Apple Intel fast lane

Details of "Macintel" boxes running Mac OS X on Intel hardware have been popping up on the web for the past few weeks. These are aimed at developers wanting a leg-up on the competition; Apple rents them out for US$999 over 18 months, which is pretty sweet deal overall.

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- Apple Intel fast lane

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Apple Intel fast lane

Details of "Macintel" boxes running Mac OS X on Intel hardware have been popping up on the web for the past few weeks. These are aimed at developers wanting a leg-up on the competition; Apple rents them out for US$999 over 18 months, which is pretty sweet deal overall. Looking at the photos on AppleInsider, the unmarked board is probably a variant of Intel's 945G one, less the floppy drive connector and with the onboard, DirectX9.0c compatible GMA950 graphics adapter.

Apple's shipping the boxes with a Prescott EM64T 660 Pentium 4 onboard and 1GB of DDR-2 RAM, which is towards the top of Intel's current range. Specs apart though, it is interesting to read the comments from people who say they've tried the new Apple Development Platform. They say it's fast, much more so than the current PowerPC G5-based range which has one more physical processor than the Intel system. And it runs Windows XP too, so developers can finally play all the cool games that aren't available for Mac OS X without buying a separate PC.

If it's true and there's such a marked performance difference, you have to wonder why that would be. The Intel hardware is probably somewhat faster but as Mac PowerPCs use more or less similar components, that doesn't quite explain the speed bump.

The core of Mac OS X, Darwin, is or at least was, optimised for PowerPC with x86 support not being the best according to the OpenDarwin crowd. Unfortunately, the OpenDarwin mailing list moderator has banned any discussion about Mac OS X for Intel, pointing to Apple's non-disclosure agreement for the developer transition kit. This apparently disallows people from running Mac OS X for Intel on anything but the Apple Development Platform system, and presumably the NDA gags developers from talking about the whole caboodle in public. Not your average Open Source Software project, Darwin.

One reason for the enforced silence is that that Apple may have made some fundamental changes to Mac OS X to coincide with the move to Intel. A story on Anandtech in June indicated that the current design of OS X meant it was hobbled in terms of performance compared to Linux running on Intel x86. It will be interesting to see if Apple has changed that, as it entails a fundamental rewrite of the deepest internals of Mac OS X.

Another possibility is that Apple now using Intel's compiler to realise substantial performance gains. In simple terms, a compiler takes developers' code and turns it into programs that the computer can run. Except, some compilers do a better job than others, especially if they come from companies with intimate knowledge of their own hardware, like Intel.

One of my pet projects is test this, by compiling the Linux kernel and a minimal set of userland binaries with Intel's icc and then compare the performance with the same system built with the open source GNU gcc, on the same hardware. Everything I've seen so far point to icc-built Linux kernels being a great deal faster, so there's every reason to assume the same holds true for Mac OS X on Intel.

As an illustration of how important the compiler is for performance, Intel's fierce competitor and dawn-raid instigator AMD says icc produces crippled programs that run slow or crash when they run on their processors.

Meanwhile, Apple's put in another set of revenue figures hiked by high iPod sales and mongering many more Macs as well. Apple is being coy about being able to sustain the sales however, not wanting to admit that people may want to hang on buying a new Mac until the fast Intel-based ones are available. Wonder if the Apple Developer Platform system NDA specifically bans lessees from telling the world how fast it is so as to protect sales of existing PowerPC Macs?

- Inside Apple's Intel-based Dev Transition Kit

- OpenDarwin FAQ

"Hardware support is patchy at best, especially on x86. As Apple does not produce Mac OS X for x86 there has not been such a big investment in producing the drivers for all the diverse hardware configurations out there in the x86 world as there has been on ensuring that everything runs well on recent PowerPC-based Mac systems."

- AMD: Intel cripples programs on our chips

- EC raids Intel, PC makers in competition inquiry

- Apple sets records for revenue, income

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