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ATPM 12.01
January 2006


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by Wes Meltzer,

Colder Than a Sunday in Hell

In the past few months I have learned how to say the three most dreaded and most anticipated words in Apple history: “Powered by Intel.”

At first, I found myself choking on those syllables, seemingly incapable of producing all those sounds. What’s powering those computers again? G4s? Wait? Intel chips, you say? Gah, I just can’t say it. Hopefully they won’t have those stickers on them. At least they won’t say “Intel Inside”; apparently, Intel has a new branding campaign. Small consolation. Those stickers are hideous, and most users don’t realize they’re removable (or care to remove them).

There are two likely paths for the Intel chips to enter the Macintosh line-up, but almost everyone agrees on the central points: (1) the obvious, that Apple is using Intel chips in their products, which could be announced as early as Macworld San Francisco in January; and (2) the less obvious, that the first Intel Macs will probably use the chip-maker’s new low-power CPU and platform, code-named “Yonah” and “Napa,” a lower-end chip and chipset for a lower-end portable or small-size machine. I won’t go into too much detail on Yonah/Napa, except to say that they’re designed to require minimal juice and put out minimal heat, and have custom instructions for multimedia applications. (If you’re confused, just imagine AltiVec.) It’s a Pentium M chip, but it’s going to be a dual-core CPU on a 65-nanometer die, which means it’s both really small and very slick.

The reason I find such universal agreement on the topic of the coming Yonah/Napa computers, either at MWSF or whenever the chips are ready for shipment, has to do with Intel’s declared road map. Intel says the chip will be in full production by late January, which is just barely in time for MWSF; and two other computer makers, Dell and NEC, have announced that they, too, will have Yonah/Napa computers as soon as Intel has the chips out the door. AppleInsider reports that Apple will be able to launch at least one new Intel system at MWSF, though it might not ship then; they believe that an Intel iMac is a shoo-in, and they suggest that a new portable could be coming around the same time.

We Apple fans are going to have a hard time swallowing the enormous jump that these x86 Macs are going to make, in terms of raw clock speed: the Yonah chip should run anywhere from 1.66 GHz to 2.16 GHz, or, in other words, about as fast as a G5. As I said, the key is that they will get more punch for the watt: the standard-voltage Yonah CPUs will dissipate 25–49 watts, and the lower-voltage models anywhere from 15–24 watts. In contrast, the G5 dissipates 42 watts at 1.8 GHz, and a 1 GHz G4 draws 30 watts. So I will swallow my pride and say those three words.

The big speculation, then, is over where these chips will end up. There are two competing camps, at the time of this writing: those who argue that Yonah will end up in a new iBook, and those who argue that it will end up in a revamped Mac mini “media center.”

Stick It in a Cabinet

One camp believes firmly that the new Yonah product will be that Mac mini “media center,” with, one presumes, Front Row controlling the media input. This device, they say, would output to televisions—probably the return of one of my favorite Apple innovations, the A/V card, doing double-duty output to DVI and either coax or composite—and come with a complete digital content distribution system.

This “Mac mini Media Center,” since I don’t have a better name for it, would be the holy trinity of Macintoshes if properly executed: a TiVo, iTunes plus the Music Store, and a family-room computer, all at once. Add an amp and speakers on line out, and you have an entire home entertainment center just like that.

Think Secret, seemingly lawsuit-impermeable, is at the forefront of these revelations. They have all the details on what this “Home Theater PC” experience would entail, including the iTMS-alike for video content and the on-the-fly delivery that Apple plans for the content. I’d just like to congratulate Nick Ciarelli, who is only about a year younger than me, for having the cojones to keep running Think Secret in spite of everything.

But Think Secret’s not the only one sitting on top of this Ogallala Aquifer of rumors. Julio Ojeda-Zapata (Your Tech Weblog) played “connect-the-dots” and came up with a reference to Intel’s on-chipset media digital rights management platform, Viiv, and tied it to the Mac mini—before he read Think Secret’s piece. What is he basing all this on? The rumors of the new Mini plus some special insider’s knowledge, that an ex-PR gal at Apple is now handling Viiv for her company’s Intel account, are the dots he puts together. Ojeda-Zapata thinks that the key will be an iPod dock built into the Mac mini, making the entire piece into a coup d’état by one-upping even TiVo. Now, that’d be a computer worth buying.

