Apple's New Core
A whole new generation of Macs has arrived. They're sleeker and faster--and have Intel inside.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - Change is inevitable, and that's generally a good thing. Granted, you won't find many dinosaurs happy about the sudden climate change 65.5 million years ago, but in the grand scheme of things the world today is a better place because of it, at least if you ask us mammals.
And so it is with Apple's decision to evolve the Macintosh line of personal computers, changing to Intel (Research) microprocessors and away from the PowerPC chips that have been the foundation of the Mac family for the past epoch.
Computing dinosaurs will complain that many of their favorite Macintosh software applications and peripherals no longer work (or don't work as well) on the Intel-based Macs. Their complaints, although likely to be temporary, are valid. However, after testing two of the new Intel Core Duo--based Macs--the 15-inch MacBook Pro portable and the 20-inch iMac desktop--it is clear to me that in many ways Apple (Research) has improved on what were already two of the best computers on the planet and has built a better foundation for the future.
Both machines are, in general, faster and more advanced than the PowerPC-based systems they replace. (During the transition Apple will continue to sell PowerPC-based PowerBooks and iMacs "while supplies last.") But Apple users eager to switch to the Core Duo Macs need to be aware of the short-term headaches of changing processor platforms. Apple is consistently ahead of its PC rivals in terms of features, functions, and design, but in this case it's also ahead of software and peripherals makers.
Apple's Mac OS X operating system has been retooled for the Intel chip, along with most of Apple's homegrown applications, including the Safari browser, iTunes, and iPhoto. Apple claims that the Intel-optimized programs run "up to four times faster" than they did on PowerPC-based Macs, and while the claim is based on benchmarks that bear little resemblance to real-world usage, you don't need a stopwatch to verify that those applications are indeed much snappier.
The speed gain comes not just from the dual-core processor, but also from faster internal circuitry, faster memory chips, and a new, more powerful graphics card.
Almost all the major Macintosh software makers have announced that future versions of their programs will be "universal," able to run on both Intel and PowerPC Macs. Meanwhile, the new Macs come with software called Rosetta that allows most older PowerPC software to run on the MacIntel platform.
Both the MacBook Pro and the Intel-based iMac have built-in iSight videocameras, which, along with the Apple iChat AV software that comes standard with all new Macs, means they can be used for video teleconferencing right out of the box. The MacBook Pro's LCD display screen is much brighter than the one on the older 15-inch PowerBook. A new magnetic power connector called MagSafe replaces the conventional power plug on the PowerBooks. If you've ever accidentally tripped on the power cord and yanked the computer off the desk, you'll cheer the first time the MagSafe connector snaps off harmlessly when the power cord is tugged.
So, what's not to like? While Mac OS X and hundreds of Macintosh applications have been retooled for the Intel Core Duo chip already, thousands of other programs have not, at least not yet. And when they are available, you may have to pay extra fees for new "universal" upgrades. Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and many other popular Mac programs are not yet ready for the Intel Macs. Rosetta allows them to operate, but they run more slowly than on PowerPC Macs. Older "Classic" Mac programs won't run at all.
Microsoft's Virtual PC software allowed Windows applications to run inside Mac OS X. The new Intel Macs can't run Virtual PC--oh, the irony of an Intel chip that's unable to run Windows--and Microsoft has stopped short of promising a quick solution. Another warning flag: Current antivirus software will not work on the Intel Macs, which is troubling, given the recent appearance of the first known Mac OS X-specific worms and viruses.
Apple has not yet made claims about the battery life of the MacBook Pro, but in my tests a fully loaded machine with all energy-saving settings disabled was able to play the entire DVD of The Incredibles before the battery pooped out at 125 minutes. By the way, the new DVD drive is a step backward, unable to record double-layer disks. Apple sacrificed capacity in favor of a thinner drive, allowing the MacBook Pro to slim down to just one inch thick. I was hoping for a faster hard drive too. The serial ATA drive in the MacBook Pro I tested actually made a faint snoring sound.
Apple took heat when it eliminated the floppy drive from the initial iMacs, and it's likely to draw fire again for its decision to jettison the dial-up modem from the MacBook Pro. True, most users connect to the Internet these days with built-in Wi-Fi or Ethernet, but some troglodytes will now have to pay $50 for an external modem. More painful, for me at least, is Apple's decision to retire the PCMCIA card slot in favor of a new (and admittedly better) type of peripheral connector called PCI Express. The problem is, there aren't many Express-based peripherals available yet. Apple is shoving its users into the future, but in the meantime I can't use my Kyocera EV-DO wireless broadband PC card.
My MacBook Pro test model was Apple's flagship machine, with a 2.16-gigahertz Intel Core Duo processor and two whopping gigabytes of system memory. It had a slot-loading CD and DVD optical drive, a 93-gigabyte hard drive, a DVI-out port for connecting to a large external display (handy for desktop work), built-in Bluetooth and Airport wireless networking, and most of the familiar features that made the PowerBook G4 such a delightful machine to carry on the road.
If I had to replace my current PowerBook G4 right away--and had $2,000 to $3,000 to spend--I would get the MacBook Pro without hesitation. It's the evolved Mac, and it's intelligently designed. But my theory is that if you're not in a rush, it's best to wait for the software to catch up.
Peter Lewis writes the Gadgets column for FORTUNE magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.