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Intel Macs only one fourth, not four times faster - report

Snail's pace

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Comment Don't say we didn't warn you. But when the world's last great computer company decided to tie its fortunes to the world's slowest chip company, the reality was never going to match the hype.

Macworld has gotten hold of the x86 iMacs and run some benchmarks. There's lots of good news for speed-starved Mac users. The iMac boots in 25 seconds, and shaves the time taken to perform some mathematically-intensive tasks by a third.

But on the whole, the results show a speed bump of only a measly quarter over today's overclocked G4 and new G5 processors.

"Unfortunately, our tests suggest that the remarkable results of Apple's published tests aren't reflected in most of the real-world applications we tested. Based on our initial tests, the new Core-Duo-based iMac seems to be 10-20 per cent faster than its predecessor when it comes to native applications, with some select tasks showing improvement above and beyond that," writes Macworld's Jason Snell.

So at this stage, the empirical evidence suggests quite a different story to the "4x" improvement over the G5 projected by the reality distortion field of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and quoted in Apple literature. Apple quotes a 2x improvement for x86 Macs over their G5 predecessors. And yet it's barely 25 per cent.

Under the Rosetta emulation - a British invention from Manchester - PPC applications running in x86 performed at about half speed. With the exception of iTunes, which encoded audio files a third as fast as it would have done running on a decent processor, such as the IBM G5.

So what can we conclude from this?

Well, it's worth examining what Apple really wants from a move to Intel. If we look hard, then "better performance per watt" or even simply "better performance" doesn't make for the most convincing explanation.

Only once in the past two decades has Intel been able to claim the performance crown, very briefly in late 1995 when its Pentium Pro knocked DEC's Alpha chip off the top of the benchmarks. On desktop performance alone, Intel has been bested for several years by AMD's far more competitive Athlon chip. Intel's next generation 64-bit processor Itanium is a billion dollar dud, and it failed to crank much advantage out of the deep-pipelined Pentium 4, which always ran hotter, and more inefficiently, than generations of Athlon or RISC processors. So last year Intel finally tore up its roadmaps, abandoning its Athlon-killer P7 core for future desktops, and leaving us to look forward to derivatives of third-generation mobile chips. These will be powering Microsoft PCs - and now Apple computers, too - for the next few years.

When Microsoft chose a next-generation chip for its Xbox 360 console - something expected to have a life of five years - it chose a dual-core PowerPC processor, the platform Apple was abandoning.

For all his legendary power of persuasion, Jobs doesn't seem to have much luck with microprocessor suppliers. He failed to persuade Motorola to invest in the G4 and failed to persuade IBM to provide competitive chips for Apple, although IBM has been able to pull a rabbit out of the hat for Microsoft, and an alliance with Sony and IBM for Cell-based hardware should be a potent combination.

So Intel makes a lot of chips, but they're never the best. Tell us something new, you're thinking.

Why did Apple move to Intel, then, really?

Intel justifiably remains one of the most lauded companies on the planet not for the quality of its chips, but for its consistent innovation in production. It's a manufacturing company first and foremost, and its R&D is geared towards keeping its facilities full.

What falls off the end of the Intel production doesn't really matter.

This hardly helps you, dear reader, as you're waiting for a window to refresh, or a QuickTime export to finish, but it's the reason for Intel's importance in the global economy, when superior products from Texas Instruments, IBM and AMD are available. The markets demand consistency, and only Intel can satisfy the need for consistent production levels without some disruption.

So where does this fit in to Apple's future plans? With iPod revenues now matching computer revenues, the computer business is now far less important to Apple than it was. And more importantly, consumer music devices is where all the growth is.

Putting Intel Inside was never the smartest technical decision. But it makes it easier for Apple to move to a software licensing business for Mac OS X, or sell the computer business completely.

For now, perhaps Apple's creative agency can do something with a snail. ®

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