We're less than three weeks away from another Macworld Expo and, per usual, rumour mills and analysts alike are buzzing about Apple's upcoming releases at the San Francisco event, which starts January 10. Top among the predictions is the expectation that Apple's first computers bearing Intel chips will be announced.
In my last MacTek Talk column, I wrote about the reasons behind Apple's move to Intel, and while no one's sure what will be announced next month, one thing's for sure: Intel-based Macs are coming in 2006. This has prompted some interesting feedback from readers, and this instalment of MacTek Talk will focus on some of the common questions and concerns.
One of the more frequent questions is about the fate of Apple's G5-based computers, specifically whether the G5 processor would ever make it into a PowerBook. My opinion: The G5 PowerBook is a dream that will never happen. Apple is, after all, transitioning to Intel's chips for a reason, and one of those reasons is the lack of portability of the G5s.
Even if those processors could operate within the small form-factor laptops require, one would have to ask whether Apple would be wise to put engineering effort - and dollars - into a project that has already been rendered obsolete by the mere announcement of the Intel transition.
As for the fate of the Power Mac G5s, I believe they'll be around for a while during the transition phase. Developers will have to do a lot of work to bring their professional applications to the Mac/Intel platform. While Apple touts the ease of rebuilding application code for use on the x86 architecture, it's clear that results will vary.
The good news is that several developers have already documented successfully moving their products to Universal Binaries (that is, creating a single application that can run on both the PowerPC and x86 architectures). But history tells us that it will be a few updates before the code is fine-tuned enough to run well on any new platform, so there could be performance issues.
What remains to be seen is whether developers will charge for the time needed to make their applications Intel-compatible, as some did during the Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X transition. Will customers be willing to pay more money after spending so much on OS X-native applications just a few years ago?
Apple has come up with a contingency plan with Rosetta, a layer built into the Intel version of Mac OS X that allows programs written for the PowerPC platform to run on Intel-based Macs. While reports indicate that Apple has significantly increased the speed of applications running within Rosetta with the latest OS X for Intel releases, the bad news is that there is still a performance penalty.
This doesn't bode well for professionals who will be expecting performance increases when they buy new computers, and that's aside from the fact that it's generally a good idea to wait on purchasing the first revision of any new hardware or software - just in case some bugs slip through unnoticed.
As a result, I think it's still very safe and very smart to purchase Apple's G5 Power Macs, especially the new Power Mac Quad G5s (reviewed in the current issue of Macworld). Apple isn't expected to drop support for its current Power Macs for at least the next few years, by which time it should be time to purchase new computers anyway.
Whether Apple will update the G5s beyond the current speeds remains to be seen. Because of the Rosetta-related performance hit and the time to market for most native applications, I expect Apple's professional line of computers will be the last of the PowerPC-based computers to make the move to Intel. While professionals want to squeeze as much performance out of their apps as possible, it's consumers who will be far more forgiving.
As long as Apple's iLife suite and OS X applications are native, customers won't mind running some of their third-party, non-native apps within Rosetta.