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Confusion Over Santa Rosa: What’s in a Name?

The latest batch of iMacs and MacBook Pros have been called “Santa Rosa” by many, and even publications like Macworld and Ars Technica have gone so far as to claim the new iMacs and MacBook Pros “use the Santa Rosa chipset.”

This has become a widespread notion and the moniker “Santa Rosa” was quickly adopted to distinguish the latest iMacs and MacBook Pros from their predecessors. Unfortunately, it is simply wrong, and wrong in two ways. Firstly, Santa Rosa is not a chipset, but rather Intel’s code name for their most recent mobile computing platform. And secondly, although these new Macs use one of the same chipsets Intel requires for the Santa Rosa platform, they are not part of the platform.

The latest Intel Centrino mobile platform has been given the code name Santa Rosa. Intel has detailed which components are required for a computer to belong to the Santa Rosa platform and hence receive the Centrino badge.

The main requirements for Santa Rosa are:

  • an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU (code-named “Merom”) with Intel Socket P
  • the Mobile Intel 965 Express Chipset (code-named “Crestline”)
  • an Intel Wi-Fi chipset capable of 802.11a/b/g/draft-n on a mini-PCIe adapter (code-named “Kedron”)

Santa Rosa describes the overall platform, which uses a Crestline chipset. There is no such thing as a Santa Rosa chipset. This is the first mistake.

Now let’s take a look at the second mistake. For the CPUs on the new iMacs and MacBook Pros, Apple has chosen the Intel Core 2 Duo T7x00 series (or the Core 2 Extreme X7900 Merom XE, in the case of the 2.8 GHz iMac).

The chipset Apple is using is indeed the Intel Mobile PM965 Express chipset (“Crestline”). It runs an 800 MT/s front-side bus (that’s megatransfers per second, which is technically more accurate than the commonly stated megahertz), supports DDR2-667 SDRAM, and comes with the Intel ICH8M southbridge (also known as an I/O Controller Hub). Crestline also supports NAND flash-memory caching technology (code-named “Robson”) marketed under the name “Intel Turbo Memory,” but this is not an explicit Santa Rosa platform requirement and Apple (to date) doesn’t make any use of it.

Finally, the wireless chipset. Both the iMac and the MacBook Pro are capable of wireless communication according to the 802.11 standard and both also support the latest draft-n specification of this standard. But for some reason Apple is not using Intel’s “Kedron” wireless adapter. Instead they are using a chipset manufactured by Atheros. The FCC code on the wireless card installed in the MacBook Pro reveals the manufacturer even though the module is just labeled with “Apple Computer, Inc.” This is the same module used in the previous MacBook Pro generation. A quick hardware scan using lspci under Ubuntu Linux on a MacBook Pro also reveals Atheros as the manufacturer.

It’s even more evident on the iMac. If, on the new iMac, you open System Profiler and go to Network > AirPort Card, the firmware version shows that the card was made by Broadcom.

Regardless of the fact that the new iMacs and MacBook Pros are using the CPU and chipset required by the Santa Rosa platform, they are using a different Wi-Fi adapter and therefore are not part of the Santa Rosa platform. This also provides yet another reason why Apple has never used the Centrino badge for these Macs. And thank goodness we don’t have to tear those cheesy Centrino stickers off our new Macs!

So why did so many sources get it wrong, and who’s to blame? Much of the responsibility lies with Apple itself. For years they have resisted giving their new Macs unique names. Rather than using something like Power Mac 7100/80 they now just refer to the iMac as the 24-inch iMac. Of course, unique names are still needed as soon as it comes to support or hardware repairs. On their support site Apple uses additional monikers to distinguish the models from each other. The latest iMacs and MacBook Pros are referred to as “Mid 2007.” [Editor’s note: Apple has long suffered from this problem. I
first wrote about it over eight years ago in “Macintosh Model Implosion: What’s in a Name?” (1999-06-14), and frankly, nothing has improved since then. -Adam]

Unfortunately, the “Mid 2007” name has nothing to do with the Mac’s internals, prompting many people to come up with alternative names. It was quite popular to use “Core Duo” and later “Core 2 Duo” to distinguish the first and second generations of Intel-based Macs, but since it was clear early on that there would likely be more than just one generation of Macs with Core 2 Duo processors, that naming convention made little sense. Indeed the chipset is an easy way to distinguish the first generation of Core 2 Duo iMacs and MacBook Pros from their successors, but as detailed above that chipset would properly be referred to as “Crestline.”

The bulk of the confusion over what Santa Rosa is comes from Intel. Very early on, before the official release of the Santa Rosa platform, Intel informed the tech media that they were launching a new mobile platform using a new chipset and the Core 2 Duo CPU, to be called “Santa Rosa.” At that point, Intel never mentioned Crestline or Kedron, and used Santa Rosa to describe both the new platform and their new mobile chipset. As a result, observers were referring to the upcoming chipset as “Santa Rosa” long before the official launch of the new Centrino platform. Although Intel later published the requirements for the Santa Rosa platform and clarified which chipset the platform requires, the name “Santa Rosa” has managed to stick with
the chipset ever since. But just as Apple makes Macs and isn’t a company called “Mac” (a mistake often made by newcomers), Crestline is Santa Rosa’s chipset – Santa Rosa by itself is not a chipset.

This situation didn’t stem from Intel being sloppy, but is more a result of Intel creating program requirements to bolster sales of certain components. Intel created the Centrino platform to encourage PC makers to use all Intel components in their designs. However, when those components (notably Intel’s initial Wi-Fi chipset) weren’t competitive, PC makers chose different components in favor of the Centrino sticker. That in turn led to the code names like Santa Rosa becoming synonymous with the processor/chipset pair required by a particular instantiation of the Centrino platform.

You may ask if this is really so important. After all, we’re just talking about a bunch of code names, right? While it is true that normal users don’t generally need to use these code names, they’re still important. Once you offer support, or you need to update or fix somebody’s Mac, it’s crucial to be able to distinguish different generations from each other in an unambiguous way. Different series of Macs need names that reflect which generation they belong to. And since Apple has resisted providing a coherent naming scheme that provides this level of clarity, we have to come up with our own. However, it is certainly in everybody’s interest if we stick with names that are correct and make sense. And that’s why it’s important to stop
confusing Santa Rosa with Apple’s Crestline Macs.

[Simon C. Leemann is a research physicist and a longtime avid Mac user.]

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