[April 24, 2006]

Testing Apples Intel transition: iMac and MacBook Pro

(InfoWorld Electronic News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Apples first Intel-based Macs, iMac and MacBook Pro, were born into a position of advantage. OS X Tiger, a loyal base of customers and developers, firm ownership of high-margin specialty markets, and high regard in the mainstream have turned everything Apples touched (at least since the Titanium PowerBook G4) into gold.


These advantages did not guarantee Apple or its customers smooth sailing from PowerPC to Intel. Despite gaping holes in its Intel rollout strategy -- holes that Apple is attempting to spackle with speed and nerve -- Apple managed to hit a home run and a double in its first two Intel at-bats. In the Intel-based iMac, Apples best desktop to date has arrived. Early demanding buyers of MacBook Pro, however, will find flaws -- some significant. Considering that Apple is an x86 PC start-up, though, thats a great beginning.

Much in common
I reviewed Apples 20-inch iMac, with a 2 GHz Core Duo CPU and 1GB of memory, and a MacBook Pro with a 2.16 GHz Core Duo and 2GB of memory. My review process was straightforward: I used these systems as my sole desktop and notebook computers from their arrival to the filing of this review.

After more than a month of testing, I can tell you that any trepidation about the performance of Intels Core Duo can be set aside. These are fast machines; not power user fast, but much faster and more responsive than their PowerPC forebears when running native apps.

iMac and MacBook Pro are not architecturally identical, but theyre close enough to make most distinctions unimportant here. I was pleased to find that Apple did not just punt Macs internal engineering to Intel. As with PowerPC Macs, iMac and MacBook Pro are assembled from best-of-breed components selected by Apple, leaving Intel to supply primarily the CPU and chipset.

Both of the new Macs hew, more or less, to the feature set of PowerPC Macs. They have slot-loading optical drives, USB 2.0, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, AirPort Extreme wireless, Bluetooth 2.0 with Enhanced Data Rate, and digital video ports. A gaming-grade PCI Express GPU (graphics processing unit), the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600, gives Intel Macs some scary 2D and 3D graphics potential. And Airport Extreme now supports 802.11a, a blessing in places where the 2.4 GHz spectrum is overcrowded.

The new Macs graphics performance lags behind PowerBook G4s for some tasks, such as paging through large PDF files with intricate graphics. Motion graphics, such as Apples Front Row media center interface, are often choppy. This strikes me as a device driver and low-level framework issue that will yield to future software updates. Because it lacks the PowerBooks integrated S-Video output, MacBook Pro cannot drive an external Cinema Display or other DVI panel and a video monitor or projector at the same time.

Both systems have an integrated iSight VGA-resolution Web cam cleverly built into the bezels above their displays, so theyre always pointed right at your face and ready for an A/V conference. Their light sensitivity is lower than average and their focus is fixed, so the built-in iSight is outclassed by Apples add-on iSight, but the integration is a major plus. The slim six-button infrared Apple Remote, included to drive Front Row, is a nice consumer grace note that third-party developers have already adapted for use with presentations.

iMac, reborn
I havent much to say about iMac; its peerless. iMac surpasses PC desktops best of breed by establishing a much nobler breed. Its a fast, power efficient, silent, one-piece desktop computer that requires only seven square inches of clear desk space and virtually vanishes as soon as the display lights up.

Intels Core Duo and ATIs Radeon X1600 graphics make iMac Apples fastest-ever Mac for the money. In my experience, while running 32-bit, CPU-native apps, its outperformed only by dual-CPU or quad-core 64-bit Power Mac G5 and Xserve.

iMac looks like a kiosk -- no buttons, trays, or protrusions. The motherboard, peripherals, power supply, display and speakers are cocooned in an indestructible polycarbonate enclosure. Cables plug in at the rear and vanish. If you use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, only the power cord remains, and even that shares the overall sleek design. This machine is front office material when viewed from any angle.

The Intel-based iMac is impossibly energy- and space-efficient, giving far more than it takes in both regards. Pushed to the performance red line and with the monitor cranked to full brightness, iMac never consumed more than 95 watts of power -- one-third to half what a comparable desktop with a high-quality 20-inch LCD panel would use.

