Thursday, December 28, 2006

Apple financial statement tomorrow. AAPL closes down at $80.87.

In the few days before Apple's 2006 financial statement is released (2 weeks late) tomorrow, AAPL has been hit with more negative news surrounding its options scandal, including news that some documents regarding Jobs' options grants may have been falsified.

AAPL so far has done reasonably well in light of this, probably partially because of advice from analysts for investors not to overreact, but we could see more selling tomorrow if Apple's numbers are bad. In the meantime, I'm glad I sold my AAPL stock weeks ago.

AAPL closed today at $80.87, down 65¢ (0.79%).

Monday, December 18, 2006

iPhone announced... sorta

Gizmodo was right. The iPhone was indeed announced today. Two of them were announced actually.

However, they aren't what anyone (except Gizmodo) expected. They are VoIP phones produced by Linksys.

And the wait continues...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

My Macs and the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive

Yesterday, shortly after I wrote the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive article, my local store got the Xbox 360 HD DVD drives in, so I was able to try it myself on my Macs. As expected, the drive is recognized immediately.

There is a separate Xbox 360 HD DVD Memory Unit listed because HD DVD players must include non-volatile memory for things such as user bookmarks, etc. On my Macs CDs and DVDs play fine using this drive, but commercial HD DVDs are not natively supported by OS X Tiger (yet).

With Windows Vista on my MacBook, commercial HD DVDs are recognized (but are not playable without the correct software). The drive is recognized as a Toshiba DVD/HD X807616 USB Device. Out of interest's sake, I checked out the disc sizes of some HD DVDs. King Kong (a 188 minute movie) is 27.4 GB, but Corpse Bride is only 19 GB. The Polar Express, a reference quality 100 minute disc, is reported to be only 13 GB.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Xbox 360 HD DVD drive works in Mac OS X

Microsoft has recently released the HD DVD add-on drive for the Xbox 360, to rave reviews. HD DVD playback is apparently absolutely stunning with this setup, as it can output HD DVD's native 1080p24 content at full resolution using VGA, and up to 1080i over component connections. (I say apparently, because we Canadians still don't have this drive, although we'll probably get it this week.)

We've known for quite some time that although Microsoft is not supporting this drive on Windows, they didn't do anything to the drive to prevent its usage on a PC (according to Amir, a Microsoft executive who posts at the AVS Forum). Thus, it was no surprise when people proved that the HD DVD drive works on a PC. Also, unsurprisingly, it works on Mac OS X too.

With the proper hardware and software, commercial HD DVDs play back fine on Windows. Unfortunately, the same is not true on Mac OS X. While DVD does support HD DVD, I believe that it does not support VC-1 encoded material (which is what most commercial HD DVDs are), and does not support the copy protection and encryption used on commercial discs either. I am guessing that such support may come in 2007 however.

In other news, Connect360 can now stream WMV video, including full HD 1080p24 WMV, from a Mac to the Xbox 360.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

GeForce 6200 Cube benchmarks

The hackers out there have gotten various PC video cards to work in the Cube, and one of their latest successes is the GeForce 6200 (even though a Mac version of this card has never existed). I was lucky enough to get a hold of one of these and test it against various other video cards that work in the Cube.

Test setup:

Power Mac Cube with Sonnet 1.7 GHz G4 7447A
Mac OS X 10.4.8 Tiger
1.5 GB SDRAM (100 MHz bus)

Apple OEM Rage 128 Pro 16 MB
Apple OEM GeForce2 MX 32 MB
Flashed PC Radeon 9200 128 MB DDR
Flashed PC GeForce 6200 256 MB GDDR2

All of the above cards are fanless. The Rage 128 is the coolest running, while the GeForce2 MX seems to be the hottest. The Radeon 9200 and GeForce 6200 both get very warm under heavy usage, but their heatsinks do not get as hot to the touch as the GeForce2 MX. (The GeForce2 MX tested here is the one found in older G4 Power Mac towers, as opposed to the original Cube GeForce2 MX which had a large Cube-specific heatsink.)

The first test is OpenMark 1.60, a basic OpenGL benchmarking utility.

As you can see, the results generated by this application are not particularly fine-grained, as three of the video cards get the exact same result. It does show the marked performance advantage of the GeForce 6200 though.

OpenMark also tells us what level of OpenGL is supported by these GPUs:

ATI Rage Pro 128 - OpenGL 1.1
GeForce2 MX - OpenGL 1.1
Radeon 9200 - OpenGL 1.3
GeForce 6200 - OpenGL 1.5

In contrast, my iMac Core 2 Duo's GeForce 7600GT supports full OpenGL 2.0.

The second test is the popular Cinebench 9.5 OpenGL benchmark.

Hardware shading on the GeForce2 MX is actually slower than software. It takes the Radeon 9200 to (barely) show some hardware advantage over software. In contrast, the GeForce 6200 shows a big performance boost with hardware 3D acceleration.

It's interesting to see that the ATI Rage 128 Pro is significantly slower in the software bench than the other GPUs. This could be related to its lack of Quartz Extreme support, as this GPU is the only one of the four incapable of this OS X feature. I also note that in daily usage even things like basic 480p H.264 QuickTime playback is problematic on the ATI Rage Pro.

Would I recommend the GeForce 6200? Not necessarily to the average user. The 6200 is not an officially supported card, so it's possible one could run into problems. For instance, while it works perfectly over VGA, I have noticed that over DVI, things like Exposé and the Genie Effect aren't quite as smooth. However, otherwise the 6200 is a fine performance upgrade, and gives the 6 year-old Cube full Core Image and Core Animation capabilities.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Adobe Soundbooth: No PowerPC support, ever.

Adobe has announced a new sound editing application called Soundbooth, and has posted a free beta preview of the application. That's the good news. Now the bad news:
Will there be a PowerPC version?

No. Apple is quickly moving its focus towards Intel Macs, and no longer sells Power PC systems in many places. By focusing on Apple's future, we have been able to bring this powerful application to the Mac platform much more rapidly, and with a stronger feature set.
Visit the Adobe Intel Mac FAQ for more information.
That is extremely disappointing, especially considering that the vast majority of current Mac users have PowerPC Macs, and many stores (including Apple's own refurbished Mac store) still sell PowerPC Macs.

[Update 2006-10-30]

Adobe's John Nack responds:
Here's the reality: Apple's migration to Intel chips means that it's easier to develop for both Mac and Windows, because instead of splitting development resources optimizing for two different chip architectures, you can focus on just one. That's all good, and it makes Mac development more attractive. Users benefit from having developers' efforts go elsewhere (features, performance tuning, etc.), rather that into parallel, duplicate work. In the case of Soundbooth, the team could leverage Adobe's expertise in building great audio tools for Intel chips (namely Audition) to bring the app to market faster and with a richer feature set.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Apple screws up, blames Microsoft

Apple yesterday admitted that they shipped a number of iPods to customers with a Windows worm on them, which infected several customers' PCs.

Instead of simply issuing a standard press release, Apple instead decided to throw in a dig at Microsoft:
As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses, and even more upset with ourselves for not catching it.
Jon Poon, who works for Microsoft scanning its software before it's released, was quick to respond:
Instead of focusing on how and why it was even included in the first place, the company that published a series of video ads, including this one, actual try to divert the blame on the Windows platform!

It's not a matter of which platform that the virus originated. The fact that it's found on the portable player means that there's an issue with how the quality checks, specifically the content check was done. This also indicates that through the manufacturing cycle, the base device from which the image was duplicated to the other devices in the manufacturing run, was connected to a PC that most probably did not have , and i quote their press release, "up to date anti-virus software which is included with most Windows computers".
Mr. Poon is absolutely correct. Apple's attempt to try to shift partial blame onto Microsoft, even if in jest, simply comes across as being unprofessional.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Apple holds 6.1% US computer market share

In Q4 2006, Apple had its best best quarterly Mac sales ever, with 1.61 million Macs sold. This propelled Apple to the #4 position in the US, with 6.1% US PC market share.

Apple closed at $74.53 today, but after the earnings announcement it jumped to over $78 in after-hours trading.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Handbrake now supports iPod 640x480 H.264

Earlier I lamented the lack of a version of Handbrake that could encode H.264 video up to 640x480 for the iPod. The iPod requires the baseline low complexity H.264 profile in order to be compatible with video at this resolution, but the current Handbrake 0.7.1 release does not support this profile.

