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PowerPC Update

So what’s the deal here? Is the PowerPC chip real? Is the Macintosh line dead? Is it true that if you look at the signatures in an SE case in a mirror one of them reads "Elvis Presley Lives?"

Good questions, all, except the last one, so whoever asked that one, go wash your head. I’m not an engineer, and I’m not an Apple insider, so I’m basing my impressions here on vapor, rumor, and gut feel. So what’s new?

For those coming late to the game, the PowerPC chip is one result of the Apple-IBM deal, with Motorola brought in to help with the design and manufacturing. The chip itself is RISC-based (Reduced Instruction Set Computing, or killer fast) and scalable, which means that it will be easy to create different versions for different levels of hardware, PDAs, desktop machines, workstations, and so on. I think Ford has even announced plans to put it in a car, although that strikes me as overkill unless they have something new and neat in mind. Apple and IBM both intend to use the chip in new machines, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll ignore IBM. It’s not hard if you practice.

The current schedule, which is surprisingly on target or even slightly ahead, has the first PowerPC-based Macs appearing in January of 1994. Those machines will run current Macintosh applications without modification in emulation mode at about the same speed as the 68040-based Centris machines. It will also run native PowerPC applications (of which we may not see many right away) at speeds ranging from two to five times faster than the fastest Quadras right now. There’s no telling where in that range the first PowerPCs will fall, although I wouldn’t scoff at twice the speed of a Quadra.

In addition, if you’re concerned about Intel’s forthcoming Pentium chip, I gather that the PowerPC 601, the first of the PowerPC chips, is faster, smaller, cheaper, cooler, and uses less power. Don’t worry, though, it will be just as easy to spot Pentium-equipped PCs as it is to spot PCs now. Almost all of them come with this useful little warning required by the Truth In Advertising Act, saying "Intel Inside."

So the PowerPC is going to be a winner next winter from what we hear now. But Apple has the Centris 660av and the Quadra 840av, code-named Tempest and Cyclone respectively, slated for this summer. They will sport all sorts of new technology, including a built-in digital signal processor, which will allow them to perform voice recognition and synthesis, as well as emulate a fast modem when combined with the new high-speed GeoPort for serial and network communications. Both machines will have built-in digital video, allowing them to capture and output 16-bit color video without additional hardware. They also feature direct memory access to the CPU buses, built-in Ethernet, and a faster NuBus. In short, these are killer Macs, especially at the $2,300 estimated for the Centris 660av.

But as much as these two new Macs will represent a major architectural change, the PowerPCs go farther. Will these be the last two 68000-based Macs? Unlikely, especially until a PowerPC PowerBook becomes possible. Are they the beginning of the end for the 68000 line? Very possibly. Think back to the IIfx and its special SCSI/DMA controller that was supposed to improve SCSI performance, but languished unused without system software support. Could the same thing happen to the Centris 660av and Quadra 840av? I just don’t know, but I see three possible ways to deal with this situation as an interested consumer.

First, let’s assume that the PowerPCs aren’t going to be real for some time after January of 1994, in terms of available hardware (although Apple is rumored to be already stockpiling the PowerPC 601 chip that the first PowerPCs will use) and software that will take advantage of the PowerPC’s native mode. If that’s the case, then the Centris 660av and Quadra 840av suddenly reign supreme at the high end, and anyone who needs that kind of speed will go for the known quantity of the 68040 chip. So wait until this summer and buy one. I don’t think you’ll regret it, although I’d wait just long enough to confirm that your applications don’t have trouble with the new technologies.

Second, let’s continue to assume that the PowerPCs won’t be real for some time, and that the large quantities of new technology in the Centris 660av and Quadra 840av scare you. That’s not a poor assumption for those of you who don’t enjoy the bleeding edge of technology. Almost every major change in Macintosh technology has required a few months of break-in time, during which the application vendors scramble to achieve compatibility or to take advantage of the new technologies. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the Mac II, the IIci, the IIfx, and the Quadras have all become stable, useful, machines after those first few months. So if you don’t wish to take risks of any sort, but you need a new machine soon, you should think carefully about buying a nice Centris 610 or 650, or perhaps a Quadra 800. If it were my money on the line, I’d recommend the Centris 610 since you want to remain flexible on the PowerPCs, so you shouldn’t spend all your money now, even if you can’t wait.

Third and finally, let’s assume that the PowerPCs are going to appear in January of 1994 and that all the major Macintosh applications will run in emulation mode just fine. If you can wait until January for those first few models of the PowerPC, that might prove to be the move of the year, although as with anything electronic, the first PowerPCs will be obsolete within a year or so. But what’s obsolete when you have native mode applications running several times faster than a Quadra?

Surprise surprise, I’m in this very quandary right now. I’m working on an SE/30 that started out life as a double-floppy SE in 1988, and although it has served me well and has been rewarded with 20 MB of RAM and ever-increasing amounts of disk space, I fear that I am slowly becoming more in need of a faster machine. In some respects I can wait to see how things shake out because the SE/30 really is fast enough. Heck, I’m writing my Internet book entirely in Nisus on the PowerBook 100. If I only had a Plus, I would be far more inclined to jump for a Centris 610 right now, or maybe hold out for a Centris 660av this summer. Waiting until January might be just too long if I were working on a Plus.

But then there’s the technology issue. I’m actually a bit of a wimp when it comes to buying new technology (comes from not having unlimited funds, no doubt), but I want voice capabilities bad. Although my carpal tunnel seems to be in control, I have to watch how much I type, and even with the Curtis MVP Mouse (a trackball) and its footswitch, I find that I sometimes overdo it on mousing. If I could reduce the number of clicks and keystrokes with voice control…. So I personally have to wait for at least the av Macs, but then comes the question of the PowerPCs. Is it worth holding out just a few months longer? The PowerPCs won’t have DSP chips in them because the Apple engineers found that the PowerPC chip could do the same tasks as the DSP chip even faster, so adding the DSP chip didn’t provide any speed benefits. It’s hard to ignore that kind of raw power.

If pressed, I would say that the issue hasn’t really changed. The first rule of buying computers is that you buy what you can afford when you absolutely need it. If you can wait, the prices will drop and the power will increase. So I always advise waiting as long as you can possibly stand it (keeping in mind that it may take a while to get your machine of choice even after ordering it), and then buying the best machine you can. Also, if possible, immediately start ignoring all reports of faster machines or cheaper prices – they just make you unhappy. Be content with what you have and rest assured that it was the best choice when you bought it. It’s the only way to stay sane in this fast-moving world.

Motorola PowerPC Information Pack — 800/845-MOTO

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