Thursday, January 12, 2006

Apple's new laptop  

It's now been two days since Apple announced the first machines ever to ship with Intel processors, due to ship in February. (See my earlier post: Apple's future with Intel.) Steve said something about a new Intel-based iMac or something, I guess, but nobody cares because he also announced a new pro laptop that uses an Intel chip.

The usual flurries of oohs and ahhs, glowing reviews, playful cynicism, and plugs from unexpected directions have all played out. Now people are starting to look a little more closely at the offerings.

Missing Pieces

Finally, for the first time I have no connection whatsoever to Apple and I can talk about a new release without the fear of getting arbitrarily fired. So I'll dig in from my new perspective as an Apple outsider and take a look.

Rosyna examines what's not in the new laptop in his enigmatically titled Lost in Transition: Overcane of Antflower Milk. Don't worry about the title; he's just like that.

To sum up: no S-video, no FireWire 800, no modem, slightly lower resolution (1440x900, when the previous laptop was 1440x960), no dual-layer DVD burning. And from looking at the battery and the power brick, it seems likely that power consumption is actually higher on this machine than the previous iteration. (Not a big deal to me, since that's the natural progression anyway -- but worth noting.)

I'd add two things to that list:

  • No PC card slot. It was traded up for an ExpressCard/34 slot, which will ultimately be a good thing... but first, people will have to start making cards that fit it. To call the current offerings sparse would be generous. That'll be fixed in a year, but it may be a concern for a handful of early adopters who need PC cards for one reason or another.
  • No two-button trackpad. This doesn't matter when you're running Mac OS X, because OSX uses control-click. But tough luck if you were hoping to dual-boot into Windows; you simply can't run Windows usefully with a one-button mouse.

Many people have noticed that Apple is being suspiciously quiet about battery life. No statements on battery life are available, which is very odd for a laptop announcement. My sources suggest that they're simply not done with the final power management code, so they don't want to release actual metrics yet. If I may insert a side comment here, my own experience and tendency toward cynicism suggests that they will ship a half-assed version of power management with the machine, then patch it later with a couple of system updates to get to a version that actually works. Call it a hunch.


As the saying goes, "There are lies, damn lies, and benchmarks." Apple is claiming a whopping 4x speed boost over the previous PowerBook G4. But take a look at this breakdown of the benchmarks from Apple themselves:

MacBook Pro Benchmarks

Notice how only Modo -- an application that is heavily tuned for Intel chips -- is listed as about 4x faster, and everything else gets in the neighborhood of 2x. From Luxology's site:

The modo rendering engine deeply leverages various Intel Technologies to improve scalability and performance. Our bucket rendering provides near linear scales in performance with multiple processors and Intel® Pentium 4 processors with HT Technology.

Everything else that hasn't been hand-tuned quite as much for Intel chips only gets a boost in the neighborhood of 2x. Funny thing, really... 2x is just about the performance boost you'd get going from a single G4 to a dual G4.

From examining those benchmarks, my professional opinion is that it looks like a single core of the new Intel chip runs a little faster in these tests than a comparably-clocked G4, or roughly equal to a comparably-clocked G5.

The real performance boost comes from the fact that there are two cores. It's like the laptop went from a single-processor G4 to a dual-processor G5. That's a real boost, of course -- the machine really does seem to be twice as fast as the old machine, which is awesome and worthy of praise. But it's not because it's Intel vs PowerPC; most of the boost is due to the upgrade from single-processor to dual-processor.

As for people getting over-excited about Intel's SSE vs PowerPC's Altivec, my personal opinion -- as someone who's written code for both -- is that in the final analysis they're really quite similar. Sure, there are differences. Each is good at different things, and optimizing for one is not the same as optimizing for the other. Altivec has more registers, but then again you pay for those extra registers during context switches. Switching to SSE is more of a lateral move than a step back. It'll take a while for Apple and other vendors to convert everything that was Altivec-optimized to be fully SSE-optimized, but they'll get there.

Update: Ars Technica comes through with a hands-on look at the new iMac, and had a chance to run some benchmarks. Since they use the same CPU, the iMac probably has performance very similar to the new laptop. Check it out for more details.

Dreams of Dual-Booting

One of the reasons I was really interested in the new laptop was the possibility of dual-booting into Windows, and later, when the software became available, running Windows in a VMware-style shell.

