PowerPC architecture:

"Right or wrong, sensible or not, this is how a lot of people feel about PowerPC vs. x86 (or 68K vs. x86, for that matter). I'm one of the biggest x86 haters. I've often argued that the collective human effort spent making fast implementations of the bass-ackwards x86 ISA would be much better spent elsewhere."

And, "It will pain me to know the contortions that instructions are going through in an x86 CPU inside a Mac." No matter how sophisticated the x86 architecture has become, the underpinnings are just messy.

Regardless, the final result - real world performance - is good enough that Apple is willing to switch its entire computer line to the industry standard CPU. And it apparently makes economic sense as well, although most observers believe that Apple will actually be paying more for Pentium CPUs than for IBM G5s.

We'll learn a lot more over the coming year. Will Macintel models use regular Celeron and Pentium processors, or will they be 64-bit ones? Will Intel add a processing unit to the Pentium design in the coming year that will allow excellent AltiVec emulation, or will apps that use AltiVec heavily (the ones that aren't recompiled with dual binaries) just have much worse performance? How will the Macintel computers differ from Windows PCs architecturally? And how long until someone figures out how to emulate the Macintel architecture on a standard Pentium or Athlon box so Windows and Linux users can try OS X without any need to buy a new computer? How much hot Pentium (or more likely Celeron) power will Apple be able to squeeze into a Mac mini without resorting to loud fans?

It's going to be a very interesting year as developers port and recompile their programs for the new hardware, as Apple gives us more information, and as developers "leak" their experiences to the rest of the Mac Web.

Depending on where Apple begins the transition to Intel - top of the line or bottom - Low End Mac just might buy a Macintel next June.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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