The Intel roller coaster

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Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle, everyone. After six months of slowly ratcheting anticipation, we’ve finally reached the top. And a yearlong Intel roller-coaster ride is about to begin.

The first Intel Macs have arrived, kicking off a year of new product rollouts the likes of which Mac fans haven’t seen since…well, maybe since ever. And by the end of the year, the Mac product line will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

Twice as fast?

Let’s start with the new iMac, powered by Intel’s Core Duo processor. For the first time, iMacs are powered by two processors. Apple claims that, as a result, the system is twice as fast; our own real-world tests don’t bear those claims out (see The Intel Mac FAQ ), but they do show a performance boost—without an accompanying price hike.

The speed of these new Intel-based Macs will depend in part on the software you’re running. Mac OS X 10.4.4 itself, all of the Apple apps that come bundled with it, and the iLife and iWork software suites are all already Universal—meaning they’ll run natively on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs. Numerous other developers have also released Universal updates for their programs.

But if you’re running software that hasn’t been recompiled for Intel—Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop come immediately to mind—your Intel-based iMac will have to translate that program’s code from PowerPC to Intel, on-the-fly. Such programs should work just fine on these new machines—but definitely more slowly than on their PowerPC predecessors. Apple’s announcement that Final Cut Pro, Aperture, and Logic Pro will be available in Universal form in March is good news. A Universal version of Photoshop will be even better news.

Good-bye, PowerBook

Of course, I would guess that most iMac users rely primarily on the programs bundled with their systems, all of which are now Universal. That’s one reason technology pundits had been predicting that Intel chips would first appear in consumer systems, such as the iMac or iBook.

So we were half right. In addition to coming out with the Intel-based iMac, Apple introduced the 15-inch MacBook Pro, a PowerBook replacement powered by a similar Intel Core Duo processor.

As a laptop user, I’m excited about the MacBook Pro—but I’ve also got a thousand questions. Unfortunately, we won’t be getting any answers until the MacBook Pro ships (Apple says February). Apple claims that the new laptop will be four times faster than the PowerBook; unlike the iMac, the MacBook Pro is (thanks to the Core Duo CPU, improved bus and RAM speeds, SATA storage, and PCI Express video) a potentially major improvement on the system it’s replacing.

As someone who totes an iSight on trips so I can video-chat with my family, I’m also happy that these new laptops come with a built-in video camera. And by adding Front Row, Apple has created a portable set-top box: you can plug a MacBook Pro into a TV and run it, lid closed, from across the room.

I’m also looking forward to the magnetically connected MagSafe power adapter. My kids have yanked on my PowerBook’s cord so many times, it’s amazing I haven’t had to replace the machine a dozen times over. But I’m also groaning about the obsolescence of yet another generation of Apple power adapters.

Meanwhile, fans of Apple’s 12- and 17-inch PowerBooks may wonder when they’ll be invited to the Intel party. If the past is any indicator, it’s likely that, once the 15-inch MacBook Pro finds its sea legs, larger and smaller versions will follow. Let’s hope so.

What’s next?

So where do we go from here? The iBook’s days are no doubt numbered; given the announcement of the MacBook Pro, can a plain old MacBook be far behind? Meanwhile, the Mac mini is looking a bit long in the tooth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see those two models replaced 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.

Yes, 2006 is going to be an exciting ride. There will be new Intel-based Macs around every corner. Some of the twists and turns will be exhilarating, while others might end up making some of us feel a bit queasy. But however you look at it, it’s going to be one heck of a ride.

What do you think? Will you be buying a new iMac or a MacBook Pro as soon as you can? Or are you waiting for your apps to be “Universalized”? Let me know in our forums or send me an e-mail.

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