Fortunately, there is ongoing development into Handbrake, and the latest development versions of the program now include this profile. The pre-release application is buggy, but it is very promising. I have confirmed it is able to create video that will play back fine on the iPod.

The profile in Handbrake is the x264 encoder's "Baseline profile level 3.0". Using this profile along with an image size of 640x480, an average video bitrate setting of ~1500 Kbps, and an average AAC audio bitrate of 160 Kbps will yield files that are fully compatible with iTunes and the latest iPods.

[Update 2006-10-11]

For widescreen 1.78:1 material, Handbrake defaults to 704x400. Unfortunately, this does not work with the iPod, since iTunes won't allow these files to be copied over to the iPod, despite the fact they are approximately 9% lower resolution than 640x480. However, both 640x368 (1.74:1) and 640x352 (1.82:1) work fine.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Mac Cube DVD-ROM reads dual-layer DVD+R

I have finally had the chance to test DVD+R, DVD-R, dual-layer DVD+R, and dual-layer DVD-R in my Cube's original Matsushita SR-8186 DVD-ROM drive. This drive is using the Y213 firmware, which is a custom region free firmware, but otherwise it is the same as the usual SR-8186 firmware. Here are my results:

DVD-R: Works
DVD-R DL: Does not work*
DVD+R: Does not work
DVD+R bitset: Works
DVD+R DL: Does not work
DVD+R DL bitset: Works

* I have not tested many dual-layer DVD-R discs. So far I have tested only one brand, but it is readable in my other machines, including my 5 year-old Panasonic RP91 DVD player.

The reason the above information may be important is the issue of +R and dual-layer recordable DVD media. Most drives work with single-layer DVD-R natively, but many older drives won't work with single-layer DVD+R or dual-layer DVD media of any kind, when the media's book type is properly set. However, one can get both single and dual-layer DVD+R discs to work on these drives simply by changing their book type.

How does one set the +R book type to DVD-ROM? Unfortunately, only specific burners support this feature. Most will only set +R discs as +R, because that is what they are supposed to do. However, some will allow the user to choose which setting to use, and a few drives just default to the DVD-ROM setting for maximum compatibility. Since my iMac's and MacBook's Pioneer burners don't support bitsetting, I keep an external Firewire bitsetting drive around. It is a Pioneer DVR-110D flashed with a Buffalo bitsetting firmware.

If you need some further information on the various DVD formats, please check out my DVD recordable FAQ. I have not updated it in three years so it completely ignores dual-layer recordable media, but some of it still may be of help to some of you as a basic DVD primer. For more in-depth and up-to-date information, you should also check out Jim Taylor's DVD FAQ.

Friday, September 29, 2006

iPod Software 1.2 doubles battery life

Apple's recently released iPods have a claimed battery life of 3.5 hours for the 30 GB iPod and 6.5 hours for the 80 GB iPod. That's about double the claimed 2 and 3 hour battery life of the previous 30 GB and 60 GB models respectively.

It seems that much (if not all) of that battery life difference is due to software. The latest 1.2 iPod Software adds the new screen brightness adjustment feature to last year's iPod models, which in turn has markedly increased the battery life of these models as well.

I recently purchased a refurbished 30 GB 5G iPod (which is last year's model) to replace my dead iPod mini and have done some testing. With the screen brightness set about halfway to the left (about at the one quarter setting) and audio set at the mid setting, I got 3.5 hours usage out of it, which just so happens is exactly how long the new version is claimed to last. My iPod shut off after precisely 210 minutes of TV show viewing, just a little bit before the end of the fifth 43 minute episode. (These episodes were encoded using QuickTime 7.1.3 with 1.6 Mbps Baseline Low Complexity H.264, at 608x336 or 624x352. The files were just over 500 MB each.) The one quarter setting is perfect for a moderately dark environment, such as on a plane when the overhead lights are off.

I'm sure I could get the iPod to last around 4 hours if I reduced the screen to its lowest brightness setting. In fact there has been a report of an 5G iPod reaching almost 8 hours of playback with 320x240 H.264 video, after the 1.2 iPod update. The same iPod would only last about two hours previously, just as advertised, since the screen was always stuck at full brightness.

By the way, TV playback output is surprisingly good, if the source video is good. Despite the drawbacks of 1.6 Mbps Baseline Low Complexity H.264, it is still a dramatic improvement over the previous 320x240 video on a TV. One side note is that while the iPod uses a non-standard cable for the TV out, any comparable AV cable will do. One just needs to remember that the video signal from a standard AV cable will be on the red output, not the usual yellow output.

Better gaming with games from the iTunes Store is also a new feature in the iPod 1.2 Software. I purchased Pac Man, and besides a few upgrades to the menu features and screen layout, the game is essentially identical to the arcade version. However, controlling the game with the click wheel is a bit tough to get used to.

This latest iPod refresh has proven to be an excellent one, not just for those buying now, but also for those with the previous 5G iPods.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Video card too big for Cube? Use a hacksaw!

When I bought my Apple Power Mac Cube two years ago, the first thing I noticed was how poorly some OS X GUI features like Exposé looked with the stock ATI Rage 128 Pro, a video card that doesn't support Quartz Extreme. One my first upgrade goals was to install a new Quartz Extreme compatible card, and that card was the GeForce 2 MX. First I looked around eBay and found a cheap PC GeForce 2 MX that had been flashed to work on Macs. I bought it hoping it would fit in the Cube, but it didn't. It was just a tad too tall so that it was blocked by the Cube's VRM module. I didn't feel like moving the VRM module, so instead I just ordered an Apple OEM GeForce 2 MX that had been pulled from an old Cube. It was simple to install and worked well for me for 1.5 years.

Unfortunately, that GeForce 2 MX has not been doing very well lately, so I re-installed the old Rage 128 card. The first thing I noticed this time around (besides the stuttery Exposé) was that the Cube didn't seem to work correctly with some QuickTime trailers. With the ATI card, 2.5 Mbps 480p H.264 would stutter, with an average frame rate of about 16-20 fps. Re-installing the GeForce 2 MX card proved that the GPU was important for viewing these videos, because all was smooth again with the GeForce card. (I'm not sure why it helps, but I suspect it has to do with Quartz Extreme, as the GPU doesn't do any H.264 decode assist. The GeForce 2 MX does have 32 MB video RAM, which is twice that of the ATI card, but I'm not sure that is significant here.)

However, as I said, my GeForce 2 MX card was failing. Remembering I had another GeForce 2 MX card in my closet, I decided to do something drastic instead of suffering through using OS X without Quartz Extreme again. And yes, this involved my trusty Mastercraft hacksaw from Canadian Tire.

To make the card fit, I needed to shave several millimetres off the height of the card, so that's what I did. Below is the front view of the card, with the cut made just above an unused connector.

Unfortunately, to do that I actually had to cut several of the board's traces. These are visible on the back of the board, in the picture below. (Click to enlarge.)

I took the chance of doing this since that connector was unused, and all the traces in that region seemed to be important only for that connector.

With that piece cut out, the video card fits into the Cube quite nicely. You'll see that it easily clears a large component at the top of the VRM board.

Actually, the video card touches another component of the VRM board lower down, but there isn't much stress on that board so (for now) I didn't bother cutting another piece out of the video card down lower to match.

The video card won't work with the stock bracket, but fits fine without it.

I am happy to report it all works great. The video card gets fairly hot, but that is par for the course with these fanless GeForce 2 MX cards, which is probably why my prevous one has begun to fail. However, with my newly hacked card, there is no instability whatsoever, and no sleep issues either.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

iTunes 7.0.1 is out

Apple has now released the iTunes 7.0.1 update in Software Update:
iTunes 7.0.1 addresses stability and performance issues with Cover Flow, CD importing, iPod syncing, and more.
Hopefully this will address the many issues people have been having with iTunes 7. Just in time too, since I received my 30 GB video iPod today, to replace my sad iPod mini.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Aperture 1.5 allows custom image libraries

Apple has announced the imminent release of version 1.5 of it popular Aperture photo managment and editing application.

