Apple Mac OS X on x86: a first test

Steve Jobs might not approve, but Apple's latest operating system can be installed on any x86 hardware. How well does it function? Read our preliminary labs test to find out.

Back in June, when Apple boss Steve Jobs announced the platform change to the x86 architecture, some Apple-watchers could not believe their ears. Had Jobs not preached for years that Intel's architecture was much too slow? But Apple's slogan is not 'Think Different' for nothing. Its decision to support the x86 architecture lies in the unsatisfactory performance of the incumbent PowerPC processors -- particularly in the lucrative and growing notebook market, where the IBM/Motorola-designed PowerPC chips clearly lag behind Intel's CPUs.

Mac OS X will not be available on any old x86 PC, though, as Apple wants to retain control over its hardware platform. From the company's point of view, this is an understandable position, as the margins on Apple-branded computers are much higher than is usual for standard x86 PCs.

Were Apple to put the x86 version of its operating system on general release, Dell would begin to manufacture Apple clones. This would put enormous pressure on the price of Apple's own computers -- something the company is naturally keen to avoid. Apple would prefer to manufacture and sell its own high-margin Macs, while denying companies like Dell the chance to endanger its hardware business. This is the motivation behind Apple's decision to restrict the x86 version of Mac OS X to its own hardware.

When Steve Jobs announced the platform change, he publicly demonstrated Apple computers with Intel processors running an x86 version of Mac OS X. The OS is bound directly to the hardware by a special security chip. However, some developers have succeeded in circumventing this coupling, allowing the operating system to be installed on any x86 system, as this test report shows.

Installation

Installation from a bootable DVD takes about two hours, and the operating system requires 5.9GB of hard disk space. It's possible to set up a dual boot system with Windows and Mac OS X thanks to a boot manager that's installed along with the Apple OS.

For 3D graphics effects, you need a suitable driver, but these are not available for ATI or nVIDIA cards. In June, Apple delivered the developer platform on an Intel motherboard with integrated graphics (the 915G chipset). If this platform is used, 3D effects work fine, and you can also adjust the screen resolution. All drivers, including audio and network, are installed automatically on the Intel 915G platform. We installed version 10.4.1 of Mac OS X on a Toshiba Portégé M300 notebook equipped with a 1.2GHz Pentium M processor and 512MB of RAM.


Mac OS X x86 setup on the Toshiba Portégé M300. See the image gallery for more pictures.

GUI-driven setup and disk partitioning
The setup process is driven by a graphical user interface, which simplifies things compared to a Windows PC. There is generally less user intervention required, and where interaction is needed, the procedures are intuitive. For instance, when setting the time zone in Windows, you must select it from a list; with Mac OS X you simply click your region on a map of the world.

Partitioning the hard disk is also straightforward thanks to the efficient Disk Utility program. Unlike in Windows, this requires no data entry, but lets you use the mouse to create and resize a partition easily. Windows users will also be surprised by Mac OS X's disk imaging and backup capabilities. All this is possible simply by starting the setup CD; a Windows setup is light-years away from the user-friendliness of a Mac installation.


Mac OS X x86 also runs on the AMD platform.


Power consumption and performance

Since Mac OS X x86 is still at a relatively early stage of development, the performance and the power consumption results reported here should be treated with caution. Final versions are generally considerably faster and less resource-hungry than beta versions.

All of which makes the current test results for Mac OS X x86 more remarkable. Clearly, essential components of the power-saving functions in the Pentium M processor (in our testbed Toshiba Portégé M300) are already supported. There can be no other explanation for the fact that the power consumption of Mac OS X x86 is on a par with Windows XP running on the same notebook computer. Mac OS X is even a little faster than Windows XP at starting up, while the two operating systems shut down at about the same speed. As far as resource hunger is concerned, Apple's OS is a little less demanding: after loading, Mac OS X x86 leaves 324MB of RAM out of 512MB free, while XP releases only 290MB.

Power consumption and performance

Test with 1.2GHz Pentium M Windows XP Mac OS X x86

Power consumption (idle) 15.2W 15.7W
Power consumption (maximum) 21.4W 21.5W
OS startup time 23.5s 20.5s
OS shutdown time 9.5s 9.4s
Free RAM after OS load (from 512MB) 290MB 324MB













Mac OS X x86 looks less impressive in the application-based test using iTunes (version 4.8). Windows XP is clearly faster here, taking 20.7 seconds for the MP3 transformation test compared to 61 seconds for the Apple operating system. Even when installed on a high-end dual core Athlon 64 X2 4800+ system, Mac OS X x86 takes longer (28 seconds) than Windows XP running on the 1.2GHz Pentium M notebook (20.7s) -- and iTunes uses both cores of the Athlon processor when transforming the MP3 file. iTunes on Mac OS X x86's slower speed in this test is actually due to the Rosetta emulation environment, under which this PowerPC application (among others) runs.

iTunes benchmark

iTunes performance Windows XP
(1.2GHz
Pentium M)
Mac OS X x86
(1.2GHz
Pentium M)
Mac OS X x86
(Athlon 64 X2 4800+)

MP3 transformation using
Apple lossless codec
20.7s 61s 28s











The Mac OS advantage


If you look in the system properties for a term, the most probable options are automatically highlighted. The brighter the background, the higher OS X estimates the probability of a hit.



Apple Mail recognises attached files and offers appropriate options directly in the Mail client. Images can be saved or shown as a slideshow.



Sherlock collects information from the Internet and presents it in a useful manner. For films, for example, you get the cinema screening times, along with a summary of the plot and a preview clip. Data on flights and stock quotes are also collected by Sherlock.


Conclusion

Mac OS X looks in amazingly good early form on the x86 platform. As far as power consumption and OS performance are concerned, it can already keep up with Windows XP. Application performance clearly lags behind, though, and still needs to improve.



User switching in Mac OS X uses 3D animation.

Mac OS X offers many advantages over Windows. The installation routine uses a graphical interface from the start, and any user interventions that are required are more intuitive than with Windows. You will look in vain within Windows for programs as effective as Disk Utility, which is available during the setup phase, while the efficient network tools make it straightforward to connect to a Windows network. Apple has continued to improve its intuitive control concept with Mac OS X, using 3D effects and other visual devices (see above). There are therefore plenty of reasons to consider Mac OS X as a serious alternative to Windows.

So far, mainly because of performance and price issues, the Apple platform has failed to tempt many Windows users. This could change soon: from the middle of next year, a Mac OS X x86 platform will be available, which will offer more performance to the Windows world. However, the operating system is currently only planned to be available on Apple hardware. The modification that makes the OS accessible for all other x86 computers, as happened with the developer version evaluated here, will no longer be possible.


Image gallery


Mac OS X (version 10.4.1) setup starts on a 1.2GHz Pentium M Toshiba notebook.


The Mac OS X installer uses a graphical interface.


The installer provides access to an efficient disk manager.


You can adjust the partition size using the mouse.


The operating system takes up 5.4GB of hard disk space.


The setup routine allows SSE3 to be deactivated.


It's not necessary to enter an Apple ID


Registration, however, is obligatory.


Each user gets a personalised working environment with their account.


Auxiliary .Mac services can be used if required.


You get the first 60 days of .Mac services for free.


Installing Mac OS X is straightforward compared to Windows.


Mac OS X version 10.4.1 successfully installed on the Toshiba Portégé M300.


The Intel processor is recognised perfectly.


The Hardware Overview gives more details on the Intel platform.


The login screen for Mac OS X x86.


Mac OS X's boot manager can also start up Windows.

 

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