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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - Before You Buy an Intel Mac

by Ted Landau
January 24th, 2006

It's official. The first Intel Macs were announced on January 10 at Macworld Expo. An Intel-based iMac is already shipping and a 15" MacBook Pro will ship next month. Perhaps you are already chomping at the bit, anxious to get one of these new speed demons for yourself. I understand. In fact, I ordered a new iMac the same day they were announced. But it's my job to jump into the deep end of the new technology pool. Before you rush out and order a new Mac, take a deep breath, pause and consider the following:

• If there is any guaranteed axiom about purchasing a Mac, it's this: Don't buy a Mac during the holiday season. Major announcements are always made at Macworld Expo in January. That means there is a good chance that any Mac you buy prior to New Year's will immediately be replaced by something newer, cheaper and twice as good.

Still, if you were eyeing the iMac, you might have thought that this was the year to assume an exception to the rule. After all, it was only October 12 that Apple unveiled a significant upgrade to the iMac (with a remote control and built-in iSight camera). What were the odds that Apple would replace it in less than 3 months? Very good, as it turned out. Apple surprised nearly everyone by releasing an Intel-based iMac.

I know. This advice is too late to help you for 2005, but it's something to remember for 2006.

• Speaking of everyone being surprised, the rumor sites pretty much got it all wrong this time around. As a group, they predicted Intel-based iBooks and Mac minis. Instead, we got Intel-based iMacs and the MacBook Pro. At least they were right that an Intel-based something would be released. But that's not saying too much. Which is why you shouldn't depend on rumors to make your purchasing decisions.

• Many pundits have tried to minimize the significance of Apple shifting to Intel processors. You read things such as: "Who cares what's running inside the machine, as long as everything still works the same?" This logic works well if we are discussing shifting from one DVD drive manufacturer to another. But a processor shift really is a big deal.

For starters, not everything works the same on Intel Macs. In particular, for your current software to run on an Intel Mac, it needs either to be upgraded to a "universal binary" version or be able to run in Rosetta (the PowerPC emulator included as part of Mac OS X for Intel Macs). Some notable software does not yet fit in either category. This includes Apple's own Pro apps (e.g., Final Cut Studio, Aperture, and Logic). Apple says updated Pro apps will be out by April.

Similarly, Microsoft's Virtual PC will not run on Intel Macs. Microsoft says that it is studying the feasibility of an upgrade, but has made no formal commitment as yet.

[As noted by a reader and by my own subsequent testing since I first wrote this column, AppleWorks does work on Intel iMacs. Accordingly, I have edited out comments indicating that the contrary might be true.]

Many shareware and freeware utilities will also need to be updated to run on Intel Macs. Check out sites such as VersionTracker.com to see if your favorite utilities are in this category.

I don't want to be an alarmist here. Many, many programs will work just fine on Intel Macs (although, if the program uses Rosetta, it will likely run slower than on a comparable PowerPC Mac). And those that do not work today will likely be upgraded soon. Still, if you can afford to wait awhile before buying a new Mac, you can bypass even these minor transition headaches.

• There is no more Classic environment in Mac OS X for Intel-based Macs. If you used Classic at all, for any programs whatsoever, it's time to bid them adieu.

• Don't expect a new Intel-based Mac to have the 2X to 5X speed boost (as compared to the latest G5 iMac and PowerBook G4) touted in Apple's ads. These claims are based on benchmark tests. While such tests are a useful way to make relative comparisons of different computers, they don't simulate real world usage — where factors such as the speed of your hard drive and the nature of the software you use play a bigger role. These can be a bottleneck, slowing down the otherwise indicated speed. Steve admitted as much at his keynote.

Still, you should see a noticeable speed improvement. And if you are going from a G3 or G4 iMac, you will likely be very impressed by how much faster a new iMac is.

• If, despite all of the above, you are still determined to buy an Intel Mac before the day is over, I recommend sticking with the iMac for now. It is basically the same machine as the current G5 iMac, except for the shift in processors. So, aside from potential problems due to the Intel processor itself, you can be confident that there won't be any "new model" glitches and bugs to be worked out.

The 15" MacBook Pro, in contrast, although similar in design to the current PowerBooks, is a fundamentally new architecture. As such, there is a much greater potential for as-yet-undiscovered problems. Especially as it isn't even shipping yet. Hardware design issues usually get addressed in a revised upgrade that comes out about 3-4 months later. So you might want to wait for that.

But there's an even more compelling reason to wait: It is virtually certain that a 12" and 17" MacBook Pro are waiting in the wings, set to replace the current PowerBook models of the same size. My money says that these notebooks will have significant new features not included in the current 15” MacBook Pro. When these models get released, the 15" model will be similarly upgraded so as to maintain feature parity. I'd wait to see these "real" MacBook Pros before I bought one. Remember, it's a fact, not a rumor, that every Mac will be transitioned to Intel processors before the end of 2006 (probably well before the end). So you know they are coming.

• Don't try to boot an Intel Mac from an external hard drive that was formatted with a version of Mac OS X 10.4.4 installed from a PowerPC Mac. It won't work. The converse is true as well. It turns out that there are two separate versions of 10.4.4 and each one is machine specific. Apple promises to eventually release one universal version of Mac OS X, but it is not there yet. If this is a cause for concern for you, it is yet another reason to consider waiting before you purchase.

• Don't buy any devices that require FireWire 800. Apple dropped the 800 port from the MacBook Pro (and it was neither on the old or new iMac). When I asked Apple about this, they replied that customer feedback indicated a lack of demand for this feature, so they dropped it. The Intel-based replacements for the desktop Power Macs may still sport this port, but it is otherwise gone.

• If you still use a dial-up connection to the Internet, now is an especially good time to think about moving to broadband. The new Intel Macs do not come with a built-in modem (although you can buy an external modem as an accessory).

• The built-in iSight camera, included with both the iMac and the MacBook Pro, is an excellent idea overall (eliminating the extra bulk and cost of a separate camera). However, there is one notable downside: You can't move the camera separately from the display. This means you cannot position the camera to the side of the display (to perhaps get a better angle on your face), turn the camera to face the display (useful to show someone else what is on your screen), or conveniently hold it in your hand to scan barcodes (as you might want to do with the popular Delicious Library program).

All of that said, the new Intel Macs are great looking machines, with an impressive range of features and significantly greater speed than the models they replace. Over time, you will need an Intel-based Mac just to keep up with the latest software and hardware (just as Macs with PowerPC processors eventually replaced the 68xxx Macs). Intel Macs are undeniably the wave of the future. You may not want to ride the wave just yet, but you will be riding it soon enough. 2006 is shaping up to be a very interesting year.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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