A hit and a near miss from Apple

The Intel-based iMac is Apple's best desktop and MacBook Pro overcomes initial flaws

Apple’s 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 Apple’s 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, Apple managed to hit a home run and a double in its first two Intel at-bats. In the Intel-based iMac, Apple’s 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, that's a great beginning.

Much in common

I reviewed Apple’s 20-inch iMac, with a 2GHz 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 Intel’s 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 they’re close enough to make most distinctions unimportant here. I was pleased to find that Apple did not just punt Mac’s 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 G4’s for some tasks, such as paging through large PDF files with intricate graphics. Motion graphics, such as Apple’s Front Row media centre 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 PowerBook’s 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 they’re 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 Apple’s 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.

The iMac surpasses PC desktops’ best of breed by establishing a much nobler breed. It’s a fast, power-efficient, silent, one-piece desktop computer that requires only 45 square cm of clear desk space and virtually vanishes as soon as the display lights up.

Intel’s Core Duo and ATI’s Radeon X1600 graphics make iMac Apple’s fastest-ever Mac for the money. In my experience, while running 32-bit, CPU-native apps, it’s 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.

The iMac’s display is stunning, the finest I’ve seen and the rival or equal of Apple’s Cinema Displays. The bright backlight is impossibly even, with no falloff in the corners or at the edges. Even at maximum brightness, colours do not wash out, blacks don’t turn grey 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, iMac’s display is the best of all.

iMac’s $2,569 and $3,399 (17- and 20-inch displays, respectively) retail price invites criticism, but when a PC is built out to match iMac’s specifications — the 20-inch display alone adds at least $700 or more — iMac’s price is competitive. The overall design shows the box-and-monitor desktop to be the uninspired throwback to the 1970s that it is. Knock-offs will abound before long, and will come to outnumber the tired two-piece standard, but I’m confident that Apple will keep iMac in front.

MacBookPro: 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 keyboard’s quality is exceptional, a vast improvement over the latest PowerBooks. The roomier trackpad is sized like that of a 17-inch PowerBook, fitting MacBook Pro’s 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 it’s 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 Pro’s 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 Pro’s 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 54Mbit/s connections in places where I could previously only get 2Mbit/s to 5Mbit/s, 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 it’s charging. I took unusual care to keep MacBook Pro cool, but I’m 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. That’s only diagnostically significant; there’s no making a solution from that.

Even with all I’ve 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 Intel’s 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.

A series of events has quickly raised iMac and MacBook Pro to commercial relevance and led to my decision to tone down my Rosetta rhetoric (I strongly dislike Rosetta and the need for it) and pull the trigger on this review.

First, Apple released Logic Pro 7, the digital audio workstation component of Apple’s market-leading Pro Apps for creative professionals, as a Universal Binary. Logic Pro takes everything a PowerPC can dish out, so the fact that it ported and ran well on Intel impressed me.

Shortly thereafter, Intel made its OS X C++ and Fortran compilers, along with Performance Primitives and math kernel libraries, available through an open public beta program. Intel’s tools separate the commercial coders from the journeymen in Windows and Linux, and they’ll do likewise in OS X.

Next came a flurry of applications: in late March, Apple delivered a Universal Binary of Final Cut Studio, the HD video, film, sound, graphics, and DVD suite that is the cornerstone of its Pro Apps.

In early April came Boot Camp, Apple’s surprise dual-boot solution for Windows compatibility. And most recently, the Mac’s Remote Desktop 3 network management console shipped with Universal support and tons of essential new features.

It took Apple until April to do what it should have done first: prove to developers and users that the most demanding of existing Mac apps can be ported to Intel, given the right tools (which exist only now). Developers will be energised by this, and we’ll see a second launch of Intel Mac, this one sponsored by software vendors, in the second half of 2006.

So, consider January a dress rehearsal. Now that the Mac ecosystem is re-seeding on the Intel side of the fence, and Boot Camp can fluff out the Mac app catalog better than Rosetta, the Intel Mac relaunch is well worth attending.

There is really only one performance challenge Apple faces in its Intel transition, and that’s the Power Mac G5 Quad. Intel may surprise me, but I think it’ll take Clovertown, Intel’s quad-core server CPU, to best the Quad. Clovertown is slated to ship in 2007, however, and Steve Jobs doesn’t like to miss deadlines.

Can Apple get Clovertown out early? Will it settle for a December 31 announcement and a “coming soon” to keep its promise to kill PowerPC by year’s end? Looks like Apple vs Apple will be the year’s hot ticket.

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