Testing Apple’s Intel transition: iMac and MacBook Pro
New iMac proves stellar, whereas MacBook Pro has room for improvement
Apple’s first Intel-based Macs, iMac and MacBook Pro, were born into a position of advantage. OS X Tiger, a loyal base of customers and developers, firm ownership of high-margin specialty markets, and high regard in the mainstream have turned everything Apple’s touched (at least since the Titanium PowerBook G4) into gold.
These advantages did not guarantee Apple or its customers smooth sailing from PowerPC to Intel. Despite gaping holes in its Intel rollout strategy -- holes that Apple is attempting to spackle with speed and nerve -- Apple managed to hit a home run and a double in its first two Intel at-bats. In the Intel-based iMac, Apple’s best desktop to date has arrived. Early demanding buyers of MacBook Pro, however, will find flaws -- some significant. Considering that Apple is an x86 PC start-up, though, that’s a great beginning.
Much in common
I reviewed Apple’s 20-inch iMac, with a 2 GHz Core Duo CPU and 1GB of memory, and a MacBook Pro with a 2.16 GHz Core Duo and 2GB of memory. My review process was straightforward: I used these systems as my sole desktop and notebook computers from their arrival to the filing of this review.
After more than a month of testing, I can tell you that any trepidation about the performance of Intel’s Core Duo can be set aside. These are fast machines; not power user fast, but much faster and more responsive than their PowerPC forebears when running native apps.
iMac and MacBook Pro are not architecturally identical, but they’re close enough to make most distinctions unimportant here. I was pleased to find that Apple did not just punt Mac’s internal engineering to Intel. As with PowerPC Macs, iMac and MacBook Pro are assembled from best-of-breed components selected by Apple, leaving Intel to supply primarily the CPU and chipset.
Both of the new Macs hew, more or less, to the feature set of PowerPC Macs. They have slot-loading optical drives, USB 2.0, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, AirPort Extreme wireless, Bluetooth 2.0 with Enhanced Data Rate, and digital video ports. A gaming-grade PCI Express GPU (graphics processing unit), the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600, gives Intel Macs some scary 2D and 3D graphics potential. And Airport Extreme now supports 802.11a, a blessing in places where the 2.4 GHz spectrum is overcrowded.
The new Macs’ graphics performance lags behind PowerBook G4’s for some tasks, such as paging through large PDF files with intricate graphics. Motion graphics, such as Apple’s Front Row media center interface, are often choppy. This strikes me as a device driver and low-level framework issue that will yield to future software updates. Because it lacks the PowerBook’s integrated S-Video output, MacBook Pro cannot drive an external Cinema Display or other DVI panel and a video monitor or projector at the same time.
Both systems have an integrated iSight VGA-resolution Web cam cleverly built into the bezels above their displays, so they’re always pointed right at your face and ready for an A/V conference. Their light sensitivity is lower than average and their focus is fixed, so the built-in iSight is outclassed by Apple’s add-on iSight, but the integration is a major plus. The slim six-button infrared Apple Remote, included to drive Front Row, is a nice consumer grace note that third-party developers have already adapted for use with presentations.