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Après le keynote, le gulp

Was the MacBook launched too soon?

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Analysis What an ungrateful bunch you are. This week Apple began its transition to Intel processors six months ahead of schedule, and all you can do is carp. Don't you know you're supposed to swoon over every shiny new piece of kit?

It's an odd moment. After years of lagging behind in the speed race, Apple will next month ship a PowerBook that overnight offers a dramatic doubling of performance for ordinary tasks, such as loading pages in Safari. The SPEC benchmarks Apple quotes are 4.5x faster for integer performance and 5.2x faster on floating point tests. Out goes the bottleneck bus, pegged at 167Mhz for so long, replaced by a 667Mhz bus - that's 4x faster. And the Radeon X1600 brings Apple right up to date.

So why, as the barman said to the horse, the long face?

The catch of course is that only software that has been compiled into a 'Universal Binary', containing a native x86 executable, will benefit from the speed bump.

And what Apple giveth, Apple taketh away.

Several features of the MacBook have perplexed Apple fans since its specifications were made public on Tuesday.

For professional notebook users, especially in Apple's core markets of audio and video production, the FireWire 800 port is a key differentiator. That's absent from the MacBook.

"Firewire 800 was the best thing for high speed connections for storage devices. I hope there are Firewire 800 adapters for Express card which replaces the PC Card. I have several Firewire 800 devices that absolutely need and love," writes one PowerBook user.

"No Firewire 800 - no purchase!" adds another. We'll have to wait and see if Apple adds external boot capability to its Macs - that's another feature longtime users will miss.

Then there's the slower, less capable DVD burner.

But most mysterious of all is the disappearing battery performance quote. Apple quotes 5.5 hours for today's 15" 1.67Mhz G4 PowerBook. But the MacBook has no such accompanying claim, and it was conspicuously absent from the slides during Steve Jobs' keynote. Apple simply describes the battery capacity. The MacBook has a "60-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery", we're told.

Huh?

Well, an intrepid Ars Technica reporter yanked the power cord from a MacBook on display on the show floor, and got a reading of 3 hrs and 3 minutes from the guage. This can fluctuate enormously depending on how heavily it's being used - the brightness of the screen, active radio interfaces , and many other factors. A 15" G4 loaded with the maximum memory possible won't achieve anything like the 5.5 hours claimed.

Yet the 3 hours figure is in line with other dual core notebooks, it's less than before, and fans aren't exactly overjoyed.

So did Apple launch the MacBook too soon?

With native Adobe Mac OS X software demanded by professional users still a year away, and with Rosetta emulation offering no performance improvements over today's PPC machines, we can expect no immediate migration.

But Apple didn't really have much choice. Shrewd pro buyers have been snapping up G4 and G5 based Macs as an hedge against a bumpy migration to x86. This has forestalled any anticipated 'Osborne Effect' to date.

In March 2001, Apple unleashed the first Mac OS X, one that was far from ready for prime time. It couldn't wait any longer - and a real product, no matter how deficient, convinces the market of one's intentions.

The early launch of the MacBook gives Apple's ISVs a strong incentive to accelerate their plans to introduce x86 native software.

They can't blame Apple for lagging, now. ®

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