Mac Skeptic: Macs With Intel Inside--What's Next?

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It was a "Hell-has-finally-frozen-over" moment: In early June, Steve Jobs stood before the most devout of the Mac faithful, software developers for the Mac, and told them that Mac hardware will be based on Intel CPUs in the future. Even though rumors of the news had been circulating for a few weeks, the announcement still came as a shock, since Intel is so closely associated with Microsoft.

It's a testament to Jobs's persuasive abilities that the news was accepted with relative equanimity by many Mac users and developers. Presumably, all those developers are now working to port their programs to the new Mac architecture.

On the whole, I bought the story too, although I know that it won't all go smoothly. Anyone who owns or is considering buying a Mac has to have questions; these are what I think the answers are.

Why Did Apple Do This, Anyway?

As Jobs said in his presentation, Intel is promising faster, more power-efficient chips than PowerPC maker IBM has delivered.

When Will I Have to Worry About This?

The first Intel-based Macs won't be released for general sale until the second half of next year, and Apple plans to make all Macs Intel-based by the end of 2007. Apple is encouraging its software developers to write programs that run on both types of CPU, so that even if you don't buy a new, Intel-based Mac, you will still be able to run the applications you want.

I predict that eventually, perhaps in June 2007, Apple will begin exerting pressure on users to upgrade to the newer technology, just as it did with OS X; it'll start releasing new functions or applications that people really want, but that don't work on the old platform (ITunes is the example that springs to mind). Whether you're motivated to make the switch depends on a complex set of factors, including whether you were ready to buy a new system anyway, how badly you want or need the new functionality, and how open to change you are. How readily the new platform will be adopted overall is very tough to predict.

Will I Have to Buy a New Mac?

If everything goes as outlined in Jobs's presentation, you won't have to buy a new Mac until you're ready. Even after the hardware transition is complete, software developers will be releasing products that work on both platforms. It remains to be seen whether these "universal binary" programs will work seamlessly.

Will My Old Software Work on the New Macs?

Intel-based Macs should be able to run software written for PowerPC, just maybe not as fast as they would run natively. So your old software is expected to run okay. Odds are good, though, that you'd want to update or replace programs that are more than about 18 months old anyway, and then you'd likely get a version that runs natively on Intel Macs.

Will My Old Peripherals Work on the New Macs?

This is a dodgier proposition. The manufacturers of peripherals will have to provide updated drivers, and peripheral support has been a weak spot in previous Mac OS releases, such as the early versions of OS X. It's an extremely good bet that printers, scanners, and digital cameras that are more than a few years old will be difficult to connect to the new Macs.

Will This Mean That Macs Get Cheaper?

I don't expect that Macs will drop much in price as a result of this switch. Even if there is a greater supply of chips (and Apple did not cite short supply as a reason for moving away from the PowerPC), any price drop due to greater supply is likely to be hidden by high development costs, which will be passed on to buyers.

Will the Mac OS Run on a PC, and Windows on a Mac?

The official word from Apple is "no," and Apple isn't likely to license its operating system again--it's much more likely to keep pushing the prices of its own systems down (a la the Mac Mini). Keeping control of hardware manufacturing lets Apple control the user experience from end to end, preventing frustrations resulting from incompatibilities. Still, it is intriguing that when asked, Dell chairman Michael Dell said he'd be happy to offer the Mac OS.

Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, Phil Schiller, has said that Apple won't prevent people from running Windows on Macs. Currently, the only people who have Intel-based Macs are software developers, inside and outside of Apple. Getting Windows to run on a Mac is not at the top of their priority lists. Apple is providing Intel-based Macs to developers for the purpose of porting their applications, but the independent software vendors have to pay $1000 for them, and turn them back in to Apple, so they're unlikely to be the subject of serious hacking.

I predict that we won't see the first dual-boot Windows/Mac OS computer until well after the Intel-based Macs are available for general sale.

Tiger, a Cautionary Tale

Upgrading to Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) hasn't been smooth for everyone, and it didn't go very well for me. After upgrading, my previously fast PowerBook became sluggish when performing undemanding tasks like opening a Finder window, or cutting and pasting in Microsoft Excel.

I got pretty tired of watching the spinning beach ball that signals "system working" on the Mac. In addition, one of my printers no longer worked. Granted, it's an old printer, but it worked fine before the OS change. None of my problems were bad enough for me to roll back to OS X 10.3.9, but I really hated the thought of my six-month-old system becoming creaky. Other users have had problems with the Mac's syncing function.

I heard from a few knowledgeable folks that the trick is to do a fresh install of Tiger, rather than allowing it to upgrade your old OS. I tried to do this when I installed Tiger, but it's easy to miss the turnoff when you just follow the installation program's prompts. If you want to do a fresh install, instead of clicking Continue on every screen, you have to proceed through the first couple of screens, and when you get to the Select a Destination screen, choose the hard drive you'll install to, then click the Options button, which allows you to Archive and Install (unless you want to wipe out all your data, this is the option you want).

The Installation and Setup Guide contains this information; had I read it before I upgraded, I could have saved myself about a month of beach-ball watching, plus the 45 minutes it took me to back up my hard drive and reinstall the OS cleanly. But the installer program should make this choice more obvious--I was looking for it the first time through and missed it.

With a clean version of OS X 10.4.1, my PowerBook is back to being pretty quick, and my printer problem is gone. I'm not looking back, but I do recommend upgrading with caution, and perhaps waiting for a few more updates to be released before you make the jump.

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