This is a big release, one that addresses most of the issues people have had with previous releases, and one that adds a whole new set of features as well. Significantly, Aperture 1.5 has removed the requirement to use its central proprietary image library, and has added features such as drag and drop JPEG export, etc. Furthermore, the MacBook, Mac mini, and GeForce FX 5200 Ultra are all now officially supported. Added support for the GeForce FX 5200 Ultra means that some early G5 iMacs (with 1.8 GHz G5s) and all G5 Power Macs (with sufficient RAM) now can run this application, whereas previously they couldn't. (Both the Mac mini and MacBook ran Aperture already, but they were not officially supported previously.)

Missing, however, are key features like lens correction filters. I suspect we'll see them next year in Aperture 2.0. I also miss the "panties" that were removed in Aperture 1.0.1. ;)

Creative Pro has published an extensive preview of Aperture 1.5 here.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sad, sad iPod mini

This little trooper has worked tirelessly for me for the last 1.5 years, but alas, my 6 GB iPod mini took one too many falls. (Yes, he's hit the ground more than once.)

I couldn't help but like Apple's sad iPod icon though:

However, not all their icons tug at the heart as much:

As far as I can tell, the drive is the culprit. I tried substituting in a CompactFlash card, but as expected it didn't work.

Apparently, the Apple MicroDrives have a custom firmware so that Apple MicroDrives won't work in third party devices, and third party drives/flash cards generally won't work in iPods. It's too bad the flash cards don't work, because it wiould be great to have a completely solid state mini. I could buy a replacement Seagate or IBM MicroDrive (even up to 8 GB), but it looks like it's time to upgrade.

Now, what to buy... I would have bought a new widescreen iPod, but they don't exist. The 8 GB nano is a great little unit, but unfortunately, it only comes in black. The shuffle is a nice convenient little item given its size and built-in clip. However, I think I'll use my Sony Ericsson K790a phone for now, while I contemplate my options. Where is that Apple iPhone when you need it?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Parallels 1898 eliminates 64-bit Mac kernel panics

Parallels Desktop for Mac is an interesting program that allows one to run a Windows virtual machine from within Mac OS X on Intel Macs. Unlike Boot Camp, there is no need to shut down Mac OS X and reboot into Windows.

I had tested it out on my MacBook, and it worked just fine. It's not as fast running Windows natively under Boot Camp, but because it's not running under emulation, it's much faster than running Virtual PC on PowerPC Macs. In fact, Parallels is almost fast enough to playback 720p HD H.264 video files on an Intel iMac. This is a huge performance increase over Virtual PC. Although Virtual PC is a remarkable program, speed is not one of its fortes.

Unfortunately, on my 24" iMac with 7600 GT, starting a Parallels virtual machine with the latest release version of Parallels immediately causes OS X to kernel panic. Fortunately, there is a release candidate 1898 build which solves the problem for 64-bit Intel Macs, including the new Core 2 Duo iMacs. However, it (reversibly) limits memory usage of the machine to 2 GB. That for now is not a significant issue for me, as I only have 2 GB anyway, but it is a major limitation for Mac Pro users who have more than 2 GB RAM. There is light at the end of the tunnel for Mac Pro users though. Build 1908 is an internal build that solves the memory problem. It may not be completely stable for some people however.

Another glitch on my 24" iMac is that networking in Parallels through wired Ethernet does not work in Windows XP. Fortunately, wireless works, so I can use that for software updates, etc. This is very important on Windows XP for keeping my virus checker up to date of course.

[Update 2006-09-22]

It seems that the 2 GB limitation of Parallels 1898 isn't really 2 GB. It's slightly less than that:

I suppose I can live with the 0.05 GB loss for now. ;)

[Update 2006-09-25]

I installed build 1910 yesterday, which removes the 2 GB memory limitation. I haven't tested it extensively, but it seems to work fine on my Core 2 Duo iMac.

Apple underclocking 7600 GT in 24 inch iMac?

According to this MacRumors forum post, the 7600 GT in the 24" iMac runs at only 500 MHz core and 575 MHz memory. There could be a couple of reasons for this:

1) Apple cheaped out and is using cheaper components
2) Apple felt the heat generated from the GPU at higher clocks could compromise the iMac's reliability.
3) Apple felt the heat generated from the GPU at higher clocks would cause the fan to come on too often and make the iMac louder.

Whatever the reason, at least under Windows XP, one can clock it back to usual PC 7600 GT speeds. Whether that is safe or not is unknown at this time. It would be nice if someone could write such a utility for Mac OS X, to compare performance benchmarks with say Cinebench, Aperture, and 3D games.

Monday, September 18, 2006

iMac Core 2 Duo Benchmarks: It's Fast!

I received my 24" iMac a few days ago, and had a chance over the weekend to work with it a bit and run some benchmarks.

I purchased a nearly fully tricked out machine:

24" 1920x1200 widescreen LCD
2 GB 667 MHz PC-5300 DDR2 SDRAM
Core 2 Duo Merom 2.33 GHz, with 4 MB L2 cache
nVidia GeForce 7600 GT with 256 MB GDDR3
500 GB hard drive
8X DVD±R/W dual-layer burner
Wireless keyboard and wireless Mighty Mouse

The first thing one notices upon opening the box is just how large is the screen. It's a beautiful sight to see that LCD screen in all its 24" glory. In fact, the screen is so large that once I got it on my desk, I found myself having to look up to see the top of it. The 'chin' at the bottom of the iMac made the viewable screen area a little too high for my tastes on my table. I had to lower my table and adjust my chair to compensate for the height of the iMac, since its height cannot be adjusted. It's still not ideal, but I think I'll get used to it. If not, I could always purchase the VESA mount and an arm, so that I can bring the Mac down an inch or so. It's good that Apple brought back VESA compatibility to this design.

The screen quality is impressive, especially for a consumer desktop. The colours are good for an LCD, and the contrast appears better than my previous machine. The brightness is much higher, and actually, it may be too bright for the room its in. I have it on the lowest setting and it's still very bright.

One nice thing is that in Firewire target mode, this machine remains very quiet. This is in stark contrast to my G5 iMac, which does a very good impression of a vacuum cleaner when in target mode. It sounded like a server room in my den when I was copying files off my G5 iMac using this feature.

Apple's account data transfer application works quite well. It's remarkable that apps built for PowerPC work just fine on this Intel iMac with just a direct file copy, with no tweaking necessary. Well, all was not perfect. My install of Photoshop didn't survive the transfer. It ran on the Core 2 Duo iMac but had a couple of weird bugs such as not being able to read .png files. However, I just recopied the application over from the G5 iMac, and all was fine again. No re-install required.

The keyboard and mouse pair up with the machine quite nicely during bootup, much improved compared to the G5 iMac. It's much faster and more reliable. The design of the wireless Mighty Mouse is also an improvement. While I don't like the pseudo secondary button or the side buttons as implemented, the scroll ball is quite welcome. It can also be configured to function as an extra button, which is nice. On the downside, the new keyboard is a step in the wrong direction. The keys have less of a positive 'click' to them, which means that the keyboard feels a bit mushy compared to the older version.

Bootup is quite quick, as might be expected with the newer hard drive and the much faster dual-core CPU. The overall feel of the OS is very smooth, even when multitasking. The benefits of having two cores is obvious, and yet, it's extremely quiet too, even under full load. The rest of the machine is quite similar, aside from having a bigger screen and a louder speaker system. The bass is more full than my 20" iMac's system, but it doesn't sound that much better. While the bass is loud, it's not of stellar quality. Overall the speaker system is an improvement, but not a huge one.

So, just how fast is the new iMac? I'm glad you asked... I've run a series of benchmarks to answer this question.

The first test was Handbrake. In my previous Handbrake test the MacBook Core Duo (2.0 GHz with 2 GB RAM) dominated the G5 iMac (2.0 GHz 970FX, 1.5 GB RAM, Radeon 9600 128MB). The results with the iMac Core 2 Duo were similar. The test involved exporting a single 149 second DVD chapter (off the hard drive) to an MPEG4 file, using the default settings of the software.

iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo: 52.2 seconds, 70.4 fps
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo: 54.9 seconds, 67.2 fps
iMac 2.0 G5 970FX: 266.4 seconds, 13.6 fps

In this test the iMac Core 2 Duo was only about 5% faster than the MacBook, despite having a 16.7% clockspeed advantage, as well as twice as much L2 cache. That was a little disappointing, as I was expecting more out of the iMac Core 2 Duo. The iMac G5 for some reason is extremely slow in this application.

