So Apple Transition Kits (ATK) are on their way to developers, and I have to admit I can’t wait to see OS X running on an Intel box. But I’m already thinking about what Apple are going to produce product wise.
Right now on the desk I have three machines, my Powerbook 17”, 1GHz which is beginning to get a little long in tooth, especially when compared to the speed in my Mac Mini 1.42Ghz. The speed difference between the two, even considering the minor architecture and disk speed differences (especially after the disk upgrade to the Powerbook).
Also on the desk is a Sony Vaio Z1, purchased at the same time as the Powerbook, but only recently usurped in terms of CPU speed and wireless connectivity in the latest round of updates from Sony. While I love my Powerbook for most things, the Z1 has a number of advantages, foremost being the 6.5 hours I can get from the high capacity battery. Achievable because of the Centrino notebook technology coupled with the Pentium M CPU. I get 2 hours, 3 if I’m very lucky, out of the Powerbook. We’ll return to the topic later, because I think this could be a key component in the new line-up, but there are other things to consider.
I use the three through a USB switch – there’s a 20″ monitor on the desk for the Mini, and I have two iCurves for the laptops, giving me three screens and the useful ability (considering what I do all day) often requires me to refer to various bits of information, running applications and so on on multiple platforms and computers at the same time. I have a complicated USB setup that means I have a mouse on each machine, plus the main wireless keyboard/mouse combination which I switch between then I want to do any long term typing on one of the laptops. One of the great things about using a laptop in this situation is that for quick typing I can use the built in keyboard without having to switch.
While you might think I’m digressing the topic, the reason I’m outlining the set up here is to try and help demonstrate where I see (nay, hope) Apple will provide a solution that will either improve and/or significantly ease my working environment.
So anyway, thinking back to the forthcoming line-up from Apple what I’m going to cover is the technology available to Apple from Intel and the platforms that Apple might potentially support based on that technology. This is pure speculation, probably tinged with a certain amount of serious hope in some areas because of the potential of the available technology.
By the way, I’m strictly staying away from GHz and comparing CPU speeds, except in relative terms. What I’m interested in covering here is the technology and facilities offered by the different CPUs.
To start with, let’s have a look at the current Apple line-up. On the desktop side we have:
- Mac Mini
And on the notebook side we have:
And lastly we have the server:
- Xserve (and numerous variants, including a grid node version)
I could go into the details of the various peripherals, the Airport base stations, the Xserve RAID and similar components, but I honestly can’t see these changing much. They are all compatible with PCs already, there’s not a lot of point of changing something that already works. That doesn’t mean we wont see updates, I just don’t think they’ll be related to the move to Intel CPUs.
I’m also making the assumption that Apple will continue with the current model range, just with different CPUs. In some cases, I expect this will be the case, in others I’m expecting radical changes or modifications, if not in the first revision, in the second, of the new Intel machines.
Intel made their name on desktop CPUs and until the court cases had the monopoly on the x86 design. Of course we now have other companies – VIA, AMD and Transmeta – that provide x86 compatible processors, but Intel still hold the high ground. They also have a range of different technologies available to a computer manufacturer to get the best combination of price, performance and technology.
There are three main CPUs in the desktop group, the Pentium, Xeon and Celeron, and numerous sub-divisions within them.
The Pentium is the best known and recognized of the desktop processors and is the most widely used. Within the Pentium we currently have four separate products:
- Intel Pentium Processor Extreme Edition
- Intel Pentium D Processor
- Intel Pentium 4 Processor Extreme Edition supporting Hyper-Threading Technology
- Intel Pentium 4 Processor supporting Hyper-Threading Technology and Intel Pentium 4 Processor
The additional notation is what separates these CPUS and there are three different terms used:
- Pentium D is the designation for dual-core CPUs. As we’ve been hearing for some time, this is a single piece of silicon. Essentially this provides you with Symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) but in a single CPU. Because it’s in a single piece of silicon it’s easier to implement, takes up less motherboard space and doesn’t require the hefty interconnects (such as HyperTransport, used on the G5) to get the performance gains of two physical CPUs.
