To Mactel or Not to Mactel?

With Apple’s various ultra-chic gadgets swarming the top of Amazon’s best seller lists, the question on everyone’s mind no longer seems to be, “should I buy a Mac?”

Instead, the question all the cool people are asking is: “which Mac should I buy?” This question becomes especially pertinent now that Apple has confused their product line with a couple of new Intel-based products.

In the last couple of weeks I have fielded endless questions about the Intel Macs from friends, associates, relatives, colleagues, passers-by and even gas jockeys.

So everybody — stop asking me. Just print this column out! In fact, print extra copies for your neighbours and cubicle buddies.

For over a decade Apple has been using a type of processor from IBM called the PowerPC. Last summer Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that his company would be making a technological sea change to its Mac products by moving away from PowerPCs and adopting Intel’s technology.

In essence, this represents a brain transplant. And the first patients are starting to roll out of the operating theatre. Apple is now shipping an Intel iMac and will soon start delivering the MacBook Pro. Apple claims blazing speed improvements, as you’d expect. So, if you’re looking at buying a Mac today, should you take Apple’s leap of faith?

The answer, as always with technology, is not simple. Whether you should buy an Intel Mac or one based on the IBM PowerPC depends on who you are and what you want to do with it.

The fundamental issue to consider, oddly enough, is software.

The new Intel-based models require that existing Mac software be updated to run efficiently. Apple refers to this as making applications “Universal”.

Most Mac software, like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop, is optimized for IBM’s PowerPC processors. Not much of it has been made Universal yet.

PowerPC programs will run on the new Intel Macs, but probably not very well. There’s a special environment that Apple’s built into the Mac operating system on the Intel machines called “Rosetta” (how predictable). This environment emulates the IBM PowerPC chips on the new Intel Macs.

Remember, processors are like the computers’ brains. So when an Intel Mac runs a piece of PowerPC software in emulation, it’s as though it’s being spoken to in Chinese and having to translate to English on the fly. The Rosetta environment is where this all happens.

There are test results that indicate high-end PowerPC applications run very poorly in Rosetta. Adobe Photoshop, for example, is reported to run at half speed or worse. Microsoft Word’s page scroll speed is very poor, though in general it performs adequately.

Both Adobe and Microsoft have committed to delivering Universal versions of their software with their next major upgrade. But that’s at least a year away.

On the other hand, software that is optimized for the new Intel Macs runs brilliantly. Apple’s iLife 06 suite for editing audio, video, photos and web pages is a dream. Their Pages word processor is stunning. And the Safari web browser puts every other to shame.

Another important factor weighing in the favour of the PowerPC-based Macs is technical maturity. Apple has been working with these chips for years. The current and final generation of the PowerBooks, iMacs, Power Macs and iMacs are engineering marvels. Apple has perfected these machines and they are at their performance and quality peak.

The new Intel-based Macs, however, represent the company’s first kick at the can with many new technologies. It’s likely that they’re not quite up to snuff yet. If you go this route, be sure to invest in an extended warranty.

So, really, whether you should buy an Intel-based iMac or MacBook Pro really depends on what software you use and how you use it. If you’re a professional, high-end user who makes your living off the Mac platform, definitely not. A G5-based machine is your best choice and still represents an excellent investment.

Even a mid-range user should think twice about the new Intel Macs. Microsoft Office will run poorly. If you use any Adobe or Macromedia product, prepare for pain. Better to wait for more software to go Universal, or just buy a PowerPC Mac.

New Mac users and home users should definitely go Intel. New Macs ship with more software than you’ll ever need and these represent excellent entry points into the world of Mac.

And, oh yeah, the question everybody asks: since they have Intel chips, can you run Windows on these new Macs? In theory, maybe. In practice, no. There’s too much technology in the new iMac and MacBook Pro that Microsoft’s Windows XP doesn’t even recognize yet.

Bottom line, though: whether it’s Intel or PowerPC, buy a Mac. Windows XP is worn out and simply doesn’t measure up to the technical prowess, security, and stability of the Mac environment. Think of it this way: anyone who owns one, openly loves their Mac. Have you ever heard anyone detail their amour for a Windows box?

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 3, 2006.

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