The Downside of Intel Mac

I had thought about titling this post “Apple's Dirty Little Secret” but decided that was a bit strong, and it's really not a secret to anyone who thinks about it.

I recently bought a Mac Mini Intel Core Duo. During the first boot set up sequence, it asks if one has another Mac they would like to migrate data from. I thought that was a nice feature, and since my laptop is a G4 iBook, I followed the on-screen directions and connected it up to my Mini via Firewire and let it do the copying of everything. It worked with only a couple of glitches / bugs in the process (I'll have to learn how to report bugs to Apple, assuming they care to receive them -- unlike Microsoft where it's pointless to bother).

Those flaws were in the attempting to copy my networking configuration. I have static IP addresses on my LAN. It's silly to steal the same hostname and IP address from the machine being copied, but it did so anyway. But it noticed that the IP would conflict and spit out a warning message. Later, when the process finished, it summarized the results, warning me again about the conflict. On this page was some graphical display error where the bottom of the 2 buttons was cut-off by a blank white area, IIRC. Further, clicking the continue button gave me a brief display where it would have allowed me to change/correct the hostname, but then it skipped ahead without letting me do anything, and said configuration was complete. Oops. So now I had 2 machines with the same hostname and the same IP on my LAN. Doh.

But that's not really what this posting is about. It's about trying to use all those applications that the migration utility merrily copied from my G4 iBook to my Intel Core Duo Mini. Getting the hint, yet? No warnings about compatibility are displayed in this process.

Well, as many already know, Apple's Rosetta software, which allows running PowerPC (e.g. G4) binaries on an Intel machine, is not perfect. And really, the real software geeks out there know that such a perfect emulator is next to impossible to build.

Sure enough, some of the applications that got copied don't work so well. That's not really terrible in itself, but the migration tool really ought to warn users. For a list of many applications which either work well with Rosetta, or which have Intel-ready binaries, usually in the form of the so-called Universal Binary, go here.

But this incompatiblity is not really the Dirty Secret. Rather, it's how poorly the PowerPC binaries perform through Rosetta. Apple has spent lots of marketing effort on telling us how much faster the Intel Macs are than the previous PowerPC (PPC) Macs. But that's only true for pure Intel-compiled applications, of which there are darn few. Most of Apple's included software (iLife, Safari, Mail) have Universal Binaries available, and perform well. Many users will, however, want to use other software.

In my quick and dirty comparison tests, my 1.42GHz G4 iBook with 768MB RAM ran circles around my 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo with 1GB RAM, when running the PPC applications. It wasn't even close. No surprise if Rosetta is doing emulation, though the Apple marketing hype makes it sound like it's doing translating, not eumlation.

There was one other catch: the graphics board. Apple no doubt made a sweet deal (for someone) with Intel when going with Intel's CPU chips, to also use Intel's graphics chips. But if you want decent graphics performance -- Bzzzt! -- that's the wrong choice. Sure, every now and then, some odd graphics processor chip (GPU) manufacturer will come up with a really good graphics engine, but 95% of the time, if it's not an ATI or NVIDIA GPU, it's going to suck.

Well, that might be a bit extreme. But again, in my quick and dirty comparison, the ATI Mobility Radeon 9550 in my G4 iBook just plain spanked the Intel GMA 950 in the Intel Mac Mini. And the iBook only has 32MB VRAM, while admittedly the larger amount of 64MB VRAM in the Mini is shared with main memory, though with more main memory over-all and only one application running, memory contention in the Mini is unlikely to be the reason.

One last gripe: Universal binaries are bloated and I hate bloat. Why? Because they include complete binaries for both PPC and Intel in the same file. Convenient for the computer-n00b and other clueless users, I suppose. But I don't want to waste my bandwidth downloading fat binaries, nor do I want to waste my disk space storing them. Give me pure Intel binaries, thank you very much.

So, the downside is this: Intel Macs don't really perform that well in the Real World just yet. As more Intel binaries become available, this will change. The next release of OS X will no doubt help iron out a lot of the glitches in Rosetta and with Intel execution (I haven't seen any, but being a long-time software developer, I've got to believe there are some there -- we just don't get that lucky in my profession).