Problem Solving Guy 6
Of Intel Macs and Men

On March 14, 2006, in How-To, by Guy Serle


John: How do I understand Apple’s alleged benchmarks, Guy?

Guy: Benchmarks are like idiot bosses and opinions. Everyone has one and their usefulness depends on what expectations you have going in. Apple is in the business of selling computers and these are the first batch to use Intel processors. When you purchase a new electronic doo-dad, I can’t imagine a major promotion point is going to be that they aren’t going to work as well as what you already have The last thing they are going to do is emphasize that certain things are going to be slower (like existing PPC apps) or impossible (like Classic apps).. Imagine the advertising slogan: “WOW! IT’S SLOWER AND NOT AS CAPABLE! BUY ONE TODAY!” Yeah, that’s thinking different alright.

Of course that’s only half the story. For instance, the new Macs start up much faster than before, which doesn’t exactly make me salivate to buy one, but is an improvement. The fact that it is capable of running PPC legacy applications (albeit slower via Rosetta) is a selling point and one that Apple has made.

Apple is using SPEC scores to show how much faster the new Intel Macs are than the ones they replace. I find this interesting since for a long time Apple used application benchmarks for comparison. Photoshop filters would be a good example. Apple of course skewed their comparisons to show themselves in a more favorable light than their competitors. No big surprise there as I can’t think of any manufacturer of goods that would compare themselves to a BETTER product in their own literature. SPEC scores are certainly a way to see which computer might be faster, but it doesn’t tell you if your computer will be better at the tasks you want to accomplish in comparison to your old computer.

John: How fast are the new Intel Macs in real world use on both Universal and existing applications?

Guy: Applications that have been made into Universal Binaries run much faster on new Intel Macs than on the machines they replaced. Please note I said the machines they replaced. Apple has wisely avoided making comparisons between say, new Intel iMacs and Dual/Quad processor G5 towers.

Running Universal Applications on new Intel Macs can show just how fast they are. As in noticeably faster than the PPC (G3/4/5) Macintoshes. If all you run are Universal Applications, it makes sense to go ahead and get one of these babies. If you use a lot of programs that have not been converted or (God help you) classic apps, I would advise waiting until such conversions are complete or another program is available to fill in the gap.

John: Why is AppleWorks gone from iMac software package now? How annoying. I hear it still works fine on the Intel Macs.

Guy: I agree that it is odd. Especially since its eventual replacement (iWork) doesn’t have all the features that AppleWorks had. Checking the Apple website reveals that AppleWorks has not been converted into a Universal Binary. Anyone want to take bets on whether or not Apple will do so? I’m giving great odds on it not happening.

Apple wants to sell you iWork. They give you a 30 day free trial with every new Mac. Certainly iWork has features in word processing and presentations that AppleWorks just can’t touch. Considering that iWork costs just $79, that’s not a bad deal. Of course it also depends on what you use programs like this for. If you do the family budget with AppleWork’s spreadsheet program, iWork probably won’t cut it.

So why didn’t they make it Universal? I don’t work for Apple, but my guess is that considering most people don’t buy AppleWorks or upgrade it when a new version is released, it just wasn’t cost effective for them to do so. I suppose AppleWorks will eventually join Claris the Dogcow in that great software heaven in the sky.

John: Did you read David Pogue’s New York Times Circuits feature on the MacBook Pro? Do you think he covered all the important new hardware attributes and omissions?

Guy: David Pogue is a writing monster! I envy him for the time he has to do so and his obvious talents. I also envy him for all the great products sent his way for review. He wrote a great review of the MacBook Pro with all its pluses and minuses. He certainly hit all the high points and as far as omissions go, sometimes you can’t see the forest from the trees. It will probably take some time and daily use before all the negatives become obvious. David is of course welcome to send me his now (ahem) soiled and used MacBook Pro for my own testing. It shouldn’t take more than, say, two years.

John: If somebody has a relatively new iMac or PowerBook, at what point should they replace them with their new Intel models? Ditto for the Mac mini.

Guy: I can’t speak for everyone in when they should replace their hardware. Ohhhh, what the heck, I will anyway. If your current hardware runs all your applications without a hiccup and at a speed you are satisfied with, why upgrade? New computers of any stripe (Mac OS, Windows, Linux) mean new potential problems. Upgrade when it is economically and technically to your advantage to do so. In my case, it’s when my wife says I can.

If you just spent $500 to 2500 on a new PPC Mac, be happy with your purchase. It will serve you for years quickly and efficiently. If some new application comes out that will only work on Intel Macs (this most likely won’t happen for some time), then make the change. Your 2.1 GHz G5 iMac will be a great workhorse for some time. It would be like buying a new car because they came out with an exterior color that your model year didn’t have.

Some Macs are not as equal as others though. If you bought a MacBook Pro to replace your PPC PowerBook, you have made a significant upgrade. The difference between the G5 iMac and the Intel iMac are not as clear-cut. As far as the Mac mini goes, that leads into your next question.

John: Why yes it does. Speaking of the Intel Mac minis, are people really going to buy these things? They seem pricey for what’s included, don’t you think, Guy?

Guy: I don’t know. Look at the market for the Mac mini. It’s primarily a starter machine, or to be used for light to medium duty work. No one is going to use these for Final Cut Pro or Motion workstations. Even the Mac mini G4 at its fastest was not exactly a Photoshop powerhouse. The Pros are going to use pro machines. That’s not the mini.

