February 9, 2006

A new partnership for Apple

For many years the words Intel and Apple were hardly ever mentioned in the same sentence. But since January at Macworld in San Francisco the two words and the two companies are now invariably linked in a long and hopefully fruitful partnership. Apple has just announced its first computers that use Intel's new Core Duo processors. Not only did they release two computers that contain the chip (the new iMac and Macbook Pro) but they did so a full 6 months ahead of schedule. The stock market agreed that the news was good and sent the stock soaring to a record high of over $85USD.

So what is so special about this Intel announcement? The PowerPC G4 chip that has been in Macs for over 4 years now is a great processor and was recently superseded by the G5, a super fast chip, but one that consumed a relatively large amount of power for its performance. Putting a G5 in a desktop was easy, putting one in a laptop (where power consumption is critical) was impossible. Apple needed another solution and looked to Intel for it.

The Intel Core Dup chip is around four times faster then the G4, and approximately twice as fast as the G5. In terms of performance per watt the new Core Duo blows away both the G4 and G5. The Core Duo ship produces more computing performance per watt of power - and that is the main reason why Apple decided to switch.

There has been speculation about Apple going to Intel for years, and at last years Worldwide Developer Conference Steven Jobs announced the switch - and said that Mac OS X, Apple's next generation operating system had been running on both platforms since its inception. The difficulty for Apple was getting its developers to re-write their applications to be compatible with the new Intel architecture. Instead of forcing their hand Apple leveraged an on-the-fly translation technology in to the new Macs called Rosetta. Rosetta technology enables current PowerPC compiled applications to run smoothly, and at around 60-80% of their native speed on Intel machines.

So far reports about the new Intel Macs have been largely positive. Most Apple software has now been converted to the new Universal Binary format (these applications can run natively on both PowerPC and Intel chips) with Apple promising that their Pro applications (like Final Cut) will be Universal Binary by March. When running natively speed increases have been as promised - 3-4 times as fast as a G4 and 2-3 times as fast as a G5. In the recent Macworld keynote Jobs used the machines throughout his presentation to demo the new iLife and iWorks software package. In iPhoto - a resource hungry and sometimes slow application the Core Duo iMac Jobs was using flew through the 250,000 photos it had in its library.

The question for consumers is, “when is the right time to buy a new Mac?”. Well, if you are in the market for either a new consumer desktop or pro laptop now is the time. These new Core Duo Macs are the first glimpse of the future - and they have arrived about 6 months early. If you were thinking about an iBook or a Mac Mini I'd probably wait till the Intel ready versions of these products are released - likely to be within the next 3-4 months. If you are a Pro, the Dual and Quad G5's are still impressive machines and run all of the current Pro software well - these machines are likely to be the last to receive an upgrade, but even then Jobs has promised that the transition will be complete by the end of 2006.

Either way, the future is looking bright for Apple - The new Intel chips are first class and very fast, Mac OS X (Tiger) has been voted numerous times as the best, most stable, secure and easy-to-use operating system on the planet (and version 10.5 should be out by the end of the year) with a growing market share, iPod + iTunes continues to be the market leader (by a staggering 80%!) in the digital music world, and as Jobs always says at the end of his famous keynotes, there is always 'one more thing' to come.