Macintoshes and Intel

Posted on Monday 13 June 2005

Apple is switching the Macintosh to the Intel CPUs. Does it matter? Should we care?

Yes, it does matter. The reasons Apple is doing this have to do with the future of the Macintosh computer. Not today, but where it will be five years from now. The PPC architecture that is currently found in Macs has been stagnating. The reasons Apple had for selecting the PPC architecture back in the early 1990s no longer exist.

Should we care? No, I don’t think it really matters what CPU is at the heart of the Macintosh. The Mac is more than just the hardware. The main reason that people buy Macintosh computers has little to do with the actual CPU inside the box. They buy it because of OS X’s stabilty and security. They buy it because of the way the applications work well together and have a very consistent user interface. They buy it because the hardware is elegant and appealing visually. They buy it because it works.

These are the mostly the same reasons people buy iPods. iPods are not the least expensive MP3 player by any means, yet they command a lion’s share of the MP3 player market, both HDD-based and flash memory-based. They just work.

I also believe that one of the primary reasons they switched to the Intel CPU for future development is the PowerBook. Right now, there is very little to differentiate the PowerBook from the iBook, and the iBook line is cannibalizing the sales of the lower-end PowerBooks, especially the 12″ model.

The PowerBooks are also falling behind their Intel and AMD-based counterparts in terms of power and processing capability. The price premium that the Apple PowerBooks command is getting harder to justify. Apple will probably update the PowerBook series to the Intel Pentium-M or the “Yonah” CPU in the beginning of next year, if not earlier, to help differentiate the PowerBook line from the iBooks, and to bring the processing power back in to parity with the Intel/AMD-based Windows laptops.

The adoption of the x86 architecture shouldn’t noticeably affect the “feel” of the Macintosh. If Tiger has truly been developed to be platform independent, and the Apple Applications, like iLife have been developed as universal binaries, I see no reason why a user would even notice the change in the underlying CPU architecture.

Yes, some applications, like Final Cut Pro, will suffer due to the lack of the Altivec Velocity Engine, but will the performance loss due to the missing Altivec processor outweigh the gains made by the significantly faster processor core. I don’t think so… I think it’ll be pretty much a wash.

In terms of security. The majority of the viruses, trojans, spyware and other malware are highly dependent on the existing Windows API structures. I seriously doubt that Mac OS X will be signicantly more vulnerable on the new CPU architecture. After all, Linux and BSD have been running on the x86 architecture and do not suffer from the extreme levels and numbers of vulnerabilities that plague Windows-based machines.

Two years is a long time to be waiting. There is little we can do to guess what final CPU and architecture the “high-end” Macs will be using in two years time. In the short term, there are major benefits to Apple, as the growing portable computer market is extremely valuable and the switch to the Intel CPU architecture will bring their portables back in to a position where the slight price premium is once again justifiable.

Change is scary. Many people are worried about the change in the CPU architecture as it is a major change. In many ways, it is a change for the better. IBM had no roadmap for faster CPUs, and they had not developed anything that was suitable for a portable. Intel does. The reasons for choosing the PPC architecture 12 years ago no longer really exist. The accellerated evolution of the x86 architecture due to the rivalry between AMD and Intel has left the stagnating PPC architecture development behind.

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