My current work (contracting for Sony on PSP/PS3) requires me to use Windows XP on a daily basis. While I've mostly managed to customize my Windows system to the point where it satisfies my needs, I still really miss a lot of the nicer little features of the Mac: iChat, iCal, iPhoto, even AppleScript. And when I'm traveling I can't really work on Mac software without bringing two laptops along -- which is obnoxious both because of the extra weight and the extra hassle at the dog-and-pony show that passes for airport "security" in this country.

A single dual-booting laptop would have been a great solution for me -- I'd sign up to buy it right now if I thought the new laptop would deliver on that front, even without a two-button trackpad.

But it's been reported that Windows XP won't boot the laptop, because it uses EFI rather than a BIOS to boot. Longhorn, aka Windows Vista, should work... but who knows when that's coming out? Right now it's supposed to be the end of 2006, but it appears to be even money on whether Microsoft will actually make that date. The Longhorn schedule and magical ballooning feature list has looked a lot like Copland's so far, which isn't very heartening.

In summary, don't get this laptop for its capability to run two OSes; it will be a while before it can. Perhaps once there's a consumer VMware product for Mac OS X that boots XP I'll take a second look at it.

Update: In an interesting twist, Intel has firmly stated that you can definitely boot Windows XP with an EFI Core Duo system if the vendor provides a BIOS compatibility shim. Interesting! However, Ars Technica reports that they had no joy installing either XP or Vista on the new Intel iMac, so the shim is either not there right now or just not provided with the iMac.

But now that it seems at least technically possible, I bet we'll see a BIOS shim for the new laptop -- either factory installed, or as a download. Keep your eyes peeled; it may not be over yet!

The Good Stuff

So far this has seemed way too negative. That's not really how I feel. Overall I have to say I really do like the laptop as a Mac.

Things like lack of S-video and a modem don't bother me personally. Now that wi-fi has really taken off, it's not the crisis it used to be to be stuck in a hotel room without a modem -- you just have to find the nearest Starbucks. If you are one of the 2% of users who really need to use S-video or a modem regularly, you can get an adapter dongle. No, it's not as nice. But it works fine, and it helps bring the price of the laptop down for the rest of us.

I think the built-in iSight is nice; while not always useful, it's one of those things that's nice to have standard. Video chat and other applications of the camera (think Flickr) will increase dramatically if the iSight is now going to be standard on every new machine. I don't like bringing my iSight with me when I travel, but I'd definitely use a built-in one to video chat with my wife if I had it.

And the speed, ah, the speed. This machine really is fast. If you are looking for a fast new Mac laptop, this is what you've been waiting for.

What's up with the name?

I haven't even talked about the name yet. Apple used to sell the PowerBook. I guess they still do, at least for a while. The brand had good name recognition despite that awkward capital B in the middle that nobody actually bothered to type.

But this new laptop has been rebranded and is no longer a PowerBook. Instead, it's called a "MacBook Pro". Hardly anybody I've talked to likes the name, myself included. But I might be able to guess at the rationale behind it. Bear with me.

"PowerBook" is a brand name. A PowerBook actually has three unique brands associated with it: "PowerBook", "Mac", and the superbrand "Apple". Personally, I think it's a very strong name, and it has the benefit of 15 years of brand-building success behind it. People know what you're talking about when you say PowerBook.

MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is a brand extension. A double brand extension, really. "MacBook Pro" is an extension of "MacBook", which itself is an extension of "Mac". On the face of it, from everything the The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding tell us, this is a much much weaker name. Why on earth did Apple decide to make this change?

The only reason that makes sense to me is that Apple must have decided that they're going to start consolidating the Mac brand. Rather than having separate brands under the Mac umbrella, everything Mac is now going to include Mac in the name. If that's true, then the "iBook" name will going away to be replaced by just plain "MacBook". "PowerMac" will go away, to be replaced by something like "Macintosh Pro".

Why consolidate the Mac brand? Perhaps, and just perhaps -- this is wild speculation -- it's to get ready for a possible future move to OSX running on non-Apple PCs. Let me be clear here: I don't expect such a move of the OS to non-Apple PCs for at least five years or more. But Apple of course has to be thinking about the possibility of competing with Microsoft in the future.

