First Look: A maximum look at a mini Mac, part three

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VIII. Rosetta and Intel transition issues

I’ve touched on these topics in other sections before, but I thought I would also consolidate the subject here for easy access.

Rosetta: Rosetta works, and in my opinion, works amazingly well. The fact that something like Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 can be converted on-the-fly to run with an acceptable (if slow) framerate on the Intel mini is just amazing. And in more typical usage, such as in Word or Excel, the performance hit from Rosetta isn’t really noticeable unless you’re pushing the limits of these program’s capabilities. The most visible signs of Rosetta are slower scrolling, and perhaps a bit of lag in screen redraws.

Now, if you try to do something like edit a multi-megabyte TIFF image in Photoshop CS2 on the mini, you’ll definitely feel the Rosetta impact. In working on this article, I used Photoshop Elements extensively, and at only one time did I really notice the slowdown. I had opened four 1MB TIFFs for conversion to PNG, and it took a few seconds to open the “Save for Web” dialog for each one. Not a big deal, time-wise, but notably different than either the PowerBook or the G5.

For most typical users, who spend their time in e-mail, on the web, and working on simple letters and spreadsheets, I don’t think Rosetta is going to be noticed much, if at all. If, on the other hand, you’re a power user who works on massive Excel spreadsheets, huge image-laden Word documents, or monstrous 20MB advertising layout TIFFs in Photoshop, you’re going to want to wait for native versions of your applications before you switch.

Intel transition issues: At the end of the day, the mini is really just another Mac, regardless of what’s powering it. If nobody told you, you wouldn’t know there’s anything different under the hood. The machine is a Mac, just one with a different engine powering it than we’re all used to. That scares some people, myself included. But after having used the thing for a very-intensive seven days, I can see that my fears were mostly unfounded. The mini is a Mac, through and through, regardless of what it looks like inside.

That said, there are some things you’ll want to be aware of before you switch. If you use hardware or software that requires a kernel extension or similar driver to function, it won’t work until that driver is converted to work on the Intel-powered Macs. If you use a MacBook Pro, for instance, that means you can’t yet use the wonderful SideTrack to add functionality to your trackpad. And for me, it means that I can’t use Snapz Pro to capture screenshots and movies, which is why the two movies in this article look so ugly, despite my efforts with the tripod and digital camera.

On the positive side of the transition issue, native applications work really well. They tend to launch more quickly than their counterparts on similarly-powered PowerPC machines, and performance within the applications is snappy. On the games I tested, the Universal versions had amazingly good frame rates, at least compared to the PowerBook’s version of the same games.

If you use Java applications, you’ll be thrilled to see that these (usually) don’t require any conversion to run natively on Intel…and they run fast . jEdit on my G5 feels slower than jEdit on the mini, which is quite the feat for a “low end” Mac.

Three takeaway points:

  • Most typical users won’t find Rosetta to be an intrusive, slowing technology, despite the benchmark results.
  • If you have hardware or software that relies on extensions and/or drivers to function, these things will not work until the drivers are modified to work on Intel chips.
  • Native applications tend to be quite fast, and Java applications are already native by default.
  • I really think Apple has done a good job with Rosetta. Yes, there’s a performance hit, but really, it’s not that obvious unless you’re really stressing the machine. Many people probably won’t even realize something’s running under Rosetta unless they’re told; it’s a very seamless technology.

    And I’ve been thrilled with the speed of the native applications, especially the Finder! I keep having to remind myself that I’m using the second-cheapest Mac you can purchase, and not something near the top-end of the food chain. Yes, my Dual G5 is still quicker in most things, especially gaming and graphically-intensive applications. But for everything from e-mail to web browsing to working in the Finder to iPhoto to iTunes, etc., the mini feels at least as fast, if not much faster (Finder!) than the Dual G5.

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