x86? Apple Has Other Plans!

2002 – Aren’t you sick to death of everyone on the other platform telling us how Apple has to adopt “x86” (i.e., the same Intel and AMD processors used for Windows and most Linux boxes) to survive? I know I am.

The Rumor Mill

Well, Steve Jobs has unleashed Apple’s engineers to take the Darwin code and port it to several proof of concept machines – not a single one sporting a Pentium or Athlon CPU.

The 64×64

The first project will warm the hearts of old time Apple II, Atari XL, and Commodore users. The Apple 64×64 starts with an updated version of the 6510 CPU found in the Commodore 64. The new 65100 CPU has a 64-bit data bus, a 16 KB L2 onboard cache, and can switch between up to 64 banks of 64 KB of memory. That means the 64×64 needs only 4 MB of RAM to reach maximum capability – the exact same ceiling as the Mac Plus.

That’s not enough to run OS X? Ah, but you’ve only been told half the story. The 64×64 is designed for distributed processing. Each enclosure accepts up to 8 motherboards, and up to 8 enclosures can be linked together with FireWire. That’s 64 processors running at 1 GHz, something that puts even a dual-CPU P4 machine with 2.4 GHz CPUs to shame.

Yes, there are some limitations. Between them, all of the CPUs only have 256 MB of RAM, which seems a bit small by today’s standards. And due to architectural issues, although each CPU can drive graphics, each is limited to 48 KB dedicated to video output, so those amazing 3D graphics many users take for granted just won’t work.

On the other hand, when it comes to a brute force solution, the 64×64 runs with the big boys. Best of all, you’ll be able to link the whole thing to any Mac or PC with a PCI expansion slot and use it as a very dedicated OS X machine.

Apple expects that the 64×64 could sell for as little as $199 for a dual CPU system and just $50 for each additional processor card. The 64×64 runs best when it doesn’t have to deal with graphics.

AltiVec? Forget about it.

Rocket ‘060

When Apple adopted the PowerPC, Motorola was developing their own 88000 RISC chip as well as the 68060, a successor to the 68040 that would have given the early Power Macs a real run for the money. A resurrected version of the 68060 powers the Radius Rocket ‘060 prototype. Like the processor in the rumored iMac ‘040, the ‘060 runs at 2 GHz.

Unlike the iMac ‘040, which has no expansion bus, the Rocket ‘060 incorporates a new high bandwidth system bus with a 128-bit data path and 200 MHz clock speed. The 68060 CPU includes a 1 MB level 2 cache right on the chip and supports up to 16 GB of memory. A single processor model easily held its own against a dual 1 gigahertz G4 in Apple’s demo.

But there’s more to the Rocket ‘060 than meets the eye. In addition to two 4x AGP slots and four PCI slots, the motherboard has socket for up to eight CPU cards on Apple’s high bandwidth bus. That’s 16 GHz of power in a fully stocked computer – and it could ship today.

Best of all, Apple has created a PPC emulator optimized for the 68040 in the iMac ‘040 and the 68060 used in the Rocket ‘060. Much as the 68K emulator allowed Power Macs to run old non-PPC code, the PPC emulator lets these new Macs run PPC code on these decidedly non-PPC processors. And they do it at about 70-80% the performance of a G3 at the same clock speed. Sorry, no Velocity Engine.

Several of the engineers on this project are rumored to be refugees from the Radius Rocket team, a phenomenal “Quadra on a card” created back in the NuBus era. Although not quite as over the top as the “Skylab” project (14 NuBus slots for Rocket cards and a power supply you could use for welding), the design team is very proud of their work.


Using the same 128-bit 200 MHz bus and motherboard as the Rocket ‘060, Gigantor4 uses one, two, or as many as eight G4 processors, eliminating the need to emulate PowerPC code and providing the AltiVec engine that’s just so darn useful for mastering DVDs and rendering 3D graphics in real time.

The design is asynchronous, so the new OS X Box can run with 800 MHz or 1 GHz CPUs today, then add more at the same speed or faster (at 200 MHz increments) as they become available. The design team also hopes the G5 – which should ship sometime this decade – will be able to run on the same bus.

This concept machine has the most potential, since Apple is already committed to the PowerPC architecture – although Jobs may deep six the whole concept, since it makes it too easy to upgrade an existing machine instead of buying new iron.

Just Plain Weird and Fast

On a lark, a trio of Apple engineers managed to get Mac OS X running within 64 MB of RAM on an Nvidia GeForce 4 graphics card. The biggest drawback is that there are absolutely no programs written for the GeForce CPU, so everything has to be compiled on and for the system, and it has to share video memory with the system’s graphics. On the other hand, for absolutely stunning graphics and the fastest Aqua displays you’ve ever seen in your life, nVX will blow you away.

Rumors are Steve Jobs has approached Nvidia to create a dual-processor version of the card with 256 MB of RAM, making that standard for any Power Mac with AGP, and modifying the next version of OS X to let a version of OS X on the Nvidia card handle all the display work.

Well, that’s it for groundless rumors. I hope this helps you understand that Apple has far better things to do than worry about moving to the wimpy x86 architecture as so many want it to do. These guys are just too creative to follow the crowd.

Think different – or just make it easier than ever with a Mac.

– Anne Onymus

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