A Mac Head's Bow to Dell


By Alex Salkever Although my last column was largely positive on Apple, the majority of the mail I received addressed my apparently controversial assertion that the Dell in my house runs a lot faster than my iMac. Most of those who wrote in called me to task. Some used unprintable words. Others politely inquired what system I was running and whether it was comparable to the Dell (DELL).

I want to set the record straight on this topic and also use it as a platform for some thoughts about why Apple (AAPL) has to run -- no, make that sprint -- away from all relationships with Motorola (MOT).

To answer the skeptics, I run an 800-megahertz iMac with 1 gigabyte of RAM installed. At the time I started using this machine in early 2002, it was one of the top consumer desktop systems Apple offered. The Dell in question has a 2-gigahertz Intel (INTC) P4 chipset and 1 gigabyte of RAM. It actually predates the iMac by six months or so.

NO END TO THE RAINBOW. I run comparable software -- at least for the average user -- on the two systems. On the iMac, I use Safari, Microsoft Office, Apple Mail, and Norton Internet Security. On the Dell, I run Internet Explorer, Office, Outlook Express, and a Zone Alarm firewall alongside Norton AntiVirus. The comparison would be slightly different with newer machines, but not much, as both companies now sell faster consumer desktops.

What's absolutely clear to me in comparing them is that with my Apple, I spend far too much time waiting for the spinning rainbow wheel to disappear. That's the icon that pops up whenever it gets hung up on a processing task. Apple Mail indexes my e-mail contents incessantly and seems to always spin that rainbow. Outlook Express doesn't hang up my Dell this way. Plus, Apple's Safari browser still has trouble parsing Web sites and forms (granted, that's likely due to the fact that many Web designers simply ignore Mac browsers and build exclusively for Microsoft IE-compatibility).

What accounts for the lag? The Norton program may slow down my Mac some, but when I turn it off it doesn't seem to provide much of a speed boost. Shutdowns and startups are also slower on my Mac than on my Dell.

FAULTY ENGINE. After I explained this situation in clear terms, most of the critics admitted that, yes, my iMac might just be slower than the Dell. Others said, yes, OS X Jaguar remains sluggish and that the upcoming Panther OS would be much snappier. And a scant few even admitted that the inherent inferiority of the Motorola G4 chipset under the hood of iMacs and PowerBooks is to blame.

The last comment struck me as the most relevant and telling explanation. And that's why Apple needs to ditch Motorola post haste. At MacWorld Europe, Steve Jobs unveiled a much-awaited revamp of Apple's iMac and PowerBook product lines. These systems had nifty improvements over their predecessor -- USB 2.0 ports, bigger hard drives, and, most important, marked upticks in the speed of the G4 processors.

Still, one thing stood out as an enormous bust. The speed of the "frontside bus" on these new machines held steady at 167 mHz per second. For the benefit of nontechies, the frontside bus is a key part of personal computers that shuttles information to the main processor, or CPU, from the main memory storage (here's a more detailed explanation). Bus speed is a critical determinant -- some say the most critical -- of PC performance.

AMD VS. G5. The current frontside bus speed on an entry-level Dell desktop stands at 400 mHz, or more than twice the speed of Apple's G4 chips. Such a Dell machine costs less than $1,000, including a 15-inch flat-panel LCD monitor and a DVD burner. The lower tier of the PowerBooks and iMacs cost $1,200 or so.

Clearly, you get more speed on a Dell for less money. Apple fans will claim that the G4 is just as fast as most Intel (INTC) chips because the Motorola processors divide processing tasks into smaller chunks and perform them simultaneously. But that's increasingly besides the point due to the disparity in frontside bus speeds.

I don't blame Apple for that. I blame Motorola, which has had a long history of technical difficulties in building G4s to Apple's needs. True, Apple is only a secondary customer for the G4 chip, which Motorola has mainly designed to work in embedded systems such as data routers. But that doesn't mean Apple can or should accept subpar performance. Motorola just announced it would spin off its chip division (see BW Online, 10/7/03, "Motorola: Mightier Minus Chips?"). That may eventually allow the division to focus more on G4 products, along with the rest of the PowerPC line. But this benefit could take years to make its way down to Apple.

HEAD START As always, Apple has limited alternatives. The most plausible is to wait for IBM (IBM) to build G5 chips that run cool enough to reside comfortably in the tight confines of PowerBooks and iMacs (see BW Online, 8/20/03, "Taking It Slow with a Superfast Chip"). Another possibility would be to start designing systems that run on AMD and Intel chips. We've beaten that topic to death over time, but the new AMD 64-bit chips merit a close look from Apple. By many accounts they perform at least as well as the G5 chips.

The task of porting the basic Darwin/FreeBSD software kernel that underpins OS X to the new AMD chips could be a shared endeavor between Apple and the rest of the Darwin development community -- exactly the kind of thing Apple had in mind when it switched over to a Unix-flavored operating system. Apple is most likely already building an in-house Windows programming team for the impending PC version of iTunes, so expanding its capabilities in that area would probably prove a lot less painful than starting from scratch.

Finally, Jobs could buy AMD's chip without having to feel as if he had succumbed to the Wintel duopoly. As for me, I'm definitely waiting for a G5 chip -- or something better -- to be put inside an iMac or a PowerBook before I press the "buy" button again at the Apple Store. Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online, is alternating with Charles Haddad on Byte of the Apple


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