- Hyper Threading (HT) Technology is an extension of the CPU architecture that makes it much better at handling the multiple threads seen in most modern operating systems. Hyper Threading allows the processor to effectively run two threads simultaneously in the CPU clock cycle, giving performance similar too, but not quite equal to an SMP based solution. HT is most useful in situations where you have multiple applications running that don’t need full-blown SMP.
- Extreme Editions (EE) is a designation used to signify the top end of the CPU scale. This usually signifies a combination of technology and/or an extension of the built-in L2 or L3 cache to help speed up instruction and data execution. EE CPUs are now also almost exclusively 90nm rather than the older 130nm tech.
Putting this all together you can see that we have a basic Pentium CPU at the low end, no HT, single core and with fairly conservative cache, right up to the Pentium Extreme Edition which combines dual cores and hyper threading (thereby giving 4 simultaneously executing threads) as well as 1MB of L2 cache for each CPU core.
Note, however, that Pentiums are not SMP capable. You cannot put two Pentiums onto the same motherboard. Except for the quasi-SMP offered by HT and the SMP provided internally by a Pentium D or Pentium Extreme Edition, you can only have a single Pentium machine, limiting its use beyond high-end workstations and desktops and certain server situations.
Celerons are much easier to differentiate. There are two currently, the Celeron D uses the 90nm process and the Celeron uses the 130 or 180nm processes. Because the Celeron is based on older technology and is also based on slightly reduced feature sets than the Pentium they are much cheaper. In many cases the price is less than half or even a third of the cheapest Pentium.
Finally, we have the Xeon. This is the full blown SMP CPU designed for workstations and servers. Xeons provide full multiprocessing, from single up to 128-way capacity. Architecturally they are very similar to the Pentium in terms of functionality, but specially designed with server/workstation environments at that SMP capability in mind. For example, Xeons support Hyper Threading Technology and you can combine multiple HT Xeons into a proper SMP configuration. Imagine, for a moment, a 4-way Xeon unit with HT
There are two models, the Xeon and the Xeon MP. Both are SMP Compatible, but the Xeon is optimized for low-SMP environments (servers and workstations) and the MP for 4-way and above SMP servers (known as ‘Big Iron’). The MP provides higher memory bandwidth and a much larger L3 cache (up to 8MB) compared to no L3 cache on the plain Xeon.
Xeons are, unsurprisingly, the most expensive CPU that Intel support (ignoring, for the moment, the Itanium).
Like the main Pentium Desktop CPUs there are many different types of mobile CPU.
At the bottom end we have Mobile Celeron CPUs. Like their desktop counterparts they have comparatively reduced feature sets and are often based on older tech and are therefore very cheap.
In the mid-range, are Mobile Pentiums. These are desktop Pentiums with some slight adjustments. First, a slightly different form factor enables them to physically fit into the tighter spaces in a typical laptop. Second, they have built-in power control which helps lower their power requirements. The power control is limited, but they have much higher CPU rates (3GHz and higher). Because of the limited power control (and to get reasonable portable-use rates) they require much larger batteries and ergo much larger laptops. With a few exceptions, mobile Pentiums are typically used in the much larger laptops targeted as desktop replacements, rather than the small sleek laptops like my own Z1.
The final CPU is at the top end in terms of facilities, power control and processing power. Specially designed from the ground up for portable use, the Pentium-M supports infinitely variable processor rates (as the rate goes up, so does power) and it can adjust its rate on the fly. When your computer is idle it might be running at only 100-200Mhz, but start using a CPU intensive application and the CPU will ramp it’s processor rate up to the top end (currently 2GHz).
Centrino is a technology that combines all of the core functionality on a typical motherboard (disk interface, USB, networking and wireless) into a single chipset and, usually, a single chip. Fewer components means lower power requirements, but Centrino extends this further by providing fine control over your laptop equipment. For example, with a Centrino based notebook you can switch off external USB ports, PC Card slots, memory card readers, even your CD-ROM drive.
The variable power of the Pentium M is automatically on tap (you can override the settings) and when combined with the Centrino technology is what makes the latest crop of PC notebooks so small and light with such mammoth battery times. My Z1 was one of the first Centrino notebooks; 3 years down the line I expect the technology will have improved.
