Mac Musings

Mac Sales Off: Why Macintel and PowerPC Are Hard to Sell Today

Daniel Knight - 2006.01.26

If the folks at Think Secret are right, sales of the Macintel iMac are below Apple's expectations - and iMac G5 and PowerBook G4 sales are off as well.

This does not bode well for Apple.

With promises of 2x to 4x the performance of their predecessors, you'd think the new iMacs would be flying off the shelves and MacBook Pro preorders would be piling up like leaves beneath an oak tree in the fall.

What Went Wrong?

In terms of selling off old inventory, Apple really blew it by keeping prices of the iMac G5 and 15" PowerBook G4 unchanged after claiming the new iMac was twice as fast as the old one - and the new MacBook Pro four times as fast as the PowerBook G4.

Whether these claims can be substantiated in the real world or not (and thus far it appears that they cannot), it puts Apple in the unenviable position of trying to sell two similar computers at the exact same price while claiming the 2006 models are significantly faster than the 2005 ones.

Not smart. In our estimation nothing less than a 20% price cut, and preferably a 30% one, will be enough to get the old PowerPC iMacs and PowerBooks out the door.

PowerPC Benefits

There are only two areas where the older Macs have an advantage over the new Macintel models.

  1. PowerPC Macs can all run Classic Mode; Intel Macs cannot.
  2. PowerPC Macs run PowerPC apps more quickly than Intel Macs can with their Rosetta emulation.

The first point won't be a big consideration for new switchers, but it's a big factor for longtime Mac users, including several of Low End Mac's writers. For those of us still content with Claris HomePage, Photoshop 5.5, Claris Emailer, or other "classic" apps, no Classic on Macintel is a stumbling block - if not an outright deal breaker.

Just as 680x0 emulation on Power Macs paved the way for Mac users to transition from 680x0-based Macs to PowerPC-based ones, Rosetta makes it possible for OS X users to migrate to Intel-based Macs without losing access to (most of) their OS X apps.

The problem with emulation is performance. While a few programs won't work under emulation, the bigger drawback is that PowerPC code run under Rosetta needs on average 50% more memory and tends to run at 50-70% of their speeds on a PowerPC Mac.

For those who need performance and have to use either Classic Mode or programs that have not yet been ported to Intel, there's a good reason to stick with PowerPC Macs.

Macintel Benefits

Simply because the Intel Core Duo processor has two cores, the new Macintel models should offer roughly twice the CPU performance of the G4 and G5 Macs they replace, all other architectural considerations aside.

With Intel-native apps (a.k.a. Universal Binaries), the Intel iMac and MacBook Pro really demonstrate their potential. Every field report shows that an Intel Core Duo outperforms a single-core G4 or G5 at the same clock speed with Intel-native software.

But none of the benchmarks demonstrate twice the power across the board, let alone the 4x Apple claims for the MacBook Pro. The Intel Macs average one-third to 2.5x as fast depending on the task, but overall the average less than twice the overall performance.

That means that everyone was right to take Apple's claims with a shaker or two of salt. Abstract floating point and integer benchmarks are not predictors of real world performance, and when people hear "twice as fast" they assume it means the whole experience, not just certain CPU functions.

Still, in the long run the Intel Macs are going to smoke the PowerPC Macs, but that depends on having native-code apps. It will be months before most serious apps are available as universal binaries, and buyers do well to wait for their most important apps (perhaps Photoshop) to get ported over to the new hardware and avoid the emulation slowdown.

Hard Sell Both Ways

It's a tough sell for Apple. People are skeptical about the new Intel Macs, which promise a lot but are unproven. Making extravagant performance claims only makes us more skeptical, making the Intel Macs a harder sell.

While realizing that the Intel Macs will eventually offer significant performance gains, Mac users see the older PowerPC Macs selling for the same price they had before the Expo. What's up with that? How can Apple believe they'll have significant sales of "last year's architecture" now that the Intel Macs are out with Apple's promises of huge performance gains?

Mac users and potential switchers can be excused for not jumping on the new platform, since their most important apps may not yet be available. And they can be excused for holding off on the iMac G5 and PowerBook G4, since they offer less overall performance than the Macintel models that replace them at exactly the same price.

The Solution

To move the PowerPC inventory, Apple has to do what car makers do at the start of the new model year - blow out the old stuff at reduced prices. A 20% price cut would be a good start considering the extravagant claims made for the Macintels.

To get people to adopt the 2006 Macs, Apple needs to put some pressure on Adobe, Microsoft, Quark, and others to get their mission critical apps ported over to Intel architecture. The longer we go with Photoshop, Microsoft Office, Quark, and other crucial apps unavailable as universal binaries, and the longer Mac users have to choose between full speed on PowerPC Macs or slower emulated performance on Macintel models, the longer it's going to take for the Intel Macs to take off.

Even Apple's pro apps won't be available until some time in March, further reducing any reason for people who use them to go Intel now instead of when the apps they use are finally available.

It's a good thing Apple is coming off their best year and best quarter ever, because the mixed messages of the Intel transition are going to plague them for this entire quarter, if not the first half of the calendar year.

Then again, we can be sure that iPod sales will take up the slack.