Who’s going to rush out to buy Apple’s new G5 Power Macs when there’s a whole new processor architecture round the corner? As our speed tests (see page 72) show, the performance boost of the single-chip dual-core systems is slight compared to the previous low-end and mid-range dual-processor Power Macs.
Of course, someone using a four-month old G5 is not the target customer. These new Power Macs wipe the floor with older G5s and grind to dust Graphite and Quicksilver G4s. Pro users still struggling with such machines can’t afford to wait until the first generation of Intel-based pro Macs hit the shelves. Apple estimates that we won’t see pro Intel systems for over a year. For the sake of £1,399 are you prepared to hang around until 2007 watching OS X’s multicoloured spinning beach ball in Photoshop? Eighteen months worth of quad-powered performance will more than make up the two-grand cost of Apple’s fastest-ever Mac for most businesses.
While there’s life yet in IBM’s otherwise stalled PowerPC processors, it’s impossible to look at any new Mac these days without hearing the Intel Inside jingle ringing in your head.
According to rumour, new iBooks are already being worked on and may ship as soon as April or May. Before then a new-look, thinner, faster Intel-inside PowerBook will, like the new iMac, carry a built-in iSight camera. There’s also a chance that the first Intel Mac – in the Mac mini form – will be unveiled at January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
While we thoroughly recommend Apple’s new G5 Power Macs and iMacs for people still hobbled by early G4s, or any G3 generation, the blooming sunrise of Intel casts a long shadow over any new Apple hardware. And so we’re keeping a watchful eye on the latest Intel technologies that we hope will make an early appearance in the next era of Macintosh.
Right now, Intel has unveiled two new desktop processors that offer tantalising opportunities for Apple in the future. The new single-core Intel Pentium 4 672 and 662 processors are almost identical to the 670 and 660 Pentium 4 chips in Intel’s current product line-up, except the new processors have transistors dedicated to improving the performance of virtualisation software.
Here’s the fascinating part: virtualisation technology allows PC and server users to run multiple operating environments on a single processor, allowing one machine to be carved into several “virtual” computers.
For example, users could access corporate applications in one operating environment, while using a different environment for personal applications. In the Windows world IT managers could exercise tight control over the corporate application environment and prevent viruses or malware moving from the personal environment to the rest of the company’s network.
Within the digital office and enterprise, businesses will be able to isolate a portion of a managed PC to perform system upgrades and maintenance without interrupting the end user. IT managers could also create one desktop PC build that runs varied operating systems and software for different or legacy tasks. Multiple servers can be combined into one system, running different applications and operating systems, providing advantages for IT tasks such as server consolidation, legacy migration and security. Home users could create virtual “partitions” isolating multiple user environments such as dedicating resources to a PC game, productivity, and personal video recorder-type environments, as well as improve defences against viruses or spyware.
Now imagine the possibilities of a multiple OS personal computer from Apple, running common Windows business apps alongside Mac OS X and programs such as Final Cut, Aperture and GarageBand. An iMac packing a dual-core Intel processor and TV tuner would really make Apple’s new Front Row software a compelling home-entertainment option.
Virtualisation has been possible for a long time with software from companies such as VMware and XenSource – and, of course, Microsoft’s own VirtualPC that emulates an Intel processor on a PowerPC and so allows a Mac to run Windows and any supporting software. The problem is the performance-sapping nature of software virtualisation.
Processor-bound hardware virtualisation, on the other hand, allows software to run much more efficiently. However, in order to take advantage of the extra performance boost from Intel’s virtualisation technology, software companies have to build support for that capability into their products. Updated software products aren’t expected to become available until the beginning of next year. Suddenly 2006 is starting to look a lot more interesting than a Mac mini with a Pentium logo sticker on the back.
Early next year, Intel will bring hardware virtualisation into its dual-core Pentium D processors. Maybe one core could run Windows, the other Mac or Linux. Around the same time Intel will also introduce virtualisation into its Xeon server chips.
Intel expects over 70 per cent of its desktop and portable processors to be multicore by the end of 2006, and 90 per cent in 2007. Lenovo, Acer, Founder Group, and the tongue-twisting Tsinghua Tongfang Computer System have already committed to supporting the new chips. PC market heavyweights Dell and HP are waiting until next year to introduce the technology into their systems. Apple doesn’t pre-announce future products, but the possibilities of chip-based virtualisation must surely be coursing through the company’s test labs right now.
With only Apple’s PCs able to run both Windows and Mac OS X, Steve Jobs and co. will retain their Mac hardware monopoly and offer Windows users another compelling reason to switch. By being able to use both operating systems simultaneously Switchers can choose the pace at which they swap applications to the safer Mac environment. Once they realise that their clunky Windows partition wastes a great deal of its processing time scanning for viruses and spyware, they may prefer to spend longer in the Mac environment and virtually none in the wild west of Windows. There should only be one winner in the dual-core, dual-OS duel.