Some Common Technologies
Some Intel technology is shared by multiple processors. For example, we already know that Hyper Threading is in the Pentiums and it’s also in the Mobile Pentium and Xeon CPUs. Hyper Threading is probably the single most beneficial aspect of the Intel CPU range because it provides a significant speed increase in an SMP OS like Mac OS X (or Windows, Linux and others), but without all the overhead of a full SMP solution and the necessary data interconnects to support it.
Many of the desktop CPUs also support EM64T – a memory addressing architecture that enables you to address 64-bit memory on what is essentially a 32-bit CPU. This allows Intel CPUs to get round the 4GB limitation imposed by 32-bit CPUs without making the full migration to 64-bit technology. There are benefits – first of all RAM is what most people want to use 64-bit CPUs for. Not because they are manipulating massive data sets, just because they want to run multiple applications simultaneously and need 4GB to do it.
Desktop Intel/Apple Products
The Pentium is undoubtedly the CPU I see fitting into the iMac. With so much de-lineation you could have four models of iMac and provide everything from a cheap and cheerful experience up to the SMP functionality provided by the Pentium D Extreme Edition at the top end. I think it unlikely that Apple will drop the iMac product, but it may well change it’s name and appearance by the time it gets released.
The Celeron would be an ideal choice for an eMac style unit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple decides to drop the eMac in favour of using a simple Pentium 4 (without EE/HT) based iMac solution.
For the Mac Mini I’m tempted to suggest they use one of the Mobile Pentium or Celeron solutions, or possibly even Pentium M. The problem with the Mac Mini is that with such a small form factor heat dissipation will be the problem. The Pentium M is the only CPU in the Intel line-up that can get by on passive cooling in idle mode (a fan typically kicks in as the clock rate ramps up), but the Pentium M is expensive for what is currently Apple’s cheapest entry into the Mac market.
Instead, I think the Celeron will go into the Mac Mini and we may see a move to a very sensitive, but hopefully frequently silent variable rate fan.
For the current PowerMac I can’t see Apple dropping their association with SMP greatness. I expect the minimum in a PowerMac will be a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition with HT Technology (single core), but Apple will probably ignore this completely. The Pentium D is an expensive commodity though and if you want SMP it is going to be cheaper in the short to medium term for Apple to provide Xeon based desktops with and without HT technology.
Of course an advantage of the Xeon range is that multi-way SMP is easier, so we’re more likely to see a 4-way Xeon workstation than the often rumour 4-way PPC based unit.
Notebook Intel/Apple Products
At the moment, as pointed out in this recent post the delineation between an iBook and a PowerBook is not very much. The main reason for this is the lack of delineation between PPC CPUs. When the Powerbook and Powermac sported the same CPU having an older, and cheaper, version in the iBook made sense.
When we move to Intel I find it impossible to imagine Apple not taking advantage of both Centrino technology and the Pentium-M. It would make an excellent top of the line Powerbook replacement and with much better battery life than we’ve seen on any portable computer from Apple in their history.
The iBook is the difficult one. The Mobile Pentiums would provide power, but could potentially provide more power than the Pentium-M/Centrino combination, albeit at the expense of battery life.
The Mobile Celerons offer the lower priced alternative, which fits with the goal of the iBook so the only remaining issue will be retaining high battery life. There’s no reason why Apple couldn’t combine Centrino and Mobile Celeron technology together. The Centrino part of the puzzle has the advantage that it provides nearly all of the required interfaces already supported by Apple in their notebooks, but it could also prove to be more expensive than the price point Apple are aiming for.
Like the desktop Powermac, I find it impossible to imagine that Apple will go for anything less than Xeons in their server line up. However, I see the potential for some expansion of the current server line by leveraging the power of the Xeon in SMP mode and in the Pentium D technology.
At the lower end I could easily see Apple introduce a smaller SME (Small to Medium Enterprise) server based on a Pentium with HT or Pentium D product. It wouldn’t necessarily be much cheaper than a Xeon unit, but it might be cheap enough to be attractive. Even more likely is a Pentium w/HT based ‘home’ server that provides network storage and sharing functionality for a home environment. If they are worried about noise, they could even offer a lower end Celeron or even Centrino unit.
At the other end of the scale, Apple could attract a lot of the high-end buyers, many of who already use Apple RAID kit, with a 4-way or more Xeon unit. With a double or triple height Xserve box you could provide a lot of horsepower.