The specifications for the Intel mini are not really that bad. In comparison to the G4 model, they included another USB port, gigabit Ethernet, BlueTooth, and 802.11g wireless networking. These were mostly extra-cost or features not available in the G4 mini. On the other hand, they took out the dedicated graphics processor in favor of Intel’s shared memory graphics chipset. Does this make a difference? Hard to say. The ATI chip the G4 used was hardly a barnburner, especially with only 32 megs of video Ram. The Intel chipset apparently can use up to 80 megs. While this takes away from the amount of Ram available for other things, there should be enough left for OS duties and application support. Even if all you have is the standard 512 megs. Of course it also has either a natively faster single Intel processor or in the more expensive models a dual-core processor with a dual layer DVD burner.

I don’t know what to think about the new mini. It has much improved features in certain areas and decreased capabilities in others. Is it worth the extra money being asked? For beginner to medium grade users, yeah, it’s a nice machine. Would I buy one for everyday use? Nope.

John: Do you believe in versionitis, that only by a second or third upgrade to CPU hardware are the computers ready for prime time?

Guy: That is such a loaded question! Something has to be first and these aren’t too bad considering some of the other first models out by Apple. Namely, the Lisa (OK, not actually a Mac product, but it was the first GUI released by Apple), the 128K Mac (not exactly a powerhouse, even by the standards of the day), or the Mac IICX? How about the first PPC machines like the 6100, 7100, or 8100? What of the PowerBook Duos? The PowerBook 5300? Let’s not even talk about the Performa line or the Mac Portable.

Apple has also made some first run machines that are legendary like the Mac II initial release. The original PowerBook 100 has a soft spot in a lot of people’s hearts. The original PowerBook G3s (The Wallstreet, Lombard, and Pismo were well-built powerful for their day). No machine is probably better known or beloved as the original iMac G3.

Apple isn’t the only maker of Macs to have its share of problems with initial releases. Most of the clone makers had serious issues as well. Especially the Motorola StarMax and others built from that platform. Power Computing and Umax were the two that pretty much hit one out of the park as far as quality and performance goes. Umax especially had some great designs (I had a C600 603 based tower that I loved). I positively drooled for one of their S900 604 based models.

Let’s face it. It’s a crapshoot to determine whether or not a particular line is going to be great over the long haul. We have the advantage of history to determine the worthiness of past Apple computers.

John: Who really needs a MacBook Pro anyway, Guy, once the affordable, versatile MacBook Basic (or whatever the iBook’s Intel replacement is called) is available?

Guy: Ah, but what will that machine actually have inside? For a clue, look at the mini. The old (what, at least a week now) G4 mini essentially had the guts of a G4 iBook. Now the process is reversed. Since the Intel mini was released before the iBook replacement, chances are we can make a pretty good guess as to what will be in the…um…MacBook? The screen size is indeterminable since I’ve heard at least three different ones. 12 inch, 13.3 inch 14 inch, eh, whatever. It most likely will have two different versions, one with a single core and one with a dual core (sound familiar?), Intel integrated graphics, and either a combo CD/DVD or DVD dualie burner.

This does not give me the warm and fuzzies. I want a dedicated graphics chip with dedicated memory. Even in a laptop. The MacBook Pros have 128-256 Megs of dedicated video ram, so give the MacBook 64 megs. The people buying MacBook Pros certainly deserve some extra goodies since they’re paying for it, just don’t shortchange us more thrifty (some would say cheap) types.

As for who needs it? People who require a beefier machine than what the regular grade MacBook will bring to the table. Video or audio pros using pro-level software that want faster responses from their software. The MacBook Pros have expansion slots for..um..what DO they use those slots for? Well, anyway they have them. Regular folks that just want a portable extension of their desktop just want a good solid machine. That’s why I bought my iBook oh so many years ago. I would like to replace it now, but I won’t be satisfied with integrated graphics solutions.

John: Is Front Row useful, or merely eye candy in this early release?

Guy: I honestly haven’t played with Front Row much, so I might not be the right one to answer this..HAHAHA! Sorry, couldn’t keep a straight face. I do have an opinion on Front Row. It’s Apple’s first shot across the Media Center’s bow. I think they are positioning themselves to be first and foremost in the living room. Strategic partnerships are needed to be successful, and hopefully Apple is looking for help from Cable and Satellite companies. Apple likes the all-in-one solution and quite frankly I think most consumers would as well.

Microsoft’s Media Center PCs have not sold all that well from what I hear. You need to be pretty geeky to set it up properly and this is a society that has had 12:00 blinking across VCRs for the last 20 years. If anyone could make it brain-dead simple to use and operate, it’s Apple.

John: How much memory do you recommend for each of the models of Intel Mac currently in production?

Guy: Apple supplies each machine with 512 megs of Ram and for most people that will be enough. For the MacBook Pro’s I would get at least 1 Gb. The iMacs I wouldn’t bother with more than what’s standard. For the Mac minis I would get as much as you can afford in those two Ram slots. More memory will give you better performance and that will certainly be needed for that shared graphics memory chipset.

John: Why do the Apple retail stores and online shop have MacBook Pros so far ahead of competitors such as Amazon.com?

Guy: In the immortal words of Mel Brookes, “Because it’s good to be the King”! Apple makes more money on computers they sell themselves over retail sales. The initial surge in sales (if there is going to be one) typically is when products are first released.

 

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