The second test run was unzipping a file. To my surprise the Core 2 Duo just flew here. It was 2.6X as fast as the G5 iMac, and 1.6X as fast as the MacBook.

iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo: 5.2 s
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo: 8.6 s
iMac 2.0 G5 970FX: 13.5 s

Cinebench was the third test. Again, the iMac Core 2 Duo shone, both in the CPU tests as well as the GPU tests.

Note that the MacBook's hardware shading score is worse than its software shading score, due to the fact that much of the MacBook's GMA 950 3D functionality is emulated on the CPU. The Radeon 9600 in the iMac G5 handily beats it, but is of course no match for the GeForce 7600 GT in the iMac Core 2 Duo.

The fourth test was another video encoding test, this time using the DivX encoder that ships with Roxio Toast 7. This is an interesting test because it only recently went universal, and I as able to test both the PowerPC version as well as the universal binary that supports Intel CPUs. The test involved encoding the 720p Macaulay Library clip to a DivX file at the same resolution. As expected, the Intel-based machines did very poorly with the PowerPC version of the program, since they needed to use Rosetta translation. They did much better with the Intel native version of the software, with the iMac Core 2 Duo about 30% faster than the MacBook Core Duo. However, the iMac G5 still was the fastest in this test by about 16%, despite having only one core to work with.

(Toast 7.0.2 is the PowerPC version, and runs under Rosetta on Intel Macs. Toast 7.1 is a universal binary and runs natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs.)

iMac 2.0 G5 970FX (Toast 7.0.2): 11' 03"
iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo (Toast 7.1): 12' 49"
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo (Toast 7.1): 16' 43"
iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo (Toast 7.0.2): 19' 05"
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo (Toast 7.0.2): 29' 32"

One new test I tried was Geekbench 2006, a command line benchmarking application which is cross platform, supporting Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows. On Mac OS X it's useful not only to compare different machines, but also to compare native applications to applications running under Rosetta, as there are both versions of this program. The application consists of a series of independent tests, which are then combined to create a final score:

iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo (native): 227.9
iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo (Rosetta): 156.8
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo (native): 179.0
iMac 2.0 G5 970FX (native): 106.5
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo (Rosetta): 105.5

The iMac G5 did quite poorly, but a fair number of tests in this bench are of memory performance. The iMac G5 has 1.5 GB, unmatched 512 MB + 1024 MB, which may affect its performance in the synthetic memory tests.

The last test was with Aperture. It was amusing to see this screen when I installed Aperture 1.0 and tried to run it:

I guess the compatibility check routine didn't like Intel chips too much, which isn't surprising given that Intel Macs didn't exist when Aperture 1.0 was released. However, I continued with the installation of the updates and was greeted with a nice smooth running application in Aperture 1.1.2. In fact, it felt faster than even a dual G5 2.5 with Radeon 6800 Ultra I had tried previously (although that was with an older version of the software). To give you and idea of how fast it is with edits, I've captured a small video of Aperture in action (5.3 MB) with my camcorder. Edits were near instantaneous, although at times there was a split second delay before the controls responded. This is a huge improvement in feel over the G5 iMac, which often had a several second delay before any changes were applied. To better quantify the speeds, I exported a project of edited 8 Megapixel Canon RAW files to JPEG files. As expected, the iMac Core 2 Duo was the fastest by a large margin.

iMac 2.33 Core 2 Duo: 50.2 s
MacBook 2.0 Core Duo: 79.6 s
iMac 2.0 G5 970FX: 141.4 s

Overall, we knew the new 24" iMac was going to be fast, but it's also a nice design, at a good price. It's a clear winner, and has become Apple's desktop Mac of choice even for some wishing to run pro applications on a budget.

[Update 2006-09-19]

It seems the most significant issue with Aperture is memory usage. I've been playing around in Aperture some more, watching CPU and memory usage using Activity Monitor. While CPU usage can sometimes jump to around 180% (90% per core), it's the memory usage that can really slow things down. In my usage I often need over 1 GB for Aperture alone, which can cause my 2 GB machine to page out memory to disk.

When 2 GB SO-DIMMs become available at more realistic prices, I will be buying one for this machine, to take the memory to a total of 3 GB. (There are only two slots, so I will have to remove 1 x 1 GB.) This will decrease memory performance somewhat because the memory will be unmatched and the system will no longer be able to make use of memory interleaving. Because of that the performance will decrease in some parts of certain applications, including Aperture, but overall performance will improve because paging to disk will be reduced significantly.

It seems the ideal system for the iMac will be based on the upcoming Santa Rosa chipset. Not only will it support an increased memory bus speed (800 MHz), it will also support more memory. The current Napa chipset supports up to 3 GB only, hence the memory limitation of the current 24". Santa Rosa won't have this limitation, which means that 2 x 2 GB with full memory interleaving should be available in the the new iMac in spring 2007. Unfortunately, that's probably around 8 or 9 months from now, and while by that time 667 MHz 2 GB SO-DIMMs will likely have dropped significantly in price, 800 MHz 2 GB SO-DIMMs will probably be much more expensive.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

iPod H.264 video quality test

QuickTime 7.1.3 brings us new 640x480 H.264 video files that are compatible with the latest iPods (and the last generation iPods after the 1.2 software update).

However, as suspected, the 1.5 Mbps video bitrate limitation (along with the encoder settings) can be problematic with some content.

To illustrate this, I have taken this Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology HD video and re-encoded it to 320x180 (0.8 Mbps, 11.5 MB) using QuickTime 7.1.2 and 640x360 (1.6 Mbps, 23.1 MB) using QuickTime 7.1.3, with their respective default "Export Movie to iPod" settings.

Although the re-encoded 640x360 video looks fairly good in most areas, unfortunately in some spots the results are not pretty.

Here is a screengrab of the original high definition video, scaled down to 640x360 in QuickTime Player:

Here is the HD video re-encoded to 640x360 using QuickTime 7.1.3's "Export Movie to iPod" function:

Here is the HD video re-encoded to 320x180 using QuickTime 7.1.2's "Export Movie to iPod" function, and scaled up to 640x360 in QuickTime Player:

While there is (not surprisingly) a noticeable improvement going from 320x180 to 640x360 when viewing video at larger screen sizes, a higher bitrate (or different settings) for the latter would have been preferred. Unfortunately, it's likely that hardware limitations of the iPod prevent use of higher bitrate H.264, since it may be too difficult for the iPod's CPU to decode cleanly. (This is in contrast to last year's 320x240 H.264 limitation, which seems now to have been an intentional software limitation.) Overall though, the video looks pretty reasonable, and will satisfy most users, even with TV playback from the iPod.

[Update 2006-09-14]

It appears that several third party video encoders do not support the Baseline Low Complexity Profile required by the iPod for 640x480 H.264 video. For example, video encoded at that resolution directly from DVD using the popular Handbrake application does not work on the iPod. MPEG4 video continues to work fine, however.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

iTunes 7 and new iPods released. And iTV!

As predicted, Apple released new iPods and iTunes 7. Of particular interest is the fact that the iPod can now display 640x480 H.264 at 1.5 Mbps. It's not quite the 720x480 at 2.0 Mbps I had hoped, but it is still a major step forward and sufficient for years to come. Close enough. However, I would consider avoiding installing iTunes 7 for now, since many people are reporting that it has serious memory leak issues, with iTunes sometimes eating up as much as half a GB of memory. On the other hand, the new CoverFlow feature (programmed by none other than Catfish at Ars) is very nice, as are other features such as the ability to classify media by type. The new GUI may be an acquired taste, but we'd better get used to it, since we'll probably be seeing much more of it in OS X 10.5 Leopard.

The new iPod shuffle has undergone quite the form factor change. It's sooo tiny, despite having a 1 GB capacity. The iPod nanos got a memory capacity upgrade, as well as colours similar to the previous iPod mini, although it's rather odd though that the 8 GB version only comes in black. In addition, both the shuffle and nano are now made of metal.

The predictions of a new set top media box also proved accurate. Apple previewed a device codenamed iTV for our living rooms. This device comes with HDMI and component outputs, and can play back video from the internet or a computer with iTunes over a wired or wireless network. It will not be released until 2007 however.

