Apple Dropping Intel?

Apple is said to be looking at moving away from Intel on the Mac towards ARM. This of course wouldn’t be unfounded giving the iOS platform is already using ARM. I’m certain Apple already has Mac OS X working on ARM chips for development purposes, just like I’m sure they had Intel versions all the years leading up to the x86 transition. Secret builds, and perhaps slightly buggy, but existing and working.

Will Apple switch? I could see them doing so for a lighter more power efficient laptop, however there’s a lot of x86 software out there I can’t see being ported over easily. I also can’t see them using ARM with some sort of Rosetta like layer of emulation. I think that would negate the pro’s.

I’m skeptical of Apple switching, at least right now, but I’m sure they are experimenting, and have been for a long time.

The Future Of Tablet Computing & Netbooks

Two of the biggest buzzwords in mobile computing right now (besides iPhone and Android) are Tablet Computing and Netbooks. Many people expect one of them to be the successor to laptops. I don’t think it will be quite that simple.

Tablet Computing

Modern tablet computing designs are really all based on Allan Kay’s 1968 Dynabook design. While never constructed, it’s almost obvious design has influenced many companies to make desktops and laptops that are controlled via a touchscreen. PDA’s and smartphones also follow this basic design closely, though I wouldn’t really consider these devices to be tablet computers.

A few laptops manufacturers offer a tablet variant of a laptop. One of the most popular is Lenovo’s X Series. It’s a regular laptop minus some modifications to allow for a touch display and a special hinge system. All the power of a laptop with the convenience (and cool factor) of a touch screen.

The downsides of this are obvious. Laptops aren’t that light, they are power hungry and have moving parts (hard drives in particular). They also don’t come cheap.

Netbooks

Netbooks have gained considerable ground in the past year. A netbook is really no different than a typical laptop except it’s smaller, lighter, more power efficient (thanks to a slower power efficient cpu and smaller screen) and cheaper. By focusing on a handful of terminal activities such as browsing the web and email they can scale back on most of the fancy hardware.

One of the most popular Netbooks is the ASUS Eee PC. It’s advantages over a typical laptop are it’s low cost, small size, and weight.

The downsides here are speed, small screen and small keyboard.

The Merge

CPU’s have advanced significantly in the past few years. One of the most obvious changes is multiple cores. Another less obvious but equally important evolution is power efficiency thanks to a new breed of chips like the Intel Atom.

Touchscreens have gotten significantly better. The most obvious is the iPhone’s capacitive touchscreen. As opposed to resistive touchscreens and a stylus the ability to handle multitouch revolutionizes the interface.

Solid State Storage (SSD) has also dropped in price and increased in availability. This means that storage is faster, consumes less power and more reliable in a mobile device than previous hard drive technology would allow.

Users have also evolved in computer usage. Several years ago almost everyone used an email client. Now many are using webmail only thanks to improved interfaces. Even spreadsheets and office documents can be handled with a web interface. The need for client side computing is becoming less of a necessity for many people. Wireless networks have only sped this up.

I suspect that due to these current trends tablets and netbooks will blur and move towards a new category of ultraportable computing. Obviously just small evolutionary changes could drastically change this but that’s how I interpret the current trends.

Apple today offers laptops with dual GPU’s to save power and allow for higher performance by selecting the GPU. I suspect it’s even possible to eventually see dual CPU’s where one could be selected for performance, and another for better power consumption (great for when just browsing the web).

I suspect the rumor of an Apple tablet coming Q3 will fall largely along these lines and accelerate the merge between tablet computing and netbooks. Time will tell.

Cheap Tiny PC’s

Paul Stamatiou has a great blog post on the DIY $200 PC. Premise is that for $200 (or possibly less depend on your requirements) you could put together a little PC for some purpose. The core of this being affordable is the new-ish Intel D201GLY2 Motherboard/Processor combo.

The only problem I see with it is the board surprisingly uses an SiS964 Southbridge, which for the moment doesn’t seem to be well supported under Linux from what I can tell. That could make use a little more complicated, though I can see that changing relatively quick. I wouldn’t run a modern version of Windows on something like that, not to mention Windows would cost about as much as the hardware. It is a Celeron, but it’s 64bit.

This means for approximately $200 you can put together a very low power, quiet (could even be fanless) computer/device/server/appliance for whatever purpose you wish. A little work and it would make a great file server. Add a better NIC and you’d have a great firewall. Hook it up with some WiFi and it can easily get on a network from anywhere. There’s a ton of possibilities here. It could be a lot of fun to build something out of it. I’m not sure using something like MythTV will work to well, at least now.

