By Stephen Hackett
November 3, 2020 10:21 AM PT
The Hackett File: The End of the Intel Era
In the very near future, the Mac will join the iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch and all of Apple’s other devices in being powered by the company’s own systems-on-a-chip, and over the next several years, Intel Macs will slowly fade into history.
There’s been plenty of ink spilled over comparing the upcoming Apple silicon transition to the previous transition to Intel—including by me. However, there’s one last angle on this that I would like to explore: the state of the final old-school Macs at the time the transition started.
Let’s start at the end of the PowerPC era. By the time the Intel switch was announced at WWDC in June 2005, Apple’s notebooks were in pretty sorry shape. The desktop Power Mac G5 has been out for two years at this point, and the iMac G5 was about a year old.
These machines requires massive amounts of cooling, and frankly, I was really surprised Apple managed to shoehorn a G5 into the two-inch thick iMac after seeing how much air moved through the Cheese Grater case. The trade-off was much better performance, a higher RAM ceiling and the mainstream availability of a 64-bit processor.
Meanwhile, the PowerBook G4 was getting pretty long in the tooth. From the first aluminum model in September 2003 to the last one just 25 months later, Apple managed to get the machine from 1.0 GHz to 1.67 GHz, but the system bus speed and cache sizes remained the same, as did the maximum amount of supported memory.
Today, the vast majority of Macs sold are notebooks, but even in the mid-2000s, the rise of notebooks was well underway, and the underpowered nature of the PowerBooks was only stifling what pros could do on the go.
It’s easy to copy those issues and paste them directly onto Apple’s current crop of Intel Macs, but I think that overall, the Mac line is in much better shape today than they were leading up to that WWDC 15 years ago.
Even though Intel has struggled to shrink its process size and ship cooler-running chips, Apple has still been able to build very capable machines, from the MacBook Pro to its pro desktop. Technologies like Thunderbolt 3 have kept the Mac up to date with the PC industry in terms of I/O, and it seems that there’s no problem integrating custom chips like the T2, which now manages a wide range of Mac features, despite residing inside Intel machines.
In short, it feels to me that Apple is undergoing this processor change from a position of strength, not weakness. Last time, Apple had to move because the Mac was suffering, and there was no way forward with the PowerPC. This time, yes, Macs could be thinner, cooler and more energy efficient, but I think the decision is much more about what Apple silicon can do, not what Intel can’t.
Perhaps that is a pretty fine hair to split, but I think it’s an important one. Apple silicon is a huge deal; Apple is taking the fate of the Mac into its own hands in a brand new way, and it wouldn’t be doing so if it wasn’t confident about the products it can build. As a long-time Mac user, that’s really exciting.