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.