Very cool stuff. I’m interested what people will do with it.

Intel Centrino Suckage

I noticed this a few months ago, but never gave it much thought until recently. My Laptop has a Intel 2915 A/B/G Wireless Card, more commonly known as the wireless portion of the Centrino package. It’s pretty decent in regards to power consumption, and performance is typically not to bad. But I’m growing rather tired of it’s antics (took me a little bit to ID this one).

I can wirelessly download a file from my local file server on my LAN at approximately 19Mbps. Yet I can’t seem to break 10Mbps WAN even though Comcast supports “PowerBoost” (traffic shaping) in my area to burst downloads. My Mac Mini G4 with it’s built Airport Extreme, which is really some Broadcom chipset (not sure which exactly since no specs seem to be available) does get as much as 20Mbps bursting on WAN traffic. This leads me to believe the issue is somehow related to the Intel 2915 card.

The access point itself uses the TNETW1130GVF chipset, which is actually used to certify 802.11g devices.

I could always witch to Lenovo/IBM’s 11a/b/g Wireless LAN Mini-PCI Adapter II, which is based on the Atheros AR5BMB-44 (apparently in the AR5004 family). The only downside is the lack of EAP support. Not that I employ EAP, but you never know what you run across or end up needing in the future.

Downside is having to open up the laptop and remove the keyboard/palmrest to reach the wireless card, not to mention the $70 for the card itself. This isn’t really something that seems really worthwhile at the moment.

The question of the day is why does Intel still can’t get it right. The web is littered with reports of connection problems. Thankfully I don’t get disconnects. I just don’t seem to get the performance I should. For having “Excellent” signal quality rating in the Connection Status Window, I’d expect more performance.

What does AMD the ATI deal mean for mobile computing?

There are not to many out there who think AMD is serious about mobile computing (laptops mainly). AMD still hasn’t figured out how to keep performance, thermal, and power management all under control, giving Intel a somewhat strong lead in that market. It seems most Intel laptops have been using ATI graphics chipsets, since they are relatively low power, and in general very compatible.

So now that AMD is buying ATI, and Intel cuts ties with ATI, where does that leave mobile computing? Are we going to see all Intel Integrated systems? Or Intel/Nvidia?

I have this feeling it’s going to get messy before things stabilize. I just hope we don’t have to see a generation of pathetic laptops before things rebound.

Apple is still using 64-bit Processors

Several months ago I asked if Apple would continue to use widely advertised 64-bit processors after moving to Intel. Apple spent a lot of time/money telling people 64-bit was the future, and the G5 was perfect.

Even upon release of the first Intel Mac’s, it wasn’t clear if they were 64-bit or 32-bit. Supposedly they are 64-bit, but not very clear if they could ever run in 64-bit.

Regardless, very interesting.

High Pings

I’ve been wondering why my ping times have been so high on my laptop, and so low on any other computer I have here. I finally found the culprit.

The Intel 2915 wireless card (part of the whole Centrino package) has a power saving mode with 3 options, High, Medium, and Low (creative eh?). Mine was set to high. Which created pings that varied from 20ms to 400ms. Going to medium brings the average down to 2ms, which I can deal with.

Why this is a separate setting in Access Connections (the utility used on Thinkpads to manage different connection settings) rather than in the Power Manager as part of a profile? I don’t know. Ideally it would switch to high when I unplug, and go medium when I’m plugged in.

Anyway, always good to know why stuff happens. Very good for gaming, VoIP or anything where latency is an issue.

Apple’s Intel Strategy

Apple announced it’s moving from the PowerPC processor over to the Intel platform. Most feel this is a good decision, some have reservations. Regardless Apple left quite a few unanswered questions that really impact how successful this transition will be, and what the ultimate benefit (if any) there is to the end user. I’d like to take a moment and look at a few critical questions:

Will there be 64 bit computing?
Apple with much fanfare introduced the 64 bit G5 processor and everyone talked about how that’s the future of computing. AMD, and Intel have also started producing 64 bit processors. Windows Vista (formerly Longhorn) will ship in both 32 bit and 64 bit flavors as Microsoft believes during it’s lifespan people will start using 64 bit systems. Will Apple even bother adopting 32 bit Intel chips? Or stick with it’s 64 bit strategy? ThinkSecret’s look at the Intel Mac has a nice list of what the processor supports:

PU, VME, DE, PSE, TSC, MSR, PAE, MCE, CX8, APIC, SEP, MTRR, PGE, MCA, CMOV, PAT, PSE36, CLFSH, DS, SCPI, MMX, FXSR, SSE, SEE2, SS, HTT, TM, SSE3, MON, DSCPL, EST, TM2, CX16, and TPR.

