Should You Buy an Intel Mac?

Unless you've been living on the moon for the past year, you know that Apple (www.apple.com) has abandoned PowerPC processors and is replacing them with
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FIG. 1: An Intel Core Duo processor powers every Mac that Apple has introduced since last year. Whether you''re ready to make the switch depends on the software you use.

Unless you've been living on the moon for the past year, you know that Apple (www.apple.com) has abandoned PowerPC processors and is replacing them with chips from Intel. In fact, most of Apple's current crop of computers — the iMac, the Mac mini, the MacBook, and the MacBook Pro — already have Intel inside (see Fig. 1).

New Terminology

Before discussing what Apple's switch to Intel processors means to you, I should explain a few new terms. Intel's Core Duo processor is the central processing unit (CPU) — the “brain” inside your computer. The Core Duo has two execution cores, or computational engines, on one chip. The result is a single chip that offers roughly twice as much computational power as a single-core chip.

In previous models and in current Power Macs, Apple used PowerPC G4 or G5 CPUs manufactured by IBM, Motorola, or Freescale. Today, most Macs use an entirely new and very different type of CPU manufactured by Intel. One result of this switch is that software you previously used with your Mac G4 or G5 will need to be updated by its maker to achieve maximum performance on Intel-based Macs. Programs that have been updated to run natively on Intel-based Macs and will also run on PowerPC-based Macs are called Universal applications or Universal Binaries.

For applications that have not been (or will not be) updated to Universal, Mac OS X 10.4.4 and later versions contain a new technology known as Rosetta. You don't see it, and you don't have to configure it or even think about it. Rosetta works behind the scenes, letting you run most non-Universal applications on Intel Macs. That's the good news; the bad news is that because Rosetta is translating older code on the fly, applications running under Rosetta pay a performance penalty that ranges from virtually unnoticeable to unbearably annoying.

There is also one newly obsolete term you can forget: Classic. Intel-based Macs can't run Classic applications developed for Mac OS 9 at all.

An Apple with Five Flavors

When you use a Mac that has an Intel processor, you'll encounter five types of software: Universal, Intel only, Rosetta compatible, Rosetta sluggish, and incompatible. On an Intel Mac, Universal and Intel-only applications and plug-ins are some of the fastest Mac software ever. Some Rosetta-compatible software runs acceptably under Rosetta, but other software runs sluggishly. And some Mac software is completely incompatible with the Intel processor and doesn't even run under Rosetta.

Almost every program from Apple, including Mac OS X and its bundled applications (such as Safari and Mail), is Universal — so are the company's Pro applications (such as Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro), Express applications (Logic Express and Final Cut Express), and iLife applications (GarageBand, iMovie, iTunes, iWeb, and iDVD). Almost every program Apple makes, including Mac OS X, runs faster than ever on an Intel-based Mac.

Performance of many non-Universal productivity applications, including Microsoft Office 2004, Quicken 2006, and Adobe Reader, is perfectly acceptable under Rosetta. Those programs (and many others) may run slightly slower on an Intel-based Mac than on a PowerBook G4, but not slow enough to annoy you. Alas, other programs — most notably Adobe Photoshop and the other components of Adobe Creative Suite 2 — are sluggish enough to hamper your productivity.

A handful of programs and hardware drivers — including all but the latest versions of Apple Pro and Express applications, all Classic applications, Microsoft's Virtual PC, and some third-party keyboard, mouse, tablet, and audio interface drivers — don't work at all under Rosetta. Consequently, if you depend on any of those or are a heavy Adobe user, you should probably wait until the software you rely on is available in an Intel-only or Universal Binary version.

Just for the record, Apple reports that more than 2,000 Universal applications are already available and that the transition continues to gather momentum, with more applications being introduced for Intel Macs every day.

The State of the Union

In May and June, I surveyed 15 vendors of popular audio software and hardware, asking them three questions: Which, if any, of your products are Universal Binaries already? What is your timetable for updating products that are not Universal? Do your non-Universal products run acceptably with Rosetta translation on Intel-based Macs? Not surprisingly, each developer gave me different answers.

Ableton. Ableton (www.ableton.com) reported that all versions of Live 5 are now shipping as Universal Binaries. Ableton CEO Gerhard Behles said, “We are always striving to make Live faster, and the new Intel-based Macs have really made significant performance increases possible.”

Apple Computer. As I mentioned previously, most, if not all, Apple products are Universal already. More specifically, Aperture 1.1, Remote Desktop 3, Final Cut Studio 5.1, iLife '06, iTunes 6.0.2, iWork '06, Logic Express 7, Logic Pro 7, Soundtrack Pro, and Mac OS X 10.4.7 and later are Universal.