If they were to start letting OSX run on non-Apple PCs, they might want to rebrand "Mac OS X" to "Apple OS X" to make a distinction between the high-end Mac computer brand and other non-Mac computers. But doing that would weaken the Mac brand, right? So that may be why we're seeing the brand consolidation now, years before any of these other changes take place. It's about strengthening the brand in anticipation of possible weakening later.

Just a thought.


  • Eriky said...

    Thanks for this great article. Some of your thoughts passed my mind too. Especially about running OSX on non-apple PC's in the future. I really think Apple might get the strenght and momentum to compete with windows. Especially when WINE / Darwine gets better and running windows apps on Linux and OSX become easy.


  • Nathan Duran said...

    Hi Drew! Bye Drew!

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Who was that masked man?

  • james vargas said...

    Hi,and thanks for the review.
    I bought an ibook 12" last year,upgraded the ram to 512
    and have been happily using it to surf,email and compose with garageband.
    If i shell out for a macbook pro...will i notice a real difference? I m looking for faster rendering of audio tracks
    comparable to the huge amount of money this thing will cost.
    You seem like one of the best people to put this question to,so i d be really glad to have an answer from you.
    Thanks again,
    James Vargas

  • Drew Thaler said...

    From everything I've seen it should provide a performance boost to GarageBand. But be a little cautious -- I'll explain why.

    First, the speed. From the published numbers, it looks like the MBP might achieve 2.5x the speed in GarageBand compared to your iBook, and maybe more.

    I say that because the screenshot with performance bars above shows GarageBand software rendering on the MacBook Pro to be about 2.1x the speed of a PowerBook 1.67GHz. (GarageBand is an Apple app, so it's either a universal binary right now, or will be shortly.) I don't know the speed of your iBook, but the PowerBook 1.67GHz is roughly 1.2x the speed of the fastest 12" iBook at 1.33GHz. Multiply those together, 2.1 times 1.2, and the top-end MBP may get a speed boost of (very roughly) 2.5x or more relative to your iBook. That's only a rough estimate, though, because clock speed is only a first-order approximation and we're lumping together different benchmarks here. If you get the cheaper MBP, which is a touch slower, the speed would probably be reduced to just over 2x.

    Second, about the caution. If you're on the fence because of the price you should definitely wait until you see, read about, or experience firsthand the real-world performance of GarageBand on the MacBook Pro. Since the MBP isn't out yet, we can only look at the numbers that Apple has published. While they probably aren't lying, keep in mind that they are trying to sell you something. :-)

    The new iMac is a decent substitute to run tests on -- they use the same CPU and run at the same clock speed, so they should have pretty similar performance. First-hand experience is best. Try rendering a track on your current iBook, then use the same data and render the same track on either an iMac in a store or the MacBook once it comes out. You can either create a track from the built-in data, or just bring in a disc. Most retailers, including Apple Stores, won't mind if you bring in a disc to try stuff out. Time it and see if the speed difference would be worth it to you.

    I personally expect that it will, but if it were me I wouldn't shell out $2500 for a laptop without being damn sure that I was going to get my money's worth. :-)

    BTW, if you are looking for RAM I would always suggest looking at dealRAM or RAMSeeker. They collect prices from different vendors so you can make sure you're getting the best deal available. You can save hundreds of dollars over buying it at a computer store or from Apple directly. For what it's worth, I always try to have 1GB or more of RAM. If your applications aren't using all of it, any spare memory is automatically used for a disk cache. It gives you a nice speed boost (and therefore extends the useful life of the machine) for not too much money.

  • James Vargas said...

    Hi Drew,thanks very much for such a prompt and detailed reply,

    My ibook is a 1.2 Ghz G4 with 512 MB DDR SDRAM.
    The MacBook Pro i m considering is the more powerful of the two currently on offer in the UK...1.83 ghz.
    I want the faster 7200 ATA drive and also had intended to upgrade the ram to the maximum 2GB.
    Without Applecare the total in dear old England comes out at a whopping £ 2,059.01.
    If it gives me a recording solution (with Logic) that will last me for 3 years or so then i ll consider it money well spent,but have to confess some trepidation in buying the first generation of any apple product.Dont get me wrong...i am a mac fan who had never even written an email until a muso mate showed me garageband and i bought my ibook;it s just that Apple seem on occasion to re-define the term "teething trouble"
    Would i not be just as happy with a specced up powerbook? Apart of course from the magsafe cable!
    Any further thoughts gratefully received.
    With thanks,
    James Vargas.

