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Four Years Ago

January 22, 2010 - Dave Hecei
It’s hard to believe, Macintosh computers have been using Intel processors for four years. During the 2006 MacWorld keynote address, Steve Jobs unveiled the iMac and the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Intel Core Duo processors. The Power-PC era was over.

Jobs had officially announced the Intel transition back in June of 2005, at Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference). At the time there were two camps – the ones who thought Apple was crazy and the end of the world was here, or those who thought Apple finally saw the light and was preparing for the future.

Back in 2003 when the first G5 PowerMac was introduced, Apple touted the G5 as the future. You have to remember that in 2003 the Intel Pentium IV (P IV) was reaching gargantuan MHz speeds. The first G5 Macs ran at 1.6 to 2.0 GHz. Apple and IBM promised they would hit 3.0 GHz in a year. This didn’t happen.

While the G5 processor was a modern design and much faster than the G4, it had several problems. It ran very hot. The very cool looking PowerMac G5 tower was an aluminum behemoth with nine fans. If you looked inside a G5 tower it was an engineering masterpiece. The inside of the tower had specific areas for the processor, drives, and expansion cards. Each area was designed with proper airflow in mind. There was even a separate clear plastic cowl that fit just inside the side access panel to help keep proper airflow.

A year went by after the first G5 and 3.0 GHz was not even in the picture. It must have been obvious to Apple that the G5 was more difficult to produce than IBM originally stated. I think the biggest reasons Apple started looking at Intel was for their laptops. The PowerBook was very popular and laptop sales were a big chunk of Apple’s business, and still are. While Apple had desktops using G5s, PowerBooks were still all G4 based. At the time it seemed unlikely that IBM would be able to produce a G5 processor small enough and with the heat and power requirements for a portable computer.

Around that same time, Intel started working on a new type of processor based on the Pentium III/Pentium M that could process data faster at slower clock speeds. More important was the fact that this Intel chip consumed much less power and produced less heat than the P IV, something that is perfect for a notebook computer. This chip would turn out to be the Intel Core Duo.

The last piece of the processor puzzle was a small group of programmers at Apple. This secretive group had the task of creating an Intel compatible version of OS X, Apple’s modern operating system. When Apple made the announcement in 2005 that they were abandoning the PPC for Intel we found out that this group had actually made an Intel version of each OS X iteration.

This decision to make an Intel version of each OS X – 10.1, 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 – proved to be genius and allowed Apple to transition to the Intel processor in record time. Apple’s original announcement stated they would start in the beginning of 2006 and finish in the middle of 2007. In actuality, the transition to Intel took only eight months with the last model, the Mac Pro tower, arriving in August of 2006.

In the four years since that first Intel iMac, Intel has consistently produced succeeding processors each one surpassing the last in speed, thermal control, and size. The original Core Duo has gone to a Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad, and now to the Core i5 and Core i7, which are the next generation of quad-core processors.

Apple and Intel seem to have a great relationship. Apple has received some of the newest Intel chips before other PC makers. Plus, Intel seems to work in hand with Apple to design chips. The biggest fact of this is when Apple introduced the MacBook Air. A super thin and lightweight notebook that required a special version of the Core 2 Duo chip, one that was much smaller to fit in the cramped spaces of the Air.

For the MacBook Air, Intel created a special Core 2 Duo chip that was about 40% the size of the original Core 2 Duo. Having Intel create a whole new class of processor for you is not something that is done in this industry, but Apple did it.

The Mac Pro tower has gone from two dual-core processors to two quad-core processors (the Core i7), with each processor capable of handling two threads – essentially giving the Pro the ability to have a total of 16 process threads per cycle. The iMac has gone from dual to quad-core, and the possibility of a quad-core MacBook Pro is very near (though Apple has not announced anything yet).

The switch from PPC to Intel was an obvious choice, something that Apple had to make and luckily was able to pull off with little or no pain to Mac users. Intel and Apple go well together, and the future is wide open allowing for even greater ideas and greater Macintosh computers.


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WWDC 2005