Now all we need is that iPod phone...

It's Showtime

If you open up iTunes and try to enter the Music Store, you are now greeted with the above screen in anticipation of Apple's media related event today titled "It's Showtime".

It's telling that the screen says the "iTunes Store" is being updated, not the "iTunes Music Store". This lends support to the widely held belief that the event is about movie downloads. Along with this is likely the release of a new version of iTunes, as well as possibly a new series of iPods. Some have also speculated about other new hardware, such as an Airport Express with video support, or a set top box for the living room.

The event is scheduled to take place at 10 am PST, so we will know all the details in just a few more hours.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Apple Taiwan selling Intel "iMac G5"


Apple back in the SPEC game

In recent times, Apple had not submitted CPU performance results to the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation, presumably because the G4 processors used in Macs lagged so far behind competing x86 processors. Apple pushed SPEC benchmarks when it started using the G5, but never formally submitted those benchmark results. Similarly, they have used SPEC to promote its new Intel Macs in marketing materials, but Apple has also recently started submitting SPEC benchmark results officially.

For marketing purposes, Apple uses the SPEC2000 benchmarks probably because that's what most of the world uses. However, Apple has only officially submitted results for the brand new SPEC CPU2006 series of benchmarks. Currently the only results available are for the previous iMac Core Duo 2.0 model, with SPECint_base200 = 10.1, and SPECfp_base2006 = 8.88. At least for integer performance, that puts the Intel Core Duo 2.0 in the ballpark of the 2.6 GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60, despite being a low power laptop oriented chip. (These Core Duo benchmarks are performed under Mac OS X, and use the latest Intel compilers. It should be noted however, that these Linux Athlon benchmarks are performed with gcc, which may be slower.)

It will be interesting to see how a 2.33 GHz Core 2 Duo Merom fares in these tests. My guess is that it should be close to 50% faster than Core Duo 2.0. That's what Apple claims for SPEC CPU2000 at least:

Thursday, September 07, 2006

24 inch iMac GPU is upgradable?

The French language Mac news site macgeneration reports that the 24 inch iMac utilizes the MXM standard for the video card.

This brings us the possibility that in the future one may be able to upgrade the 24" iMac's GPU. However, doing so may not be easy.

I also expect the iMac's CPU is socketed, given that previous Intel Macs have socketed CPUs, but so far we do not have confirmation of that.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

24 inch iMac released

Just a few days ago we were talking about a rumoured 23" iMac. The rumours were wrong. It's 24 inches:

24-inch widescreen LCD
1920x1200 resolution
2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor
4MB shared L2 cache
1GB memory (2x512MB SO-DIMM)
250GB Serial ATA hard drive
8x double-layer SuperDrive (DVD+R DL, DVD±RW, CD-RW)
NVIDIA GeForce 7300GT with 128MB GDDR3 memory
Built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0
Apple Remote

£1349.01 (£1148.09 ex VAT)
Eur 1949 and up

As expected, it also comes with Core 2 Duo, at an impressive 2.16 GHz with 4 MB L2 cache, with the option of an upgrade to 2.33 GHz. It also comes with an nVidia GeForce 7300GT with 128MB GDDR3. While the 7300GT and the older ATI Radeon X1600 compete in the same ballpark, the GeForce should be faster on average. More importantly however, there is also an option for the 7600GT with 256 MB RAM, a no-brainer upgrade for gamers and Aperture & Motion users given the low cost. In addition, this machine comes with Firewire 800 too, the first consumer Mac to do so. Very impressive.

All in all, this is an excellent package.

Also impressive is the low end iMac. Apple has released a Core 2 Duo 17" iMac with GMA 950 graphics. The specs are not so impressive, but the price is, at $999. This is the ideal machine for many entry-level consumers, at an affordable price.

[Update 2006-09-08]

It looks like we Canadians are getting a bit of a price break for a change. The 7600 GT GPU upgrade costs C$90 in Canada, or about US$80 at current exchange rates. It's US$125 in the US.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

23-inch iMac Core 2 Duo coming?

Several weeks ago I speculated that this summer might see the release of an iMac with Conroe, a desktop-oriented version of the 64-bit Core 2 Duo CPU. Well, at WWDC we got the quad Intel Mac Pros I predicted, but we didn't get the new iMacs. Both MacOSXRumors and AppleInsider now believe the next iMac is coming this month and it is going to be based off the laptop-oriented Merom Core 2 Duo instead. That would be a good thing in some ways actually, considering that Merom is lower power than Conroe and therefore a Merom iMac may be quieter than a Conroe iMac. The downside is that it's also slower. Nonetheless, GHz for GHz, it's still a significant performance improvement over the 32-bit Yonah Core Duo in current Intel iMacs.

What's more interesting from those reports, however, is that they predict a new 23" model. That would be a wonderful addition to the iMac line, and given current LCD panel prices, it's also actually feasible. The 23" screen's 1920x1200 resolution represents a 30% increase in screen area compared to the current 20", but despite the large size, a 23-incher has finally become reasonably affordable in 2006. Such a machine, armed with a 2.0+ GHz Merom Core 2 Duo and a reasonable GPU, would make for an excellent high end consumer desktop. In fact, it would also be perfect for many users of so-called "pro" applications, such as Aperture. I've been desiring an iMac like this for years.

Another thing to note is that the horizontal resolution of 1920 pixels is exactly the same size as for 1080p high definition video (1920x1080) in HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Thus, it would be ideal if the new iMac supported HDCP for future commercial HD movie playback. Unfortunately, the optical drives for these HD formats are likely currently too expensive for an iMac, but having HDCP support would still be an nice bonus, since external HD-DVD and Blu-ray drives should become affordable in the near future.

The 23" iMac still remains unconfirmed, but in the meantime, Stefanicotine has created a mockup of what an 23" iMac would look like and has graciously allowed me to show it here:

She's a beauty, isn't she?

[Update 2006-09-04]

Think Secret now also reports that a new 23" iMac will be released this month, and repeats the September 12 date reported by others. September 12 is the first day of Apple Expo, and the day that Apple is said to be hosting a special media event in San Francisco.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Next Intel iMac: What CPU?

Core 2 Duo is set to launch tomorrow, July 27, 2006, and many people are wondering if the iMacs will be updated to use these chips. The timing would be right, considering the last iMac update was in January, over 6 months ago. However, let us look at the options:

1) Core Duo: This 32-bit chip is what the iMacs use now, and the upgrade path would be the next step up to Core Duo T2600 2.16 GHz. This is a viable option, but the pricing of this chip is a bit high at least for now, at $423 (in trays of 1000, although Apple would pay less).

2) Core 2 Duo Merom: Merom is a direct 64-bit replacement for Core Duo, but unfortunately the cost of these chips is comparatively high. The 2.16 GHz T7600 is slated to be $423 as well, so the cost of the T7600 also may be undesirable. While the 2.0 GHz T7200 is only $294, and Merom Core 2 Duo is clock-for-clock faster than Yonah Core Duo, the 2.0 GHz Merom wouldn't be ideal from a marketing point of view since the current Core Duo is already 2.0 GHz.

3) Core 2 Duo Conroe: This 64-bit desktop chip based off Merom is a strong possibility from a marketing point of view. Apple could launch the iMac with the new Core 2 Duo E6600, a 2.4 GHz chip with 4 MB L2 cache. That's quite a clock-speed and performance boost for the iMac, but with a chip price of only $316.

The one issue of concern with Core 2 Duo Conroe is its TDP of 65 Watts. This is considerably higher than the 31 Watt TDP of the current Core Duo, and likely also higher than the G5's max power in the last PowerPC iMacs. However, the last PowerPC iMacs were not all that cool either, considering the G5 970FX's max power utilization at 2.0 GHz and 2.2 GHz was 50 and 60 Watts respectively, and the last PowerPC iMac was at 2.1 GHz. While TDP cannot be directly compared to IBM's max power specs, it is likely in the same general ballpark, which suggests that the iMac can easily handle chips over 50 Watts. Given my experience with my own 2.0 GHz iMac, it's clear that the machine is built to handle something even hotter, since the machine doesn't get that loud even at full tilt. Along with the fact that dual-core Intel CPU has superior power saving features and that it would need less of its CPU to support basic usage, that would mean that an iMac with such a chip would still be quiet with normal daily computing.

