Power Macs Continue on PowerPC Track

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2005-10-19

Power Macs Continue on PowerPC Track

Apple Computer Inc. may have tipped its hand on Wednesday, by revealing its new line of Power Mac G5s based on the dual-core PowerPC processor.

The notoriously secretive computer makers new lineup includes single chip models running at 2GHz and 2.3GHz and a dual-processor machine with 2.5GHz chips. Apple also updated its PowerBook portable line.

By moving to the dual-core PowerPC chip, a move thats been anticipated since IBM officially unveiled its dual-core PowerPC 970MP earlier this year, Apple also communicated something else.

Despite Apples plan to begin moving its computers to Intel Corp.s x86 chips in 2006, the new systems suggest that PowerPC chips are likely to be around for a while in the Power Mac line and its other products are likely to make the switch first.

"The IBM 970MP is locked, loaded and ready to go. Theres no reason why Apple would forgo putting that chip into its systems," said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor report.

Moving to the latest PowerPC chips also gives Apple some breathing room on the high-end line while software makers rewrite applications and its own teams work to get other products out the door. Apple is most likely to move some of its older designs based on G4 processors to Intel chips before transitioning the Power Mac line.

Apples PowerBook line, which Apple updated on Wednesday with higher resolution screens, is the most likely candidate, followed by the Mac Mini.

The PowerBook could move to Intels Yonah chip, a dual-core version of its Pentium M thats due out in January, early next year, analysts predicted.

"My expectation is the Intel chips would appear first in [Apple] notebooks and maybe consumer Macs," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research Inc. "Theres lots of reasons to do it that way. One is theres lower risk for Apple and theres greater need. If you look the notebook line...you still have the [1.67GHz] G4 processor. Thats where the need is greatest [for an upgrade]." Yonah is expected to offer twin processors, each with speeds of around 2GHz.

Yonah was designed specifically for notebooks. But Intel has also been pitching it for small desktops. Its part of the companys Golden Gate PC reference design, which is about the same size as an external PC DVD drive, for example, showing it fits just as easily into tiny desktop machines like the Mac Mini.

Apple, which said that it will switch to Intel chips due to the chip makers edge in performance per watt of energy consumed, is likely to wait longer before switching its Power Macs, Wilcox said.

Businesses, which are some of the main customers for the Power Mac line, tend to move more slowly than consumers. Software, a huge part of the equation, will also take time to make the jump. Apples move to Intel chips will be made possible by a special version of its Mac OS X designed to run on Intel chips, which Apple maintained alongside its PowerPC processor version.

Apple will use dynamic translation software called Rosetta, named after the famous Rosetta stone, to allow applications designed for PowerPC chips to run on Apples Intel systems.

However, although products from Adobe Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., the companies that arguably make the most important software for the Mac operating system—Microsoft delivers Office, while Adobe puts out numerous applications, including Photoshop—will run on the dual-core PowerPC-equipped Power Mac G5s, its less certain when they will be offered specifically for Intel hardware-based Macs, he said.

Adobe and Microsoft could take time move their applications to run directly on Intel hardware Macs. That process, Wilcox said, may be complicated by the companies planned switch to Apple development tools from MetroWorks CodeWarrior software tool, due to the intricacies of Mac OS, and then having to recompile their applications.

Read more here about Adobes plans for Intel-based Macs.

"I would recommend that any business buy [Power Mac G5s] now. Dont worry about later on," Wilcox said. "Because you know that, whatever happens, the [current] software is going to run on the PowerPC processor. There is uncertainty down the road with respect to Intel and how smoothly that transition would go."

Next Page: Apples road after the PowerPC 970MP.

Apples Road After the

PowerPC 970MP">

Apples Power Mac line and Intels chip road map may not begin to line up until the second half of 2006, when Intel will roll out a series of new processors based on a new processor architecture that emphasizes performance while minimizing power consumption.

Three new dual-core processors, dubbed Conroe, Merom and Woodcrest, will result.

The chips, designed for notebooks, desktops and servers, respectively, will cut power consumption—Conroe will use up to about 65 watts, for example, at least 30 watts less than todays Pentium 4 chips—and offer performance-per-watt increases of three, five and three times over their respective predecessors.

For Apple, which had been grappling with where to go following the PowerPC 970MP, the new chips offered a good alternative, Krewell said.

"Thats where Intels road map, the next generation micro architecture that comes out in the second half of next year with low power and scalability with two processor cores followed by four, is what excited Apple," he said.

While there nothing stopping Apple from making the switch to Pressler, the follow-on to Intels Pentium D thats also expected early in 2006, it is likely to hold out, Krewell said.

"Id rather wait for Conroe," he said. "That way I can put it into a smaller chassis. It would take less power and require smaller heat sinks and fewer fans. But Pressler is still doable."

Conroe is "one of the ones that makes the most sense for the higher end of the mainstream," said Dean McCarron, analyst at Mercury Research.

Yonah and, later, Merom are likely candidates for the Mac Mini.

"A Mac Mini is basically a notebook without a display," McCarron said. "From a pure timing perspective, product capability and performance, Yonah seems like itd be the best fit for the first product used by Apple."

With each introduction, Apple is likely to make a clean break between processors, analysts said, making it even more likely that the new PowerPC 970MP-based Power Mac line will be around for a time.

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