Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro, Personal Tech Columnist

Apple Rolls the Dice With Intel Chips

By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, January 13, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO No, there aren't "Intel Inside" stickers on Apple's new Intel-powered iMac desktops and MacBook Pro laptops, introduced this week at the Macworld Conference & Expo here. The distinctive Intel chime that ends almost every PC manufacturer's ad does not emanate from the speakers of these new machines, either.

Even from up close, it can be difficult to tell Apple's new Intel-based iMac and MacBook Pro from their PowerPC predecessors -- the iMac, in particular. With it powered off, the only easy way to distinguish it from the iMac G5 is a DVI digital-video port that takes the place of an analog VGA connector on the old model.

But with the MacBook Pro (go ahead and keep calling it a PowerBook; we probably will, too), Apple is trying out several new ideas in laptop design and taking one big gamble. It has the same built-in iSight webcam, remote control and Front Row media-viewing software as the iMac and trades in the old PowerBook's PC Card slot for a newfangled "Express Card" slot -- but it doesn't include a modem. You can buy a $49 external modem, or at some point, you may be able to pop a modem into that Express Card slot.

I haven't used a modem much in the past few years, but when I've needed to, it's always been on my laptop -- shocking as it is in a country that calls itself part of the First World, there are some places in the United States without Wi-Fi broadband. Apple is taking a risk here, and for minimal gain -- it's not like there isn't room on the laptop's flanks for a modem port.

Next to where you might expect to find such a thing, Apple has stashed one other new trick, a MagSafe power connector. Instead of requiring you to insert a plug into a socket, this flat, recessed surface uses a magnet to hold the power cable firmly in place while still allowing it to break away cleanly if the power cord gets jerked unexpectedly -- say, when I trip over it for the fifth time in a day.

Although the MacBook Pro is supposed to ship in February, Apple wasn't offering any estimates of its battery life at Macworld. That's a little odd; I suppose I wouldn't be too surprised if its ship date slipped.

I didn't have much time to inspect the new, "universal" version of Mac OS X running on these machines, but it did look just like the old version. The Rosetta translation software, needed to make programs written for PowerPC processors work on the new Intel hardware, seems invisible in operation; it doesn't even show up in the listing of running processes in OS X's Activity Monitor utility.

Macs with Intel processors should also be able to run Windows XP, but how or how easily remains unclear. Apple says it won't help people do this but won't get in their way, either.

Apple has also tried to stop people from loading Intel-compatible versions of Mac OS X on other companies' PCs but had little success at that up to Macworld. I don't think it should try too hard at this; what better way to rope in some Windows veterans than by letting them find ways to experiment with OS X on their existing hardware?

Apple's new Intel-based hardware and Intel-ready operating system now need a full set of Intel-compatible applications that won't have to run inside Rosetta. But with what you could call MacIntels shipping six months earlier than widely expected, programmers have some catching up to do. That includes Apple's own employees. They managed to ship the iLife '06 multimedia suite (now with iWeb, which lets you build Web sites by customizing a set of Apple-created templates) and iWork '06 productivity bundle as "universal" releases that run on old and new processors alike. But they haven't finished the same work with pro-oriented software such as Final Cut Pro.

Unlike the International Consumer Electronics Show, Macworld is a small enough show that you can actually walk the entire floor in a day. There's been plenty here that I can skip (for example, applications oriented toward only professional use, and the 60th different iPod case), but also a lot of really clever software on display.

Apple will probably never draw the volume of developers that work in the Windows economy. But many of the small shops that have set up booths here -- to name two, Delicious Monster Software LLC (its flagship product is a nifty book-video-CD cataloguing tool called Delicious Library) and Panic Inc. (it makes a handful of smart Internet and system utilities, but even its T-shirt store is cool to use: http://www.panic.com/goods ) -- are doing extraordinarily creative work that has few parallels on any operating system.


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