Thus, I think it's likely that the next iMac will use Core 2 Duo Conroe, probably at around 2.4 GHz. The venue for its release may be WWDC next month, alongside new quad (dual dual-core) Intel Xeon Woodcrest Mac Pro towers.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Video: MacBook running Windows Vista with Aero Glass

In previous articles, I said that Vista should run fine on the MacBook, even with its poor GMA 950 graphics. The Vista Beta 2 download was made public last week, and I finally got around to installing it on my MacBook. The full Aero Glass indeed does work fine on my 2.0 GHz Core Duo MacBook. Below is an H.264 Quicktime video (in two sizes) demonstating what Aero Glass looks like:

Small (640x360p, 25 MB)
Large (960x540p, 32 MB)

Note: The video was taken a low frame rate, so it appears jerky. However, in real life the animation is very smooth on the MacBook.

Although Windows Vista does run, I wouldn't necessarily recommend installing it just yet on Macs. It still has a very beta feel to it, and the install process is difficult, much harder than with Windows XP. Vista will not boot properly on Macs using the Boot Camp application as is. After installation, one must delete a hidden 200 MB partition to get Vista to boot properly.

There are also various driver issues. For example, Aero Glass does not work with the usual Intel 945GM drivers, so one must use the Intel Lakeport WDDM drivers instead. Furthermore, sound does not seem to work properly with the Sigmatel drivers. Wired and wireless LAN works great however.

P.S. As you can see from the video, Flip 3D is basically useless.

[Update 2006-06-16]

Here is another Quicktime H.264 clip, this time at 30 fps. I had to use a camcorder to capture this however.

30 fps Vista video (640x480p, 7.3 MB)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Hon Hai exec spills beans about new "none-touch" iPod

An article in the China Post quotes Terry Gou, Chairman of Hon Hai (one of Apple's major manufacturing partners), as saying that Apple is about to release a new iPod line which will make use of a "none-touch" concept. This was not clarified but sounds like it could possibly be referring to a new iPod without the traditional clickwheel. Perhaps this is confirmation of the long rumoured touchscreen widescreen video iPod.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

MacBook & G5 iMac benchmark Part 2: Photoshop and Exposé

Here is our second set of benchmarking tests on the iMac G5 2.0 vs. the MacBook Core Duo 2.0. The first set of benchmarks were detailed in this article.

We tested Photoshop CS2 using the Photoshop benchmark, which consists of a 3.42 MB file run through a battery of scripted Photoshop actions.

Not surprisingly, the iMac easily bests the MacBook, since Photoshop is running natively on the single-core G5 and under Rosetta on the dual-core MacBook. The difference was about 25%.

What was interesting to note though was the fact that although the MacBook had 2.0 GB of RAM, it paged out to the hard drive much more often than the 1.0 GB G4 Power Mac Cube and the iMac. In fact, that 1.5 GB iMac G5 never paged to disk at all. However, further checking revealed the iMac had only 50% of it's 1.5 GB (735 MB) allocated to Photoshop, whereas the MacBook had 70% of its 2.0 GB (1374 MB) allocated. I repeated the test on the MacBook with it also set to 50% (981 MB) and curiously, all the pageouts disappeared, but the time was almost exactly the same, this time taking 3 seconds longer. I'm not sure exactly why I got the results I got, but suffice it to say that Photoshop on the MacBook under Rosetta isn't particularly fast, with the test times with both settings both noticeably longer than the iMac's.

The second benchmark I did was simply to test Exposé performance with a lot of windows open. Both the iMac and the MacBook were connected up via VGA to a Dell W2606C LCD TV with a 1360x768 screen resolution. All other windows were closed, but multiple Safari windows measuring 1013x772 in size were opened, until Exposé began to lag.
Exposé stutter threshold (Higher is better)
iMac G5: 31 Safari windows
MacBook: 15 Safari windows
The fact that the iMac could open around twice as many windows before lagging sounds about right considering that the iMac has 128 MB video RAM with its Radeon 9600, twice the 64 MB on the MacBook. On Apple's MacBook page, it hints that GMA 950 may be able to use more than 64 MB in OS X. It says "Memory available to Mac OS X may vary depending on graphics needs. Minimum graphics memory usage is 80MB", but in tests the Apple System Profiler continued to state a 64 MB video RAM allocation, and the Exposé lag persisted after repeated Exposé activation. Note though that with just the MacBook screen (without the additional external screen), Exposé could handle many more open windows before it began to stutter. Basically what this test means is that ideally for a dual-monitor 2D setup, 128 MB is preferred if you wish to maintain smooth-as-butter GUI eye candy. For a single 1280x800 screen however, 64 MB is fine. This result concurs with the Exposé results from the AnandTech Power Mac G5 review from a couple of years ago. In that test they felt that the 64 MB Radeon 9600 was insufficient for good dual-screen Exposé, but a video card with more memory worked great.

2007 may prove to be an interesting year for the MacBook. Photoshop will go Intel native in 2007. Also, by then the MacBook will most likely have an updated GPU, and it's possible that Apple could change the OS X GPU shared memory setting to include a 128 MB (or more) option, at least in OS X 10.5 Leopard. It's true that for most practical non-3D work, the MacBook is very responsive already, but the new features could make the MacBook an even more complete all-in-one small laptop.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pro Tools 7 now supports Intel Macs

Pro Tools, one of the flagship music applications on the Mac platform, has finally gotten support for Intel Macs. Intel Mac support was announced previously, but the downloads for Pro Tools LE 7.1.1 & Pro Tools M-Powered 7.1.1 were finally posted at Digidesign's website yesterday.

Interestingly, it is not a universal binary. The 7.1.1 update adds Intel Mac support, but only works on Intel Macs. Those with PowerPC Macs will continue to use version 7.1, which has identical functionality.

This is an important milestone for Apple, since previous versions of Pro Tools did not work on Intel Macs at all, even under Rosetta. Other major hurdles for Apple to overcome in this Intel x86 Mac transition are the universal binaries of Adobe Creative Suite 3 (which is not due until 2007), and QuarkXPress 7 (which is due in the second half of this year). Fortunately, these at least work in Rosetta, albeit slowly. Microsoft Office is also a flagship Mac program which is still running under Rosetta, but fortunately, speed in Office is not a critical issue for most people. Office performance on Intel Macs is slow, but it remains quite usable for most.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

MacBook & G5 iMac benchmarked: Handbrake, Aperture, and much more

Now that I've had a few days with my MacBook with new RAM installed, I've been able to properly compare the performance in various applications on my my MacBook and my iMac G5. My MacBook has 2 GB of PC2-5300 RAM, an 80 GB 5400 rpm 2.5" drive, Intel GMA 950 graphics (using 64 MB system RAM), and a Core Duo 2.0 CPU. The iMac has 1.5 GB of PC-3200 RAM, a 500 GB 7200 rpm 3.5" drive, Radeon 9600 graphics (with 128 MB dedicated video RAM), and a G5 970FX 2.0 (single-core).

I was shocked and overjoyed to see just how well the MacBook performs in one of my favourite applications, Handbrake 0.71, which I use to convert DVD clips to H.264 for archival purposes. I tried encoding a 6:03 minute 4:3 640x480 clip of my friends and me jumping out of a plane (seriously), at 1000 Kbps main profile H.264 with video deinterlacing, and 128 Kbps 44100 Hz AAC audio.

The above graph shows what Handbrake recorded as the average frame rate for the first pass of a two-pass encode. The iMac took just a shade over 25 minutes, whereas the MacBook took only 7 minutes and 15 seconds! In other words the MacBook has 350% the performance of the iMac, despite having only 200% of the CPU GHz.

Similarly, Aperture 1.1.1 shone on the MacBook compared to the iMac, despite the fact that Aperture is fully supported on the iMac and not on the MacBook.

The Aperture test consisted of a web page export of a project I shot a few months ago at the local market. The pictures were mildly edited Canon 20D 8 Megapixel RAW files, exported to an HTML webpage from within Aperture. Despite the fact that the GMA 950 in the MacBook is terrible at 3D work, I suspect most of the export time (including RAW conversion) is CPU based, and of course the MacBook has CPU performance in spades. However, one should realize that my Aperture test included mainly only lightly edited pictures, which may not tax the GPU as much as heavily edited pictures. If one plans to use a laptop as a primary photo editing machine with Aperture, a MacBook Pro is thus recommended because GPU performance is still very important for optimal overall performance. Furthermore, a larger screen is easier to work with when using Aperture.