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Yeah, there's always a risk of something being substandard with the first generation of any product. But "not perfect" and "horribly broken" are two different things. It might not be perfect, but I doubt it will be horribly broken. It'll work, and it'll be fast.

    Purchasing a new PPC Powerbook -- I just wouldn't do that at this point. It's single-core, and a lower clock speed, making it literally half the speed of the MacBook Pro. It'll be obsolete before you even buy it and resale value will be nil. And it won't be much faster than your current iBook.

    Sticking with the same machine -- if you can reasonably wait six to nine months before buying new hardware, think about it. Apple tends to refresh or speedbump machines about every nine months, and updates are more frequent with a new release like the MBP. Plus there are probably 12" and 17" models coming over the summer.

    Purchasing a MacBook Pro -- if you were planning on a hardware upgrade anyway, I'd say just go for it. The dual-core processor really will make it about 2x faster than the PPC Powerbook; OSX has great SMP support and dual-processor Macs have always been much faster and more responsive than single-processor Macs.

    If it were me I'd probably be deciding between waiting N months, or ordering now. There's no harm in waiting; you won't get it until February regardless, and if you wait until March you will be able to see what other people think of it and get an idea of what problems, if any, there might be with it.

  • Drew Thaler said...

    FYI, here's a link for Apple product cycles analyzed by release dates. You can see how six to nine months is pretty typical between product revisions.

  • Anonymous said...

    Hi there, look, I'm completely technologicaly illiterate individual who's finally going back to school to complete my degree. I have been lucky enough to recieve some financial help towards getting my first laptop and as the university uses mac I thought I'd go for a powerbook. Now this macbook pro is announced and I'm stuck! They're the same price and I really know nothing about computers, so I'm sure the powerbook would more than meet my needs, but what if I get more savvy and realise it's not powerful enough? I want to do a bit of composing with garage band, take some photos or video of my daughter (when I get a camera/handycam!!), and write my assignments. Apparently my course uses dreamweaver, quark,photoshop etc. Is the powerbook suitable? I guess I worry that as the macbook is new it might have problems with the first model. In an ideal world I'd wait but school starts on the 20th of Feb, about the same time the macbook is due in Australia. Also, you mentioned something about adding another processor to the powerbook to make it faster ( something like that anyway!) How do you do that? Is it expensive? Finally no modem? How does that work if I'm at home? I only have dail up at the moment but am getting broadband soon! Thanks for any advise you can give me, Emma

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Emma, you're in a tricky situation. Because school is starting, you have to have the machine ASAP, but it sounds you also want to use it for as long as possible. So you have some short-term needs and some long-term needs.

    First and foremost: they are both Macs, and they should both run all the Mac software you need. Both will be capable of running video editing software, photo editing, and so on. They may run at different speeds, but I've never (yet) seen anyone killed by having to wait a little bit longer for a progress bar. :-) Speed is a convenience, but not truly a necessity.

    At the same time, speed is probably the most important factor that determines the lifetime of a computer. The faster the computer is when you buy it, the longer it will stay useful.

    The better long-term answer might be the (Intel-based) MacBook Pro. Apple is switching over from PowerPC to Intel, and dropping PowerPC entirely. Right now they are supporting both, but over time the support for PowerPC will naturally fade away. The crossover point will probably be in about three to four years, well within the normal lifetime of a Mac laptop. So if you get the (PowerPC-based) PowerBook you may have problems finding software that supports it after a while. And well before that, you'll find that the PowerBook will start to feel extremely slow running newer software.

    The MacBook Pro will be much faster than the PowerBook overall -- it has two processor cores rather than just one, so for many things it can do twice the work in the same amount of time. And that extra power means it will last much longer before it starts to feel really slow.

    By the way, you can't upgrade a PowerBook to make it competitive with the MacBook Pro. When I was writing about an "upgrade" from a single- to dual-processor G4 above, it was only a hypothetical upgrade, based on the performance of a single-processor desktop Mac vs a dual-processor desktop Mac. It's not something you can actually go out and buy. Sorry for the confusion. :-)

    At the same time, however, you're right to be concerned about the short term. Your first couple of months with the MacBook Pro might include some difficulties. Don't get me wrong -- most things will just work flawlessly, and you'll never even know that there's a different chip inside. Apple is surprisingly good about that. Any problems you have would probably be related to the software needed for your class. But I think all of the software you've mentioned should run well enough for you to learn with. Photoshop will run, Dreamweaver will run, Quark will run, etc.

