Power Macs and PowerBooks could gain new power plants in the near future, analysts say.
IBMs chip group has been mum on details relating to its PowerPC processor line of late, but analysts expect it to deliver a dual-core PowerPC 970 and possibly a single-core sibling with less of a power appetite. Apple Computer Inc., in turn, could use the two chips to refresh its high-profile Power Mac desktop and PowerBook mobile computer product lines.
Although none of them could confirm the companys actual plans, analysts predict that Apple could discuss its intention to use updated PowerPC 970s—IBMs PowerPC 970 is otherwise known as the PowerPC G5 in Apple parlance—as soon as its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco next week.
The conference, which traditionally kicks off with a keynote speech by Steve Jobs, Apples CEO, is often the stage for important new product launches for Apple.
Back in June 2003 WWDC set the scene for the introduction of the Power Mac G5, the first Mac desktop with the G5 chip.
The Power Mac G5 line, which Apple bumped from a maximum of 2.5GHz to 2.7GHz in April, could make use of a dual-core PowerPC 970 chip—a processor known as the PowerPC 970MP—to boost performance, particularly for applications such as video encoding or photo editing, analysts said. A dual-core chip would also boost Apples Xserve G5 server.
Analysts expect that Apple is also working to add a low-power version of the PowerPC 970 to its PowerBook. A G5 PowerBook is something Apple fans have been awaiting for some time. Although Apple executives have said repeatedly that such a machine represents a design challenge for the company, analysts say it is possible. A dual-core-equipped Power Mac may be first out of the gate, however.
“The 970MP is almost definitely a real project, as Apple has support for it in its developer tools already. That doesnt mean theyre going to ship systems with it, but it seems likely that they would. I think thats kind of a done deal,” said Peter Glaskowsky, analyst for The Envisoneering Group in Long Island, N.Y.
Glaskowsky added, “At the WWDC, next week, we could hear about the 970MP. We could hear about a [G5] laptop. Whether they will do those things or not, I dont know.”
Indeed, “The next step would be for [Apple] to use a dual-core processor,” said Fred Zieber, analyst at Pathfinder Research Inc. in San Jose, Calif. “If I were Apple, Id be looking at a dual-processor version. Youve got that at AMD [Advanced Micro Devices Inc.] and Intel [Corp.] these days and it would be very natural to adapt the 970 chip to that.”
If it were to use the PowerPC 970MP, Apple could effectively offer a four-processor Power Mac by pairing two dual-core processors. That desktop would provide a significant performance jump over its current twin processor machines.
“Itd be a tremendous increase in power, and if they had to, they could increase the clock rate,” Zieber said.
Looking even farther ahead, IBM may provide Apple with a derivative of its Power 5 server chip, which would offer additional clock speed and multithreading or the ability to simultaneously process multiple data streams, Glaskowsky said.
“My gut feeling is maybe well see a 970MP this month and then a new [Power 5-derivative, multithreaded] system down the road,” he said.
Power Options for Apples
Building a G5 PowerBook could be an aesthetic challenge for Apple. The G5 chip tends to consume more power and produce more heat than the G4. Hotter, more power-hungry chips tend to require a thicker, more spacious chassis and larger, higher-capacity batteries—all of which might lead to a more portly PowerBook.
But, analysts say, versions of the 970FX technically already fit into the power envelope needed for Apple to offer a mid- to full-size laptop in the 5-7 pound range. At the moment, two of its three PowerBook G4 portables weigh in at over 5 pounds.
Aiding portability, IBM has also added a power-management feature to the PowerPC 970FX. Called PowerTune, it can cut the chips clock speed, therefore lowering its voltage, in order to save on power.
Therefore, a 1.8GHz PowerPC 970FX would be a good choice—it would top the current G4 processor—but power management might still be an issue in some other ways.
The 1.8GHz chip “might be 35 watts or something like that. There are plenty of 35-watt [notebook] processors out there. The big problem is you want to get average power [consumption] to be a lot lower. That relies to a large degree on software management,” Glaskowsky said. “If I had to pick a reason why it hasnt shown up yet … Id say its [Apple power management] software.”
Still, not everyone believes that the Power PC 970FX makes a great notebook chip.
“Right now, from IBMs perspective, the [PowerPC] 970 is a pretty competitive part, but they definitely lack a low-power version,” said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report, in San Jose, Calif. “The question is, can you get it low enough—25 watts to 35 watts—in order to get it into something sleek enough for Apple?”
To arrive at the right mix of frequency and performance, Krewell suggests that IBM and Apple might need to consider creating a new G4-G5 hybrid instead of delivering a low-power 970.
“The best route would be to develop a new [processor] core thats somewhere between the G5 and the G4,” Krewell said, “But thats a significant design undertaking … and its a limited-size market. A redesigned core might be attractive for future multicore processors” for desktops and servers as well, he said.
Apple could also adopt a multicore G4 derivative from Freescale Semiconductor Inc., once the chip arm of Motorola Inc., for its portables, Krewell said.
“Thats still a 2006 thing … and its designed for the network world,” he said. “It would require some modifications. But its doable.”
Representatives from Apple and IBM declined to comment for this story. A Freescale spokesman did not return a call.
Editors Note: This story was updated to reflect the fact that an Apple representative returned a phone call to eWEEK.com but declined to comment.