It's iMac On Steroids

The real payback of the new Intel Mac will be down the road


The most remarkable thing about Apple Computer's (AAPL ) newest iMac is that, even after using it for a while, it's hard to tell just how different it is from the identical-looking iMac G5 introduced last fall. Don't be deceived by the similarities. Hidden in the new iMac is a processor that will let this line of Macs grow and meet the increasing performance demands of software.

The 17-in. ($1,299) and 20-in. ($1,699) iMacs are all-in-one designs where the electronics are housed behind the display. These are the first Macs to hit the market using Intel (INTC ) chips -- the Core Duo processors described in last week's column (see BW, 2/6/06, "Amping Up Your Laptop"). A MacBook Pro notebook will be out in March, with prices starting at $1,999, to replace the 15-in. PowerBook G4.

Apple faced a tremendous challenge just getting the new Macs to market. The Intel processor requires totally different instructions from the PowerPC chips that Macs have been built around for more than a decade. It's going to take software developers a while to convert their programs, especially if they take pains to optimize the code for performance on Intel's twin processors. For example, Microsoft (MSFT )has pledged to write a new, Intel-specific version of Office for the Mac, but it's not saying when it will be ready.

The key to making this transition work is a piece of software invisible to the user called Rosetta, which allows most programs written for PowerPC Macs to run on the new Intel-powered ones. Rosetta takes a toll on performance as it translates the instructions. On the other hand, the new processor is so fast that most older programs feel about as speedy on the new iMac as they did on the old. As software is rewritten, the Intel Macs will really show their speed.

ROSETTA DOESN'T SOLVE EVERYTHING, however. Some of Apple's professional software, such as the Final Cut Studio video production package, won't run on the new Macs; Apple plans to release Intel versions of these products within a few weeks. The Intel Macs also don't support the "Classic" mode used to run programs written for older Apple operating systems. But since OS X has been around for five years, there aren't all that many Classic applications still in use.

Perhaps the most serious loss is Microsoft's Virtual PC. This software allows Windows programs to run on a Mac, and because of it, many Windows users have been able to migrate to Apple, knowing that they would be able to use Windows-only applications if they needed them. So far, Microsoft has not committed to customizing Virtual PC for the Intel Mac. This could be a problem for small businesses for which the Mac is otherwise ideal.

One of the best things about the Mac for home use is the remarkable assortment of iLife software that comes with it. This includes iMovie HD and iDVD for editing video and creating DVDs, and GarageBand, for creating your own music. All of the iLife programs have been rewritten for the Intel processor and show big performance gains.

If the new iMac looks and acts much like its predecessor, why did Apple go to all the trouble of changing to Intel? Because the PowerPC-based systems had nowhere to go. The performance of the G5 chip in the iMac and, even more so, the G4 in PowerBook laptops, couldn't increase much without a major redesign. And their maker, IBM (IBM ) Microelectronics, was unwilling to underwrite that. By contrast, Intel's Core Duo is the first design in a new generation of processors that has lots of growing room. Apple is now well-positioned to handle the ever more demanding media applications that are coming. The MacBook will probably show more impressive performance gains than the iMac because PowerBooks today are actually relative weaklings.

In coming months, Apple will bring out Intel versions of the Mac mini, the education-oriented iBook laptops, and the professional Power Macs. The polish with which Apple has managed the transition bodes well for Mac fans.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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