Oct 31, 2002

Trading Megahurtz For Megahertz

For the last few years Motorola has been the sole supplier of Apple's high-end chips, all from the G4 family. And for the last few years, Mac fans and industry pundits alike have expressed grief over the speed — or lack thereof — Motorola has reached with these processors. While Intel and AMD reach speeds nearing 3 GHz, or 3,000 MHz, the Motorola/Apple camp have slowly crawled to 1.25 GHz.

A cacophony of possible solutions to the Megahurtz problem have been heard from within the Mac community, and finally an end is in sight. The light at the end of the PowerPC tunnel is shining, Mac faithful, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Well, not quite yet.

This October, at the microprocessor industry's annual Processor Forum, IBM officially announced the long-rumored sequel to the Power4—the PowerPC 970—with the specs to match. And the thing is a monster.

The Power4, designed in 1999, is a 64-bit PowerPC processor with two cores per chip and the ability to access up to 128 megs of L2 cache. Features like that don't come cheap, of course, and until now the processor has been relegated to IBM's expensive servers and mainframe systems. After over three years of research and development, however, Big Blue has morphed the Power4 into something a Mac can finally use. And everyone's favorite fruit company is buying.

Apple's Megahertz Myth campaign notwithstanding, the Intel/AMD camp has conquered the speed arena by brute-forcing their chips clockspeeds into the stratosphere, leaving Apple in the dust. But now it seems like the Mac faithful can heave a sigh of relief and rest their weary heads over the Megahurtz dilemma, right? Well, the answer to that question is a little cloudy. If there's one thing that we Apple customers have learned from the past, there is almost always a catch. And this situation is no different.

IBM will not be manufacturing the 970 until late 2003 — optimisticly the final quarter of that year — which means that at best we can expect only an announcement of systems based on the new chip at the January 2004 MacWorld. And the likelihood that anything but the XServe (or whatever high-end Appler server systems are around then) will be getting the upgrade is slim. So where does this leave us in the interim, megahurting for high clock speeds that can compete in the numbers game with the PC world?

Apple has a few options on the table right now, and some of them aren't all that bad. IBM continues work on its G3 variants to this day and it's more than likely that we'll see its 750FX in new iBooks sometime in 2003. Motorola already has its 8540 in production for the embedded market, and it's rumored to have a variant in the pipeline for use in desktop Macs, which could be the long-rumored G5. Short of a G5 showing up anytime soon, the G4 architecture right now still has some room to grow, but a lot of its performance is stymied by Apple's own motherboards. Correcting system problems could let the G4 shine and feed the pros' need for speed in the near future.

My take on the 970 news is that we don't need to worry about anything — Apple won't be switching to x86 anytime soon, we're covered for the year 2004 and beyond, and Apple has proven it can and will innovate in both the software and hardware arenas with what it's been given up to this point. For such poor economic times Apple still delivers and, given a glimpse of their future strategies, they have enough foresight to weather far worse than Megahurtz.

My advice, gentle Mac users, is to kick your feet up and relax. It's going to being an interesting ride.

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