In Cinebench 9.5, the MacBook again flexed its CPU muscles.

The MacBook was more than twice as fast at CPU rendering. However, things changed when 3D GPU performance became important:

The MacBook did fine in the software OpenGL lighting test, but that's a CPU-based benchmark. When it came to the hardware OpenGL lighting test however, the MacBook fell far behind the iMac G5 with its Radeon 9600. The reason for this is that the MacBook's GMA 950 does not have hardware support for this function, and must therefore emulate it on the CPU. It actually did a little bit worse in its faked hardware score than its software score.

All of the above benchmarks are with applications that are native on both Intel and PowerPC, and which are able to leverage dual CPU cores. What about applications under Rosetta (which translates PowerPC instructions to x86 on-the-fly), and Rosetta on applications that are not well dual-optimized? Not surprisingly, the MacBook does extremely poorly in these types of applications.

One of the flagship applications on the Mac platform is Microsoft Office. I use PowerPoint 2004 a fair bit, and in this test I exported a 30 MB PowerPoint presentation (with lots of JPEG images) to a web page. In this particular test, the iMac is almost 3 times as fast as the MacBook. It took almost 2 minutes to do something that took only 41 seconds on the iMac. One can feel the difference in daily usage too, since application and file loading in Office on the MacBook as well as various other functions feel somewhat sluggish. Office is still quite usable on the MacBook though.

Finally, just for kicks, I ran Skidmarks GT 4.0.1, a PowerPC application found in the developer tools and used for quick and dirty PowerPC benchmarking:

These scores seem to parallel the PowerPoint scores, with the iMac being roughly 2X-4X as fast as the MacBook in the non-vector benchmarks. Luckily, applications like those in MS Office aren't heavily dependent on Altivec for their functionality. While Rosetta does seem to support Altivec, it is very, very slow at it as would be expected under emulation.

Overall, the MacBook is an excellent machine for its pricepoint. It's a budget machine but with pro-level CPU power. The low end GPU can be problematic for some, but for many others it's not an issue at all. Rosetta is still a concern, but it's a concern not just with the MacBook, but with all Intel Macs. Fortunately, most of the big applications should be Intel native by next year, rendering the Rosetta issue moot. In the meantime, I'll be encoding quite a bit of H.264 video on my new laptop with Intel Inside™.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Reasonable Aperture 1.1 performance on MacBook

I mentioned earlier that the MacBook runs Aperture. I finally had a chance to install it on the MacBook, and the performance on the MacBook Core Duo 2.0 GHz is actually quite reasonable. In fact, it feels faster on the MacBook than it does on my iMac G5 2.0 GHz. The MacBook isn't exactly fast on edited photos, but the reason it feels faster than the iMac is due to the fact that RAW conversions are much faster. This is not surprising, considering that RAW conversions in Aperture are still CPU-based, and the Core Duo has roughly twice the raw processing power (forgive the pun) of a single-core G5 2.0.

The only issue is that Aperture 1.1.1 now gives a warning when the application is launched on the MacBook, saying that the minimum screen size supported is 1280x854. These screen size complaints are getting rather tiresome. First it was 1024x768, which is reasonable. Then it was 1280x780 for Aperture 1.1, and now it's 1280x854. Curiously, it seems like each time the minimum resolution increased, it was a direct response to low end Mac hardware that could run the program. The last iBook ran Aperture 1.0, so Apple upped the requirement to 1280x780 for Aperture 1.1. However, just a couple of weeks prior to the MacBook release, Apple then upped the requirement again in the Aperture 1.1.1 update to 1280x854, which of course is the resolution of the 15" PowerBooks and MacBook Pros. The good news though is that the warning in Aperture 1.1.1 is meaningless for MacBook users, since the program still loads and runs fine. By the way, despite all the revisions in stated minimum screen resolution requirements, the true minimum size has remained at 1000x685, even in the latest version of Aperture.

Monday, May 22, 2006

MacBook: First impressions and 10 quick comments

My MacBook is still en route from Suzhou so I don't have it in my hands yet, but the good news is that it's already in the local FedEx sort facility so I should have it in a few days. In the meantime I checked out the MacBook at the local Mac store...

1) When I first looked at that MacBook on display, for a split-second I was confused as to why the OS looked so strange. Then I realized it was running Windows XP. :p For basic usage, Windows XP is very fast on the stock MacBook with 512 MB RAM, but Mac OS X often is not. With the additional RAM needed for the GPU and for Rosetta, Tiger is starved for memory. After loading several applications to memory, the MacBook needs to page out to disk, slowing the whole system down. While I consider 512 MB memory to be the minimum for a usable PowerPC Mac, I'd say the minimum for an Intel Mac with GMA 950 is significantly higher. 768 MB would probably be OK for basic usage, but unfortunately for video performance reasons, the MacBook needs paired RAM, and thus the minimum memory effectively becomes 1 GB.
2) The MacBook uses the Intel 945GM chipset.
3) Microsoft Word speed seems acceptable. It is not fast on the MacBook, but it is fast enough enough for everyday usage.
4) The glossy screen is very irritating to use under certain lighting conditions. In the store there was relatively bright overhead lighting and I had to keep moving the screen and/or my body position slightly to eliminate glare while still maintaining a good viewing angle. The glossy screen in my opinion is probably the MacBook's worst "feature", because of the glare. I do admit that the contrast is somewhat better than the old 12" iBook's screen, but that doesn't make up for the glare. Viewing angle on both screens are similarly poor.
5) The look of the black MacBook is quite nice. The matte black finish is very pleasing... until you see the fingerprints. The surface of the black MacBook looked like somebody had smeared grease all over it. And actually that's true... The grease from our human fingers was painfully and disgustingly obvious on the black MacBook. It was still there on the white MacBook of course, but it's much, much harder to see. For this reason, and along with the fact that the black MacBook costs significantly more, I think most people would be better off purchasing the white MacBook. The good news is that I did not see any flaking of the black finish, but I did not try to scratch the finish.
6) The MacBook does seem heavier and bulkier than the 12" iBook and 12" PowerBook, but that's not surprising since the MacBook is heavier and much wider. However, despite the greater weight, the 13" MacBook is actually smaller than the 12" iBook. Because the MacBook is much thinner (and sleeker looking) than the 12" iBook, it takes up less overall volume (2029 cubic cm) than the iBook (2242 cubic cm). However, it still takes up more volume than the 12" PowerBook (1820 cubic cm).
7) "Right-clicking" on the new MacBook: Sticking two fingers on the trackpad and then clicking the button brings up the contextual menu. This the best thing since sliced bread... Well, not quite, but it's certainly the best thing since two-finger scrolling (which was introduced on recent iBooks and PowerBooks). It's very intuitive, and it eliminates the requirement for an annoying second button, or use of a CTRL key.
8) The built-in iSight seems of reasonable quality. The camera is barely noticeable, but it is surprisingly effective despite its small size.
9) Contrary to popular belief, the keyboard spacing/sizing is normal, despite the different design and shape of the keys. The feel is a slight improvement overall, but nothing special in my opinion. It's mainly just different. It does look like it may not touch the screen though when the screen is closed. If true, that's is an improvement.
10) The SuperDrive in the MacBook I tested was the Matsushita UJ-857. It is the same 4X DVD-R 9.5 mm tall drive found in 15" MacBook Pros, and it does not support dual-layer burning.

By the way, it was interesting to see a young teenage customer in the store eyeing the MacBook, while clutching a copy of World of Warcraft. Fortunately, the salesperson eventually steered him away from the MacBook and pointed him towards the iMac.

