TMO Reports - IBM Confirms AltiVec To Be In New PowerPC 970, Tightens Up Time Table For Production

by , 8:00 AM EST, December 13th, 2002

In their monthly PowerPC newsletter, IBM has confirmed what most Macintosh fans have been hoping for: The vector processing unit in the PowerPC 970 is indeed AltiVec. AltiVec is the name for a special 128-bit vector processor that currently accelerates multimedia computations only in the Motorola G4. AltiVec is what allows apps like Photoshop to be so speedy, especially in the execution of filters. The same thing goes for products like Final Cut Pro, Black Magic, and other applications that use vector processing [Note that we originally included MATLAB in the list of AltiVec apps, which is incorrect - Editor]; AltiVec, when utilized by the developers, allows those apps to be much faster on the Mac than they might otherwise be.

Apple markets AltiVec under the name the Velocity Engine, but the coding world tends to use the name given it by Motorola, AltiVec. The importance of what's in a name, however, has been brought to light by this new announcement from IBM. Until this point, IBM has never publicly used the trademarked name "AltiVec" in reference to the PowerPC 970. Though the company has suggested in the past that the 128-bit vector processor inside the 970 was similar to AltiVec, the newsletter specifically calls that processor "AltiVec." From the newsletter:

In addition to high performance general -purpose processing, application-specific acceleration (such as multimedia) can be achieved through the AltiVec vector engine. Codeveloped by IBM, this engine extends the PowerPC instruction set with 162 Single-Instruction, Multiple Data (SIMD) instructions.

The importance of this is simple: Apple has asked its developers to commit to AltiVec, and if the company were ever to move away from Motorola's processor, the replacement would almost have to include the AltiVec engine. Otherwise, Apple would risk losing a lot of its developer base out of frustration. After moving from Mac OS 9.x to Mac OS X, Apple is not in a position to ask its developers to make yet another change, especially when the first transition isn't even complete, yet. While we are on the point, this is one of the biggest reasons why Apple can't move to Intel or AMD.

If IBM has been able to include the entire AltiVec unit in its new PowerPC 970, that means that Apple could include it a Mac product without having its developers recode their apps to take advantage of it. That is a significant hurdle that has been made moot by IBM's announcement.

The new chip will be made in IBM's new state-of-the-art 300mm semiconductor facility in East Fishkill, New York, as was reported earlier by TMO. Samples are planned to be available in the second quarter of 2003, and the company expects production to begin in the second half of the year. This is the first hard indication of IBM's time table. Earlier comments from IBM suggested that the processors might be hitting production closer to the end of 2003, than the middle.

The PowerPC 970 is a microprocessor based on IBM's 64-bit Power4 architecture which is currently used in their high end servers. The new chip uses 0.13 micron technology and is planned to operate at speeds up to 1.8GHz.

Neither Apple nor IBM has yet announced any plans for this chip to appear in a Macintosh.

The Mac Observer Spin:

This is truly great news for Macintosh fans who have been clamoring for more power. The use of the name AltiVec is the strongest evidence yet that the chip is bound for the Macintosh, as it is the only personal computer that uses the technology. Although most have assumed the vector unit would at least be AltiVec compatible, it's a relief to have a definitive answer.

It's also great to hear that Apple will have samples to work with early next year. If IBM can meet its own schedule, it could be possible to see new Macs before the end of the year.

We don't have inside information on whether or not Apple is going to be using the PowerPC 970, but this newest development adds weight to the possibility that the company could. That said, we don't advise waiting around until it appears if you are considering a new Mac. Even if the PowerPC 970 does make it to a Mac near you, it could be much longer than late 2003. One never knows with Apple. There is little doubt that this bit of fact announced by IBM will add all kinds of fuel to the rumor sites, but our advice is "a new Mac on your desk is worth two on a rumor site," and that holds true here.