Applied Acoustics Systems. According to AAS (www.applied-acoustics.com), Universal Binary versions should start becoming available by the time you read this. The first update will probably be Lounge Lizard or Ultra Analog, followed by Tassman, String Studio, and Lounge Lizard Studio. The current versions of AAS programs will run under Rosetta, but because they are extremely CPU intensive, you won't get decent performance out of them.

Arturia. ArturiaVirtual-instrument maker Arturia (www.arturia.com) said that its most recent products — Analog Factory, Brass, and Prophet V — are Universal Binaries. The rest of its software is expected to be Universal before October. Arturia added that although its PowerPC-native standalone instruments currently work in Rosetta, Universal hosts are unable to load PPC-native plug-ins.

BIAS. Peak Pro 5.2 and Peak LE 5.2 are already available as Universal Binaries. In a recent test, BIAS (www.bias-inc.com) found that several computationally intensive DSP routines run as much as 130 percent faster. According to BIAS vice president Christine A. Berkley, “Our timetable [for updating the rest of the product line] is basically ASAP. While we don't have publicly announced dates available yet, BIAS is a leading Mac developer, and therefore we place a high priority on getting our products to run native on the new Intel-based Macs. We'll have more specific information for each product as we get closer to release.” When asked about Rosetta compatibility, Berkley responded, “Our other products offer compatibility under Rosetta to varying degrees. Specific information can be found on our FAQ page.”

Cycling '74. According to Cycling '74 (www.cycling74.com) president David Zicarelli, public betas of Max/MSP and Jitter were released in June, and he expects to be shipping in July. Universal Binary versions of the company's plug-ins should be released by mid-August. Cycling '74's products will run under Rosetta, but Max's Java feature does not work, and the usual issues with plug-ins — they won't work in native host applications — apply.

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FIG. 2: Digidesign Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered users can download an update that supports the Intel-based iMac, Mac Mini, and MacBook Pro.

Digidesign. Digidesign (www.digidesign.com) stated, “To provide our Pro Tools LE customers an Intel Mac — compatible version as soon as possible, Digidesign has chosen to code our software natively for Intel Macs rather than creating a Universal Binary, and as a result will be offering both a native Intel Mac version of Pro Tools LE software as well as continuing support for PowerPC versions. We offer Pro Tools LE 7.1.1 software for Intel Macs, along with Intel Mac — compatible versions of all Digidesign-branded plug-ins [see Fig. 2]. Since Apple has not announced Intel versions of their Power Mac line of desktop computers, we cannot comment as to when an Intel Mac — compatible version of Pro Tools|HD software will be available.”

Regarding Rosetta compatibility, Digidesign warned, “Customers should not attempt to run Digidesign software designed for PowerPC Macs on new Intel Macs. Please check the Digidesign Web site for the latest compatibility information.”

MakeMusic. MakeMusic (www.finalemusic.com) reported that Finale 2007, its flagship music-notation program, will be released as a Universal application sometime this year. According to chief marketing officer Ron Raup, “We're committed to supporting this important and exciting development for Macintosh in Finale 2007 once it is released later this year.”

Though the actual release date for Finale 2007 has not yet been announced, MakeMusic pointed out that it typically releases a new Finale upgrade annually; the last release, Finale 2006, shipped on July 25, 2005. Furthermore, all current Finale products — from Finale 2006 to the free downloadable Finale NotePad — run acceptably under Rosetta.

MOTU. At present, all of MOTU's (www.motu.com) FireWire and USB audio and MIDI interfaces and supporting software (such as CueMix Console and SMPTE Console) have been released as Universal Binaries. Its PCI core systems (2408mk3, HD192, and so on) are expected to ship for Intel Macs near the ship date of Apple's first PCI-equipped Intel desktop computers. By the time this article hits the streets, Digital Performer should be available as a Universal Binary. Universal versions of Symphonic Instrument, Ethno Instrument, and MX4 have already begun shipping.

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FIG. 3: Kore is the first Universal Binary from Native Instruments. Plans are underway to make all of NI''s products compatible with Intel Macs by the end of the year.

Native Instruments. Native Instruments (www.native-instruments.com) has already released Kore, which it calls its Universal Sound Platform, as a Universal Binary (see Fig. 3). It expects to have the rest of its products ported to Universal by the end of the year, and most of them even sooner. You'll find a detailed timetable on the NI Web site.

With regard to Rosetta, NI said (and I concur), “Rosetta translation in general doesn't provide the performance that is necessary to run modern audio software. We do not recommend running our software via Rosetta.”

Propellerhead Software.The current version of Reason (3.0.5) is a Universal Binary and is a free download for registered users on Propellerhead's Web site (www.propellerheads.se). ReWire and REX are also available as Universal Binaries, and ReWire 2.5 offers significant performance enhancements on Intel-based Macs when loading samples into Reason in a ReWire session.

