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Apple shifts to Intel: what is all the fuss about?

Let's all just calm down

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Analysis A number of major news services this weekend forecast that Apple will today announce a staged migration from PowerPC to x86 processors. If it's made, the announcement will take place at the Mac maker's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, certainly the most likely venue for such a revelation since it's addressing the folk who will have to bear the brunt of such a move.

Many are likely to be horrified. Quite a few Mac zealots will be too, and Apple is going to lose the support of some of its oldest supporters. Well, if they want to cut off their noses to spite their faces, let them. For the majority of Mac users, it's no bad thing. It's not an 'about time too' moment either - it's simply the latest stage in the evolution of the Mac.

First, understand the key fact: a Mac built out of an Intel CPU and Intel system logic will be no more a PC than a Mac is today. Two things make a Mac: the operating system and the hardware design. It is not, for the vast majority of users, what kind of processor it contains.

Most of the components that go into that hardware are already coming straight out of the wider Wintel world, and have been since Apple began ditching proprietary specifications like NuBus and ADB, and expensive standards like SCSI, in favour of USB, Firewire, UItra ATA, Serial ATA, PCI and AGP.

Mac hardware today differs from PCs solely in the CPU, system logic and the motherboard they sit on. You can argue that PowerPC is a 'better' chip than x86 equivalents, but it's difficult to demonstrate a clear, real-world advantage between the two platforms. Some benchmarks show the Mac's superiority, others don't. The G5-class PowerPC 970 certainly hasn't retained the low-power benefit of the old G4 and looks no closer to notebook-suitability now than it did when it was launched.

That may well be one of the reasons for Apple's move, if it's made. Today's Pentium M-based Centrino machines can be noisy and run hot, but they're faster than Apple's top-end PowerBooks, with both higher speed CPUs and faster system buses. They already have the latest standard technologies, such as PCI Express and Serial ATA, DDR 2 SDRAM support, and HD audio. Desktops Macs still don't have RAID on the motherboard.

To compete, Apple has to engineer all these features into its own system chips, and that's expensive to do. So far, it's had to take the cost in the chin, because of its decision to stick with PowerPC. A shift to x86, however, means it can buy in the parts in volume, from any one of a variety of competing vendors - Intel, VIA, SiS, ULi, Nvidia, ATI etc. - and save money. It will no longer need to design its own motherboards, either.

The notebook side of the story is important because of the way the personal computer market is shifting in that direction - simply, users want notebooks more than they do desktops, and that is already driving prices down. And until the advent of the Mac Mini, Apple has always fared poorly on price competitiveness.

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