Contrarian Leander, at Cult of Mac Blog, finds the inclusion of Viiv, which, to be fair, is DRM, to be insulting and frustrating to users, though. “As I suggested before—this is the real reason Apple is switching to Intel—so that it can sell copy-protected digital entertainment securely online,” he writes cheerily. “It may not be all doom and gloom. Intel says Viiv will play unprotected content.” Now, I’d like as much as the next guy for there to be no offensive, restrictive DRM on this stuff, but the iTMS DRM has never gotten in my way before; it may be only the most passionate anti-DRM advocates who find it to be bothersome, or it may be so intrusive as to make the entire platform worthless. Much will depend. Hold on to your hat, buddy.

The Unofficial Apple Weblog, which is pretty reliable, suggests that the mini is perfect for the Home Theater PC (HTPC) assignment, as a small and inexpensive box. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d like to cheer that sentiment. Their commenters are even more emphatic than I expected, so I guess we can chalk up a quick win for Steve if he does announce it.

One SottoZero, too, jumps into the fray with a set of neat predictions about Apple and the tech world that include an HTPC Mac mini. Other notables include Google continuing to dominate the Net, which seems like an easy bet to make since I remember when Google first took over…and it was a long time ago, folks. (Fair disclosure: I was dumb enough to own Infoseek stock, so I was rooting against them. However, as a chronically cash flow-impaired college student, I do not own Google stock.)

As I always say when I’m reporting on rumors, I will have to wait to hear it before I believe it. But I’d sure like to hear it.

Put it in Your Pocket

The other camp here is insistent that the coming innovation will put these new chips in a new widescreen iBook. This computer, instead, would be the first Intel Mac, which would make it super-lightweight and quite capable of multimedia applications, and would still require only as much power as the G3 iBook.

Now, before I go any further, I would like to add a few grains of Kosher salt here and remind my faithful readers that the “widescreen iBook” rumor is at least two years old. I don’t believe I’ve reported on it before, but it has floated around persistently for as long as I can remember, and possibly all the way back to the introduction of the 15″ widescreen PowerBook. (Rui Carmo corroborates.) But, you never know, even hell can freeze over. Twice!

The most reputable news source on record here is the San Jose Mercury News, Apple’s hometown paper, which asks if the Yonah/Napa combo will power the new iBook. Their answer appears to be yes, with the usual tantalizing details about huge performance gains over other Intel chips. It goes without saying that it would be an enormous step forward from the G4; the G5 will clearly never make it into a portable.

Both ThinkSecret and AppleInsider are reporting that the new Intel iBook will be a 13″ widescreen iBook, preserving the 12″ iBook but killing the 12″ PowerBook at the same time. ThinkSecret is brief, AI adds that they think the computer will feature a completely new industrial design, especially since the computer will be significantly thinner. Rui Carmo seems to think this ought to be a PowerBook, but if Apple is killing the 12″ PB, that should just about do it.

Does the widescreen form factor make sense for a computer that has hit the sweet spot for so long? Andy Atkinson evaluates, and says that he thinks the form factor is awkward but that consumers will get over it if the display can do 1280×720 resolution. Why? That’s native 720p high-definition video, for one thing, and would allow you to put two 8.5×11-sized windows side-by-side at a reasonable zoom. He also asks if Apple will conform to the new glossy-screen LCD craze, or stick to the matte screens that have always adorned the ’Books. I think the screens are really pretty, but they’re sure a hassle, and I’m not convinced they give you a better picture—so, perhaps not. Where’s a magic 8-Ball when I need one?

Anyway, this rumor doesn’t sound as likely to me. Carmo agrees; he rates it at just 50%. Why? “[T]here is no real reason to believe it to be true…[but i]t would make a lot more sense than most rumors.”

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