What’s not on the list is EM64T. Why wouldn’t Apple ship developers 64bit systems? Intel has been shipping them for a while now. Hyper Threading is available though. It seems strange that Apple hasn’t said anything on it’s 64 bit strategy.

Disk Formats
Apple’s alleged position on the idea of running Windows on a Mac is that they won’t support it, but won’t explicitly block it, though Mac OS X will remain Mac only. But I must question if it would be in Apple’s interests to support Windows a bit more, including re-examining disk format issues. Right now, A Mac can read/write HFS+ (Apple’s disk format), UFS, and FAT32. It can only read NTFS. This is a problem for someone potentially dual booting a system in Mac OS X and Windows. On top of this, the partitioning is also an issue. Apparently Apple’s Boot ROM historically will only will boot off of Apple partitioned drives (such as my disk0 below). Windows will only boot off of FDISK or MBR. So it’s impossible to have a dual boot system using partitions on 1 hard drive. I don’t have a developer Intel-Mac to test this theory on, but I’m rather confident on it.

Robert-Accetturas-Computer:~ robert$ diskutil list
/dev/disk0
   #:                   type name               size      identifier
   0: Apple_partition_scheme                    *74.5 GB  disk0
   1:    Apple_partition_map                    31.5 KB   disk0s1
   2:              Apple_HFS Macintosh HD       74.4 GB   disk0s3
/dev/disk2
   #:                   type name               size      identifier
   0: FDisk_partition_scheme                    *279.5 GB disk2
   1:           Windows_NTFS PC Backup          120.0 GB  disk2s1
   2:             DOS_FAT_32 MAC BACKUP         75.7 GB   disk2s2
   3:             DOS_FAT_32 MAC SCRATCH        83.7 GB   disk2s3

So what should Apple do?

Apple should encourage this behavior. It allows potential Mac converts to transition much more gracefully, and allows them to see the Mac as a much more valuable product. A few things really need to be done here:

  • HFS+ driver for Windows – That’s right, I said it. Apple needs to allow you to access your data on Windows. Adding HFS+ support to Windows 2k, XP, and Vista would be appropriate. The alternative is getting NTFS write support in Mac OS X, which isn’t likely to ever happen.
  • Allow Macs to boot off of MBR partitioned drives (FDisk_partition_scheme as it appears above on OS X) – this would allow you to use 1 drive and boot both HFS+ for OS X, or NTFS for Windows. *Note:* you would need to format the NTFS partition on Windows.

By doing this, the Mac is clearly the better computer. It allows you to use both operating systems fluently. You can create a 10 GB NTFS partition and install Windows XP, then use HFS+ for all your data, and your Mac OS X volume. This would also pave the way for even more top notch Linux support (on the same drive too)

Then Apple’s silver bullet would be a VirtualMachine package, so you can run Windows in parallel with OS X, or multiple instances of OS X, or Linux. This would also aid in the server market. You can run OS X, with it’s infamous stability and excellent interface. But still get to your Windows data and programs if you need. There’s no longer any reason to say No to a Mac.

Hardware Lock in
This is the big question everyone wants to know. Today’s Mac’s are relatively easy to upgrade and repair using stock PC parts. Drives, RAM, most PCI cards (USB, Firewire, most networking cards in particular), etc. There are a few annoyances in Mac hardware today, the first being video cards. Sometimes you can hack the ROM and install Mac ROM and use them. Sometimes you can get a Mac version. Will there be good enough support to allow any AGP or PCI-X graphics card to just work? In theory, using an Intel architecture, the ROM should be the same now, so the issue may just be limited to drivers, so we may get lucky here. Presumably what makes a Mac exclusively a Mac will be it’s motherboard (or a few pieces of silicon and plastic on that motherboard). So anything else should be swappable with PC parts. Will Apple be pushing for more widespread driver support once the Intel Macs start shipping?

So Steve, if you happen to read this, and care to fill us in on Apple’s strategy, I’m sure we would all appreciate it. Apple’s Intel strategy is rather interesting, but it doesn’t quite say if Apple will be bridging the platform gap to allow for smoother transitions between Windows and Mac, or if it’s simply a processor swap.