Contrary to popular myth, gaming is very popular for customers in the iBook and MacBook market. It's reasonable not to expect a MacBook to run Quake 4 smoothly, but it's unfortunate that older generation games such as World of Warcraft can be still be problematic 2006 Mac hardware, especially when that hardware has such a fast CPU in the Core Duo. The option of a better GPU in a higher cost MacBook (like the black version) is still desirable. This would be the perfect machine for those in the market for a small portable machine and who do not wish to be forced to buy a desktop or a bigger, bulkier, and more expensive MacBook Pro.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

More on MacBook Vista compatibility

In the last article I commented on potential Vista compatibility for the MacBook and said that judging by the specs, the MacBook should support Aero Glass on Windows Vista. Some further points:

1) Intel recommends Core Duo with the Intel 945 series chipsets (which utilizes GMA 950) for Vista compatibility.
2) The Intel Mac mini uses Intel 945, and presumably so does the MacBook (although we have not yet received confirmation of this).
3) Intel already has written a WDDM driver for Intel 945 on Vista.
4) Despite the fact that OS X allocates only 64/80 MB of system RAM for use by the GPU on the Mac mini, Windows XP allocates 256 MB (provided one has enough system RAM), which is more than sufficient for Vista even with large screens. It is clear that the Mac mini's 64/80 MB GPU RAM limitation is not a hardware limitation.
5) Not only was there that video showing GMA 950 support, PC World also confirmed full Aero Glass functionality on an Acer laptop with Intel 945.

So far I have not seen anyone who has tested Vista on the MacBook, but I'm sure that will come soon enough. It would be nice if someone could at least test the MacBook with the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, but unfortunately the download is no longer available.

[Update 2006-05-22]

The Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor is now back up.

Also, I have now confirmed that the MacBook uses the Intel 945GM chipset (which is not big surprise considering that's the chipset found in the Mac mini, and we already knew that the MacBook has the GMA 950). Intel has this to say about the chipset and Vista compatibility: "Mobile Intel® 945GM Express Chipset family platforms using 512MB of system memory or greater meet all current requirements for the Microsoft Windows Vista* Capable PC program."

[Update 2006-05-22]

c|net weighs in:
Last week, Microsoft released a test version of its "Upgrade Advisor," a downloadable tool that aims to tell users how Vista-ready their system is.

Ironically, the machine that was in the best shape for Vista, at least according to the tool, was a loaner Mac Mini with 1GB of memory. That system was Aero-ready, according to the tool, as long as I devoted more of the system's modest hard drive over to the Windows partition. It needed 15GB of the drive to be free, and most of the free space was over on the Mac side of the house.
Screengrabs of the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor running on incompletely supported PCs are here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Windows Vista system requirements announced, MacBook fully supported

Microsoft today announced the system requirements for Windows Vista, its new operating system being developed to replace Windows XP:
A Windows Vista Capable PC includes at least:

A modern processor (at least 800MHz).
512 MB of system memory.
A graphics processor that is DirectX 9 capable.

Windows Vista Premium Ready PCs

To get an even better Windows Vista experience, including the Windows Aero user experience, ask for a Capable PC that is designated Premium Ready, or choose a PC that meets or exceeds the Premium Ready requirements described below. Features available in specific premium editions of Windows Vista, such as the ability to watch and record live TV, may require additional hardware.

A Windows Vista Premium Ready PC includes at least:

1 GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor.
1 GB of system memory.
A graphics processor that runs Windows Aero.
128 MB of graphics memory.
40 GB of hard drive capacity with 15 GB free space.
DVD-ROM Drive.
Audio output capability.
Internet access capability.

Windows Vista Capable and Premium Ready footnotes

Windows Aero requires:
DirectX 9 class graphics processor that:
Supports a WDDM Driver.
Supports Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware.
Supports 32 bits per pixel.
Adequate graphics memory.
64 MB of graphics memory to support a single monitor less than 1,310,720 pixels
128 MB of graphics memory to support a single monitor at resolutions from 1,310,720 to 2,304,000 pixels
256 MB of graphics memory to support a single monitor at resolutions higher than 2,304,000 pixels
Meets graphics memory bandwidth requirements, as assessed by Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor running on Windows XP

What this means is that the new 13" MacBook should be fully supported as a Windows Vista Premium Ready PC... errr... Mac, as long as 1 GB or more RAM is installed. The MacBook's integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics has the required features for Aero Glass, which includes things such as translucent windows elements. Proving this is this video which demonstrates a beta version of Windows Vista running with full Aero Glass functionality on Intel GMA 950.

Black MacBook may have problems with its matte finish

There is at least one report out there that states the finish on the matte black MacBook can flake off when scratched. If true, it is reminiscent of the famous paint chip problem of previous G4 Titanium PowerBooks.

Let's hope this is not a widespread problem, but if you're at all worried, you might want to buy the white version instead.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

MacBook disassembled

Those crazy Japanese over at Kodawarisan have already disassembled a MacBook, and have lots of pictures to show.

As has been reported, the hard drive looks relatively easy to remove, even for an end user. This is in contrast to the previous iBooks, where removal of the hard drive was quite the endeavour.

The pricing for an Apple-supplied 80 GB hard drive for the MacBook is attractive, so it still makes sense to get that drive from Apple. However, a user who wishes to use a larger drive or faster 7200 rpm drive can purchase it separately and install it his/herself. I'm not sure how this affects the warranty however.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

13" MacBook released, and it runs Aperture

Today, Apple released the long awaited 13" MacBook. To the surprise of many, the model debuted with a 1.83 GHz Core Duo CPU at the low end, and a 2.0 GHz Core Duo at the high end. That means that this little laptop will be roughly twice as fast in CPU performance as my G5 iMac 2.0 GHz, which is only 1 year old.

Besides the usual white plastic enclosure, the faster MacBook model also comes in black, although you have to pay extra for that privilege. (I chose instead to order a white MacBook Core Duo 2.0, configured similarly to the black model, for less money.)

Unfortunately, as many of us expected, this machine utilizes integrated graphics, Intel GMA 950, a less than stellar performing graphics chipset. However to our surprise, the MacBook runs Aperture. According to Joseph Schorr, the Senior Project Manager for Aperture at Apple, Aperture 1.1 will install and run on the new MacBook, although it is unsupported:
Yes, Aperture does run on the new MacBooks, but it is NOT officially supported, due to limitations with the graphics card. You're not disallowed from using it (no hacks needed) but you'll essentially be using it at your own risk. Your mileage will vary with the MacBook, depending on your workflow.

Aperture is, of course, fully supported on all MacBook PRO models.

Joe Schorr
Sr. Product Manager, Aperture
I applaud Apple for giving us this choice.

Speaking of choice, it's unfortunate that Apple has chosen to make us switch from matte LCD screens to the new glossy screen in the new MacBook. While purchasers of the new MacBook Pros can now choose from either matte or glossy screens, all MacBooks ship only with glossy screens. Users of the new MacBook already have noted that glare can be a problem with this new laptop in certain lighting. On the other hand, knowing that the previous 12" screen was average quality at best, perhaps this new screen offers better image quality, glare notwithstanding.

Overall, this new MacBook release was an excellent one, and I look forward to receiving my new MacBook soon.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The MacBook is imminent

Premature release?

As you can see from the picture above (larger version), for some reason navigating to Apple's iPod page takes us to an empty "MacBook" (not "MacBook Pro") page.

[Update 2006-05-05]

Apple has now fixed the iPod page.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Aperture 1.1 removes G4 iBook support

Aperture 1.0.1 ran just fine on the G4 iBook with Radeon 9550. However, the latest Aperture 1.1 update kills this support for the iBook.

This was expected, as the Aperture Compatibility Checker program also specifies that there is an absolute requirement for a minimum screen size of 1280x780. This is of course completely arbitrary, considering that if one applies the Screen Spanning Doctor to the iBook and attaches an external screen, Aperture 1.1 will launch just fine, with a minimum size of 1000x685, well within the resolution limits of the iBook's built-in screen. Furthermore, if one unplugs the external screen, Aperture 1.1 continues to work fine. Curiously, when I ran this experiment, the external screen I attached was 1360x768, which just like the iBook's 1024x768, doesn't meet the minimum 780 vertical resolution.

Even more curious is the fact that if one uses a resolution of just 640x480 on the external screen, Aperture will still load normally. Perhaps that makes sense though, as 1024x768 + 640x480 = 1093632 which is greater than 1280x780 = 998400.

Hopefully, somebody will be able to patch Aperture 1.1 to remove this arbitrary limitation. Or, perhaps Apple will finally release that 13" 1280x800 widescreen Core Duo MacBook Pro with Blu-ray drive. ;)