Intel means choice
It should be obvious from my summing up of potential products and the CPUs they would use that the massive range of CPUs available from Intel gives Apple a much wider range of computers and thoughts to play with.
With the current PowerPC CPUs we basically have three types of desktop (those with G5/SMP, those with a single G5 and those with a G4) and one type of notebook (using the only CPU available, a G4). The only other difference is in the packaging and the associated costs.
Even if you pick a single CPU – for example Pentium M – you have more latitude with chipsets (Centrino or not) to provide radically different products. This is good. Although Apple have expanded their range from that of a few years ago (when we basically had a single laptop, the Powermac and the iMac) up to the current selection of seven different models, there’s plenty of room for more.
If Apple are going to move into the video business then the home server market is going to explode, and with Intel chips Apple has plenty of scope to build a very good home server. If anybody from Apple is reading this, please put my name on a beta testing list.
As to the desktop and server options, their choice really is unlimited. A wider range of business level servers would be an excellent way to use their good name gained with their Xserve RAID products in to other markets and organizations.
The Windows Angle
I started out this piece by highlighting my own setup. I didn’t do this to brag (with 3 year old equipment!?) but to point out one of the long-standing problem for those of us who specialize in using multiple platforms. While VirtualPC is a great product, it is no replacement for a true PC and there are books and situations where using VirtualPC would have been of no use whatsoever.
Up until now this has meant supporting multiple platforms, and by that I mean entirely different hardware. Aside from the obvious inability to run OS X on PCs or, more usefully, Windows directly on a PowerMac it’s also the other issues, like PCI card compatibility that can be a bind from a IT administration perspective.
I see two main benefits of the Apple move to Intel in terms of the Windows compatibility world:
No more compatibility worries. The high prices for ATA or graphics cards (among others) that were ‘Mac Compatible’ should disappear, simply because it will be meaningless in the realm of a PC compatible world. This is good for us, because it means cheaper products and cheaper upgrades. It might, though, be bad news for some of the Mac specialists.
Think about Sonnet Technology. They’ve made a business out of niche Mac products like the Tempo 8-way eSATA card I desperately want to put into my G4 to bring it’s storage complement up by another 4TB. This concerns me, because it is the suppliers like Sonnet that made using a Mac and Mac products such a joy. The help you get from people like Sonnet compared to the box shifting market on the PC side is worth the extra money, in my mind, but it’s hard to ignore the cheaper prices when the time comes to hand over your credit card number.
Compatibility – Apple have confirmed that their Intel based boxen will run Windows. No longer will I have to worry about buying two laptops every 3 years just to keep up with the technology on both platforms, I can buy one and run both OS on it. Actually, I’ll probably run Linux and Solaris on it too, but let’s not dilute the point too much.
Actually, Apple has a pretty good advantage here. Buy an Apple box and run just about any of the popular OS out there, including OS X, Windows, Linux and others. Buy anybody else’s PC and you limit your choice by one OS too few. Given Apple’s history with OS, why wouldn’t you want the choice of running OS X? If it runs Windows as well, you’re not limiting your options. If you don’t like OS X, go out and buy something else. At least you know the hardware is sound.
In reality of course I’ll probably still buy multiple machines, but I might be able to get away with a dedicated desktop and a dedicated laptop, both capable of running multiple OS That’ll save me some money. It’ll also simplify my choices when it comes to picking a PC desktop or laptop. It’ll be an Apple unless something very very strange happens.
Longer term I think it will be interesting to see how the VirtualPC side of things pans out. Faster execution times for VirtualPC machines would be good, but the real key is still going to be that baseline hardware flexibility to run multiple OS.
A final note on naming
Having typed Powerbook and Powermac a number of times I have been reminded of how we got to that nomenclature.
Before the PowerPC CPU arrived on the scene Macs were called by a funky name, like Centris or Quadra or going back further to my first Mac, the IIfx. But the ‘power’ in Power Mac comes directly from the PowerPC CPU used inside it.
A move to Intel will mean a different name, but I hope it’s not Mactel or a similar combination. Powermac had other connotations – you could assume it was because it was powerful and nothing to do with the CPU. Intel somehow doesn’t combine well with other words to make a funky name.