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Apple still missing the mark on megaHertz

Get those clock speeds up, folks...

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Analysis This analysis was written less than 24 hours before Apple announced IBM was to produce PowerPC 7400 processors, which just goes to show how quickly the chip biz moves these days... Back in January, at MacWorld Expo, interim Apple CEO Steve Jobs happily told the keynote crowd how the colour of a computer was way more important to consumers than the machine's megaHertz rating. Oh, how we all laughed in agreement. Oh, how Jobs' words are coming back to haunt him and us less than a year down the line. Why did were we in accord with Apple then? Because in addition to launching the multi-colored iMac, Jobs had already debuted what he described as "the world's fastest PC", the blue'n'white Power Mac G3, with its -- gasp -- 400MHz PowerPC 750 (aka G3) processor. At the time, the best Intel could field was a 500MHz Pentium III, and, as the Mac faithful knew, the 400MHz G3 -- the chip, not the computer -- was just as fast, if not faster. How times have changed. Nine months or so down the line, and Intel's arch-enemy, AMD (what, you really think it's bothered about Motorola?), has shipped the 700MHz version of its Athlon processor and Intel itself is readying the release, brought forward two or three months to counter the AMD threat, a 700MHz Pentium III. And what does Apple have? A brand spanking new Power Mac G4 that may be a really cool machine, but is having to compete with a 450MHz PowerPC 7400 (aka G4) processor. For all the earlier "world's fastest PC" and "first desktop supercomputer" hype, Apple's computers are suddenly looking rather underpowered. Now, the PowerPC die-hards will be quick to point out that the 7400 may only clock at 450MHz -- we'll ignore the 500MHz version, for now, since Motorola hasn't yet been able to get the thing to work properly -- but it's still offers comparable performance to the Pentium III. Well, sort of. A variety of third-party Web sites have done the numbers and found that for most applications, the 400MHz G4 offers the same performance as a 500MHz G3, and since the latter offers comparable performance to a 600MHz Pentium III, the 450MHz G4 won't be much slower than the 700MHz Intel chip. And the 500MHz G4, when it actually gets to that speed without corrupting the contents of its data cache, will be much the same. From a technical standpoint, that's a sound argument. However, from a marketing perspective, it plain sucks. Apple's real problem on the processor front is not that it isn't Wintel based -- the success of the iMac with Wintel and first-time buyers proves that -- but that the PowerPC line isn't perceived as being as fast as the Pentium. Why? Because, despite Jobs' comments, PC buyers do consider megaHertz the chief yardstick by which a computer's performance can be measured. Even Motorola seems to have finally figured this one out -- though not without some prompting from Apple, I suspect. At last week's chip industry shindig, Microprocessor Forum, held in San Jose, California, Motorola revealed it is developing a second-generation G4 chip to ensure the line is better able to compete on clock speed. That the decision to do so is relatively recent is clear from Motorola's September PowerPC roadmap, which lists the G5 (the multi-core G4-based chip codenamed V'ger) as the next release. The G4-II increases the number of stages in the pipeline through which an instruction must pass to be processed to accommodate the 700MHz (that number again) and up clock speeds Motorola plans to support. Adding the extra stages will, to a degree, reduce the speed advantage the PowerPC has over the Pentium III at equivalent clock speeds, but will allow it to go back to offering chips within 50MHz of Intel's top frequency. Of course, Motorola gave no indication of when the G4-II will appear beyond saying that it spill the shipment beans early 2000. Optimistically, the company could have 700MHz and up G4s out by this time next year -- given that the G4-II is a completely new microarchitecture and not a G4 with extras bolted on -- by which time Athlon and Pentium could easily be up to 900MHz, possibly even 1GHz. Meanwhile, of course, IBM is continuing to develop its own G3 line, and there's the very real possibility that an IBM G3 using the latest silicon-on-insulator technology, along with the copper interconnects it (and Motorola, for that matter) is already using could be faster than even the 500MHz G4. True, support for the G4's AltiVec system (aka Velocity Engine) will make a difference, but not much since its applicability to most applications is limited. And since the customised G3 chip IBM is developing for Nintendo's next-generation console is likely to support AltiVec -- it will have to, since Sony's Emotion Engine processor, the heart of the PlayStation 2, has a own vector processing engine of its own -- even that advantage may ultimately be limited. For the time being, then, Apple has a problem. Until Motorola ships the G4-II, it's going to have a job offering machines that run much above 500MHz. It can offer a 600MHz G4, but for all the extra 100MHz, it won't be significantly faster than the 500MHz machine. Or it can attempt to persuade people that multi-processing on the Mac really works by releasing a multi-CPU machine and hoping they don't notice that the speed advantage really isn't that great -- even with multi-processing MacOS X, doubling the number of CPUs won't double performance. And until Motorola gets the current G4's bugs fixed, Apple isn't even going to be able to offer a 500MHz Mac that actually runs at that frequency. And until Motorola... but that's the point: Apple is entirely dependent on one company, which is, of course, what the PowerPC Alliance was intended to prevent. With IBM out of the desktop market, Apple has to rely on Motorola to deliver the chips it needs, when it needs them and at clock speeds that it can realistically take to market. And Apple does need chips it can use to compete with Wintel. Indeed, now the MacOS has largely lost its superiority over Windows, it needs it more than ever. Sorry, Steve, but clock speed, not cute colored cases, are what's really needed now. ® Related Stories Apple hit by 'PowerPC G4 can't reach 500MHz' bug Apple demands Web sites kill iMac II pics

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