The notebook-sized energy appetite does not subject users to notebook limitations, however. No notebook has anywhere near the display size and brightness, the disk capacity and speed, and the consistently high CPU performance of iMac. Most professional PC desktop users would consider iMac an upgrade in all regards.

iMacs display is stunning, the finest Ive seen and the rival or equal of Apples Cinema Displays. The bright backlight is impossibly even, with no falloff in the corners or at the edges. Even at maximum brightness, colors do not wash out, blacks dont turn gray, and text is never anything but tack-sharp down to small point sizes. In a commercial setting, iMac banishes eye fatigue and never needs its resolution dialed down. In a machine loaded with best features, iMacs display is the best of all.

iMacs $1,299 and $1,699 (17- and 20-inch displays, respectively) retail price invites criticism, but when a PC is built out to match iMacs specifications -- the 20-inch display alone finds its equal only at $700 and above -- iMacs price is competitive. The overall design shows the box-and-monitor desktop to be the uninspired throwback to the 70s that it is. Knock-offs will abound before long, and will come to outnumber the tired two-piece standard, but Im confident that Apple will keep iMac in front.

MacBook Pro: room to grow
I was originally set to lambaste MacBook Pro for its flaws. The release of a new cut of OS X, however, along with a firmware update received just a week before this review filed, seem to have addressed the showstopper stability issues I encountered. The machine that frustrated the hell out of me for five weeks became a welcome, albeit flawed, companion in the final week.

MacBook Pro is what I prayed it would be: A PowerBook with Intel guts. Apple messed with the formula only to improve it. For example, the MacBook Pro keyboards quality is exceptional, a vast improvement over the latest PowerBooks. The roomier trackpad is sized like that of a 17-inch PowerBook, fitting MacBook Pros wide aspect display and making a big difference in usability.

The display, although sharper and brighter as advertised, is much, much fussier about its viewing angle. If its tilted vertically even a few degrees from parallel with your retinas, the top or bottom of the display fades markedly in brightness. On the other hand, MacBook Pros display glass is stronger and more resistant to pressure, adding to durability that brings the notebook close to industrial standards in its capacity for abuse.

MacBook Pros wireless networking, with a new chip and an aftermarket-grade antenna, is radically improved over PowerBook. It withstands the challenge of walls, floors, distance, and interference, pulling in clean signals and 54Mbps connections in places where I could previously only get 2Mbps to 5Mbps, or nothing at all. Wireless was initially an unacceptable drain on the battery, but the new software ameliorated that.

On the other hand, USB devices remain a constant frustration. Data transfers to and from external USB disks would routinely hang in mid-transfer, freezing the machine until the cable was unplugged. USB audio devices were nightmares to use, requiring plugging and unplugging and jockeying around in System Preferences to make them work. When they do work, they continue working until the device is unplugged. Thankfully, storage devices attached to the FireWire port are hot-pluggable and completely reliable.

MacBook Pro runs hot, even by PC notebook standards. I sternly warn against resting it directly on your lap, especially while its charging. I took unusual care to keep MacBook Pro cool, but Im sure that some of the early stability problems I encountered were related to the extreme heat.

Lastly, MacBook Pro produces a high-pitched squeal during operation, an annoyance I was able to quiet by using developer utilities to disable the second CPU core. Thats only diagnostically significant; theres no making a solution from that.

Even with all Ive said, the MacBook Pro is the only notebook I use. It tries my patience at times, but the software updates solved a lot of the issues I encountered and made it a more pleasant machine to use.

Buy now, later, or never?
A wait-and-see approach to MacBook Pro may be warranted, but no such caution is necessary with iMac. The next generation of Intels CPUs will make both systems faster and even more energy efficient, but this will only raise iMac higher above the PC pack than it already is.

Despite their rush to market, these two systems show that Apple knows how to do Intel systems right, and as the catalog of Intel-native OS X applications fills out and users get used to the idea of running Windows on Apple hardware, iMac and MacBook Pro have a solid shot at mainstream leadership.

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