    You will need a modem for dial-up, and since there's no internal modem you would have to purchase the Apple USB Modem with the MacBook Pro for A$79, to use until you get broadband. It plugs in to a port on the side but otherwise acts like a normal modem. Also, if you use AOL for dial-up, you might have trouble there too -- they apparently have some compatibility problems that might not be fixed by the time you get the new machine.

    If budget is not an obstacle -- in other words, if you are being encouraged to get the biggest and best machine possible to take the fullest advantage of the aid -- then I'd say go for the MacBook Pro. It will have the longest useful lifetime of any Mac portable you can get, and most things you do in class shouldn't be a problem with it. Even if they are, I'm sure the instructors will be able to help you with them... just think of it as an extra chance to learn. :-) In effect you'd be trading a month or two of possible (and only possible, not definite) short-term minor problems for an extra several years of useful long-term lifetime. To me, that tradeoff is worth it.

    If budget is an obstacle, or if your financial help can (a) be used for something else besides a laptop, or (b) put aside for later, then you might consider getting an in-between step for the time being: perhaps a used 1GHz iBook that you will use for only a year. A used iBook would make a fine learning machine, will do everything you need for the class, and you can pick one up for as little as A$1000, several thousand less than a new PowerBook or MacBook. It will be slow at running GarageBand, iMovie, and stuff like that, but it will at least run them, and you'll save money. After about a year has passed, you will be able to upgrade with confidence -- you'll know a little more about your needs, and all the immediate problems (like AOL's compatibility) that you might be worried about today will have been fixed.

    I still can't quite bring myself to recommend the PowerBook at this point. I think the MacBook Pro will be a solid machine, and as long as the MBP and the PowerBook are almost the same price, the MBP is a better choice.

  • Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the best info I've come across on the MacBook Pro.
    I am a young film-maker and need to get a laptop to primarily run Final Cut Pro and Pro Tools LE. I have already held off switching from PC thinking a G5 laptop may have been around the corner.
    I can't really hold off much longer, Do you think I could run into problems running these apps on the new technology?

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Well, here's the catch. Once both applications have shipped I don't think there will be any problems.

    However, the existing versions of the apps that are out right now aren't compatible with the MBP. The universal binary of Final Cut Pro 5 won't be released until March. The universal binary of Pro Tools LE won't be released until May. Also, if you didn't catch it, FCP is morphing into Final Cut Studio which is a bundle that includes Soundtrack Pro, Motion, and DVD Studio Pro -- so you'll be forced to get all that extra cool stuff with the Intel-compatible version.

    So you can get the MBP now, but you'll have to wait up to five weeks for FCP and 2-3 months for PTLE. You'll also want to check out the compatibility of any extensions/plugins that you want to use, since those will need to be universal too.

    The delay in FCP may be bearable, because it's short and you might be able to get by with the lesser but still pretty capable iMovie HD (which is already compatible with the MacBook Pro) in the meantime.

    But the delay in PTLE is a little longer. If you know for sure you want the machine (and it sounds like you do!) and you have another solution for running Pro Tools -- like your old PC -- that will get you through the next few months, then I'd say just go ahead and buy.

    I don't expect any problems from FCP because it's what Apple calls a "flagship" product. It's a highly visible app and it's the reason a lot of people buy Macs, so all the engineers are under enormous pressure to make sure it works. And it will.

    As for PTLE, they certainly won't have a problem with the x86 processor because they ship a Windows version already. Any problems are more likely to stem from just general bugs in PTLE7 than from any Intel Mac problems. I can't vouch for PTLE7 being bug-free, but I'm pretty sure that once it's released you'll get the same experience with it on an Intel Mac as you would any other platform.

  • Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the info about the new MacBook Pro.
    I am currently studiying 2D and 3D animation (Maya).
    Right now, I need to run a dyslexic programme, in windows and intend to buy a laptop but am unsure to go for a Pc or the mac book Pro.
    I would need a computer to run Adobe programmes well as well as animation software