Propellerhead Software CEO Ernst Nathorst-Böös said, “We're committed to providing musicians with all the musical power they need, on the computer they already have. Reason was more powerful than any other music application on a Power Mac G5, but on the Intel-based Macs, it totally rocks! This new combination of Apple's hardware and Propellerhead's software will allow even more people to record and play music live, using computers instead of expensive dedicated audio hardware.”

Sibelius.www.sibelius.com) reported that none of its products are Universal yet, but they will be “when we release upgrade versions.” In the meantime, the company said that Sibelius, Sibelius Student Edition, G7, PhotoScore, and all of the products in the Sibelius Education Suite run acceptably under Rosetta.

Steinberg. Steinberg (www.steinberg.net) replied that none of its products are currently Universal Binaries but that development for the new platform is continuing apace. It will offer Intel Mac — compatible Universal Binary versions by the end of the year and plans to release the new version of Cubase in the fourth quarter.

Regarding Rosetta, a Steinberg spokesperson said, “Tests of our non-Universal products under Rosetta are currently not planned since this is not the target for Steinberg hosts. Our engineering and testing teams are fully concentrating on the upcoming Universal Binary releases at this time.”

Wave Arts. All of the Wave Arts (www.wavearts.com) plug-ins are already shipping as Universal Binaries: TrackPlug 5, MasterVerb 5, FinalPlug 5, MultiDynamics 5, and Panorama 5.

Waves. Waves (www.waves.com) reported that it doesn't have dates for Universal releases at this time, and added that all of its products would eventually be released as Universal Binaries. Its representative also said that none of Waves' current products run acceptably under Rosetta.

Do Macs Do Windows?

You may have heard that Intel-based Macs can run Windows, and it's true — sort of. Apple offers an elegant solution called Boot Camp, which is currently in public beta and will be included in the next major Mac OS X release, known as Leopard. Simply put, Boot Camp allows you to install and run Windows XP on any Intel-based Mac. Better still, you can install Windows XP without touching your Mac data or erasing your hard drive.

First, you'll need a licensed copy of Microsoft Windows XP, Service Pack 2, Home or Professional Edition. Then just download Boot Camp from Apple's Web site. Boot Camp's easy-to-use wizard will help you burn a CD with installers for all the required Windows drivers. Install Windows XP, and then install the drivers from the CD you created. Restart your Mac, and Windows XP will be running natively on your Intel-based Mac. To switch back and forth between Windows XP and Mac OS X, just hold down the Option key at startup and choose one or the other.

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FIG. 4: Parallels Desktop allows Intel Mac users to run any version of Microsoft Windows (and at least six other operating systems) in a separate window alongside Mac OS X.

What does Boot Camp mean to you? For one thing, for the first time, you can run Windows-only audio applications such as Sony Media Software's Acid Pro or Cinescore on a Mac if you so desire. It also means you can play games that are Windows-only and not available for the Mac OS.

If you're interested in running Windows on a Mac, you should also know about Parallels Desktop ($79.99; www.parallels.com), a program that lets Mac users run Windows and Mac OS X simultaneously on Intel-based Macs. Unlike the Boot Camp solution, Parallels Desktop doesn't require you to partition your hard disk or restart your Mac to use it; instead, Windows runs in a window under Mac OS X (see Fig. 4). The bad news is that Parallels Desktop doesn't run Windows at its full native speed. It runs it at speeds that are eminently usable for many purposes, but probably not fast enough to handle demanding audio applications. On the other hand, I got Parallels Desktop to run several Web browsers, all of the Microsoft Office applications, and Windows Solitaire (to name just a few) at perfectly usable speeds.

Parallels Desktop has one other useful feature worth knowing about: it allows you to run any version of Windows (3.1, 3.11, 95, 98, 2000, 2003, ME, NT, or XP), any Linux distribution, FreeBSD, Solaris, OS/2, eComStation, or MS-DOS. Boot Camp, at least at present, supports only Windows XP, Service Pack 2, Home or Professional Edition.

The Bottom Line

If your productivity depends on applications or plug-ins that don't run well or at all under Rosetta, then you should probably wait for Universal releases before you even consider buying an Intel-based Mac. If you depend on Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Virtual PC, third-party hardware drivers, third-party System Preference panes, or Classic applications that don't run or don't run well under Rosetta, you don't have much choice but to wait.

If, on the other hand, most or all of the software you need is Universal already — and that includes Logic Pro, Logic Express, GarageBand, Ableton Live, Pro Tools LE, and others — you're going to love the improved performance you'll get from an Intel-based Mac running Universal software.

There is one last thing: don't take this article as gospel. Reporting on software upgrades is like trying to hit a moving target. Much of the information I collected could be totally out-of-date by the time you read this. Check with the vendors before making any decisions about buying an Intel-based Mac.

Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus has written about Macintosh computers for more than 20 years and is the author of GarageBand for Dummies (Wiley, 2004). A few of his GarageBand productions can be found athttp://homepage.mac.com/boblevitus/FileSharing17.html.