MacBooks

Keynote reaction: The Intel roller-coaster ride

Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle, everyone. After six months of slowly ticking to the top of the peak, Apple’s Intel roller-coaster ride has finally started.

In an oddly-paced Macworld Expo keynote address, Steve Jobs did what he usually does — namely, save the best for last. And so after an hour of second-tier material — new Dashboard widgets, an iPod remote ( huzzah! ), a meticulously detailed roll-out of iLife ’06 — we finally got to the A-list stuff. And oh, what an A List.

The Intel Macs have arrived, and we’ve all begun what is likely to be a year of new product roll-outs the likes of which Mac fans haven’t seen since… well, maybe since ever .

Let’s start with the new iMac, which is powered by Intel’s Core Duo processor. Yes, this means that for the first time, iMacs are being powered by two processors. Running at 1.83GHz and 2GHz, these systems perform at two to three times the speed of the current iMac G5, according to Apple. (Apple used industry-standard processor tests in making these claims; we plan on giving the new iMac a thorough work-out with real-world applications as soon as possible.)

Of course, the speed of a new Intel-based Mac will be determined, at least in part, by the software you run on it. With today’s announcements, Apple’s operating system, all its bundled applications, and its iLife and iWork software suites are already “Universal,” Apple’s code-word for programs that can run natively on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs. If you’re running software that’s not compiled for Intel — Microsoft Office comes to mind — the program will have its code translated for Intel processors by Apple’s Rosetta technology. How much of a slowdown Rosetta will cause — and how much it can be offset by the fundamentally faster Intel processors — will be another thing we’ll need to test for ourselves.

Of course, most iMac users rely primarily on the programs bundled with their systems, all of which are now Universal. For more advanced users, Rosetta speeds might be a bigger issue. That’s why most experts suggested that a consumer system like the iMac or iBook would be the first to make the switch to Intel.

Okay, so we “experts” got it half right and half wrong. In addition to the iMac, Apple has finally brought the PowerBook out of the G4 dark ages. Or, wait, has it? I guess Apple has finally put the PowerBook — G4 and all — out of its misery. In its place stands a new laptop with a moniker that could choke a horse, the MacBook Pro. (I guess we’ll all get used to it eventually. I understand the need to get the word Mac into the name of every Mac produced, but… PowerBook was a good name. I’ll miss it.)

As a laptop user, I’m definitely excited about the MacBook Pro, but I’ve also got a thousand questions. As with the iMac, we won’t know the truth about how fast it is until we can get one in our Lab and put it through real-world tests — but Apple’s claim that it’s four times faster than the previous laptop line sure provides plenty of hope. Again, users of professional software will have to run that stuff via Rosetta until Universal versions arrive, but Apple’s announcement that Final Cut Pro, Aperture, and Logic Pro will be available in Universal form in March suggests that many pro applications will be arriving soon.

The inclusion of Front Row and iSight in the MacBook Pro are both welcome. The MagSafe power adapter certainly sounds like a good idea (my kids have yanked on that cord so many times that it’s amazing I haven’t lost a dozen PowerBooks), but I have to admit that I’m groaning at the obsolescence of yet another generation of Apple power adapters.

Meanwhile, fans of Apple’s 12- and 17-inch PowerBooks have to be wondering if they’ll be invited to the party. As has happened in the past, it’s fairly likely that once the 15-inch MacBook Pro has gotten its sea legs, a larger and smaller version will follow. Let’s hope so.

In terms of new Macs, where do we go from here? The iBook’s days are no doubt numbered, and given the announcement of the MacBook Pro, can the plain old MacBook be far behind? The Mac mini, likewise, is extremely long in the tooth. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see those two models get replaced very soon. Only the Power Mac might hang on for a while, given its users’ reliance on high-performance professional software that simply must be Universal before they can switch.

At the beginning of this entry I complained that the keynote address was oddly paced. Which brings me to iLife ’06, which took up an inordinate amount of time today. I’m honestly not sure what to make of iLife ’06. For all the time that Jobs spent demoing it, it doesn’t seem like there’s a huge amount of new stuff there. (I look forward to sitting down with Apple and having them prove me wrong.) Adding iWeb to the collection gives it a big boost, and everyone knows that iPhoto always needs to be faster. But some of the feature additions that seemed obvious to me — better iPhoto book layout tools (including the ability to more readily insert text and captions) and multiple soundtracks in iDVD, just to name two — don’t appear to be part of the package. Whoever decided that GarageBand should find a second life as a podcasting tool deserves a medal, though. Good call.

Finally, let me take a moment to lament the state of iWork. Last year’s announcement of the iWork suite left the Mac community buzzing. It seemed like a product that was only going to pick up momentum, leading to its position as the “eventual replacement for AppleWorks,” as Jobs put it. But iWork ’06 didn’t even get demoed at the keynote (other than Keynote 3, which actually drives Steve’s slides). iWork, we expected more from you. Guess we’ll have to, as Cubs fans like to say, wait till next year.

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