Mac Musings

What Going Intel Really Means for Apple

Dan Knight - 2006.02.16 - Tip Jar

In yet another indication that he just doesn't get it, Paul Murphy's latest article on ZDNet (What Mactel Means for Apple) paints the Intel switch as a disaster, stating:

"Bottom line? 'Intel Inside' cheapens the brand, weakens the halo effect supporting Apple's highly profitable entertainment products, raises Apple's costs, results in reduced overall performance, and limits Apple's ability to differentiate its products."

The Importance of Being 64-bit

Murphy begins by taking Apple to task for switching from the 64-bit G5 to the 32-bit Intel Core Duo. He fails to mention that the computer industry has been happily wed to 32-bit CPUs since the mid-1980s and that for most users most of the time a 32-bit CPU is no hardship at all.

The only significant advantage a 64-bit CPU offers over a 32-bit CPU is memory space. If you need more than 2 GB of RAM, you've got a legitimate excuse for looking at 64-bit CPUs.

The other supposed advantage is that 64-bit CPUs handle data 64 bits at a time, but for the most intensive number crunching work, both PowerPC and Intel CPUs have dedicated floating point units to do the heavy lifting - typically at 80-bit precision.

Another claim is that 64-bit CPUs can pull data from memory twice as fast, but that's a matter of the chip's memory bus, not its internal architecture.

For those who need 64-bit CPUs, there's the G5. And there are rumors that the Core Duo may have some 64-bit support, although it's hard to imagine Intel not touting that if it's there. And later this year there will be 64-bit Macintel models for the high-end crowd.

But for now, and for the market the iMac and MacBook Pro are aimed at, 32-bit computing is all we need.

Faster, Cheaper Systems - Part 1

Murphy next chides Apple for not releasing "faster, cheaper" Macs, as though the iMac and MacBook Pro are the extent of Apple's product line. Both Intel-based lines are faster thanks to a dual-core CPU, and they are really unleashed when running "universal binary" programs that takes advantage of the Intel chip.

Universal binary software has consistently shown better performance than PowerPC software when the new iMac is compared against the iMac G5. In fact, in some tests the iMac Core Duo nearly matches Apple's flagship Power Mac G5 Quad.

In short, the Intel Macs are faster.

I'm sure we'll see cheaper systems when Apple elects to replace the Mac mini and iBook with Intel models. A lot of us are guessing second quarter for these, especially since iBook upgrades usually come in April. The best guess is that these will use Intel Core Solo CPUs to keep costs down.

Faster, Cheaper Systems - Part 2

The other argument Murphy makes is valid, and it's one we've often pointed out on Low End Mac. While Rosetta lets you run PowerPC OS X software on the new Intel Macs, it's slow - perhaps half to two-thirds as fast as when running on a single-core G5 at a comparable clock speed.

Although universal binary programs will unleash the power of the Intel CPUs found in the newest Macs, running existing PowerPC code will make them feel slow.

One month after the Expo, over 650 programs are available as universal binaries, and Apple's "pro" apps should be reaching users in the near future. While some companies, such as Quark, Adobe, and Microsoft, are in no hurry to release universal binary versions of their important apps, that's just an argument for those who need them to postpone going Macintel until their crucial apps have made the transition.

And by the time the first Core Solo Macs ship, there should be enough universal binary code to keep the entry-level Mac market happy. (That's another thing Murphy misses - Apple isn't going after the high-end pro market yet. Their day will come later in the year, by which time there will be far more universal binary programs.)

The speed increases are there with the new software, just as they were really there when Apple made the PowerPC switch over a decade ago. You have always needed the right software to take full advantage of new hardware.

Faster, Cheaper Systems - Part 3

Finally, Intel makes a lot more than CPUs. They can integrate USB 2.0 and other types of hardware on the motherboard, something they've been doing on the PC side for ages. The cost to produce a Macintel motherboard will include savings that will help offset the higher cost of Intel CPUs.

Intel Makes Apple More Mainstream

I can't imagine Apple ever making the argument that they wanted to be mainstream. Apple has always been different, and that has usually meant better.

One thing the Intel transition does is put Apple on an equal footing with Windows PCs in the GHz race. No more MHz myth. No more trying to compare G-this with Pentium-that. A Core Duo is a Core Duo is a Core Duo.

Whether this will lead to wider adoption or not - and most of us believe it's the superior Mac OS X and not the hardware itself that brings about the switch - it will make it easier to compare Apples and Dells.

Lower Software Development Costs

Will going Intel reduce software development costs? It's unlikely, since very little software (outside of games) is written specifically for the CPU. Most software spends most of its time making calls to the operating system - read the keyboard, display this character, track the mouse, write this file, create a new window, etc.

Anyone who believes that going Intel will significantly reduce development costs (or, for that matter, make viruses and other malware more likely) is obviously smoking something. At least Apple and Intel have worked together to make it relatively easy for vendors to recompile much of their existing code into universal binaries....

Loss of Brand Differentiation

We live in a funny world, where people end up associating a brand with a type of product. Some people use the Xerox name to refer to photocopying. Aspirin, once a protected trademark of Bayer, has become generic in many parts of the world, and Kleenex is working hard to protect their trademark.

People want to buy a SureShot, a Discman, or an iPod, yet they may not walk out of the store with a Canon camera, a Sony portable CD player, or an Apple MP3 player. (I hope the salesman explained the difference before taking their money.)

As Jeff Adkins pointed out earlier this week, consumers are confused about the difference between brands and operating systems. iMacs and PowerBooks and iBooks are Mac OS computers. Dells and Gateways are Windows computers.

Apple has some very solid brands. Their iPod line dominates the MP3 player market, and their Macintosh computers are top choices in many fields. What distinguishes Apple products is intelligent design, not just a nameplate stuck on an otherwise generic product. iPods and Macs are unique; PlaysForSure music players and Windows PCs are pretty generic.

Security

What many tech pundits don't understand is the difference between an underlying hardware architecture (PowerPC vs. Intel) and an operating system (Windows vs. Linux vs. Mac OS X).

While new Macs will be subject to the same Intel CPU "errata" issues as Windows PCs, the operating systems themselves are vastly different. It's going to be as easy to create a Macintel virus as a Linux one, and neither platform is known for having even 1% as many viruses as Windows. (Okay, truthfully there are absolutely no known Mac viruses - Intel or PowerPC - in the wild. None. Zip. Nada.)

A computer is only as secure as its operating system, and OS X and other Unix-derived operating systems have shown themselves to be far more secure than Windows for the last two decades. While none of these operating systems are completely secure, the simple fact is that Windows vulnerabilities are constantly being exploited; *nix ones are not.

Moving to Intel CPUs won't change that, Mr. Murphy.

Intel Cheapens the Brand

Putting an "Intel inside" sticker on the front of an iMac would cheapen the brand. Moving to a new CPU platform that offers more performance and better power efficiency does not.

Those who are sick and tired of Windows have three choices: live with it, put up with Linux, or adopt OS X, which has the most extensive range of commercial apps outside of Windows. They can continue to buy pieces and parts from different vendors or go with the one vendor who makes the whole widget - computer and operating system.

Intel doesn't cheapen the Macintosh brand. It allows Apple to move forward from the stagnant world of PowerPC - the G5 never reached 3 GHz and was too energy hungry to be viable in a notebook computer. And it makes it easier for Windows users contemplating a switch to compare Macs and PCs side-by-side in terms of CPU power.

Given time to release an entire line of Intel-based products, we will see more power, lower prices, more universal binary software, and more Windows users making the switch.

That what going Intel means for Apple.

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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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