And then there's Mactel

And then there's Mactel

Summary: Mactel has so far cost Apple control of its input costs, its product cycles, its software, andits hardware base.

When I first started writing about Apple's need to change CPUs people thought I was nuts. Then Apple dropped the PowerPC in favor of Intel and I thought they were nuts. It's too early to tell who's righter, but enough of the other shoes have been falling for Apple fans like me to be seriously worried about one of our favorite products.

One of the myths about Apple has always been that Macs cost more than PCs - it was never true, but enough people believed it to imagine that Intel based Macs would cost less than PPC based ones. We now know: they don't. In fact, if you compare pricing on equivelent systems Macs now really do cost more.

Worse, they do less per dollar. From batteries to ports, Dell's economies of scale, manufacturing relationships, and shipping volumes give it an edge over Apple in the business of putting bruises on bananas.

Another myth about Apple used to be that PCs were faster. It was never true: each new PPC based Mac, when first introduced, was significantly faster than its PC competition. What confused the issue was that Mac product cycles used to last through three or more PC generations, meaning that a new PC introduced near the end of an Apple product cycle tended to be a bit faster than the oldest Macs in the line. Now with Mactel, however, Apple's product cycles have to sync up to those of the PC and because Mac software generally does a bit more, and therefore uses more resources, the PC now really does tend to be a bit faster.

This disadvantage shows up in unexpected ways. For example, Apple's graphics are fundamentally PostScript based while Microsoft has always relied on proprietory libraries and bit twidling. Unfortunately the people who make graphics controllers can count and so optimize their products for Microsoft's approach - meaning that the same board in fundamentally the same PC will seem to perform better with Windows Vista then with MacOS X.

A key reason Mac loyalists are loyal to Apple is simply that they can count on things "just working" out of the box. Apple created that effect by combining software control with hardware control - in other words, by building advanced software for a limited set of known hardware combinations. With Mactel that advantage is being lost as cost presure drives Apple to low bidder parts that may be only 99.999% interchangeable, it's being lost as people port MacOS/X Darwin to their own Dell or other label PCs, and it's being lost as Apple users experiment with Windows/XP and Vista compatible plugin hardware on Mactel. Apple has, in effect, ceded control of both the hardware and software sides of its previous product line and, in that process lost the ability to ensure that its products will "just work."

Bottom line? Well Mactel has so far cost Apple control of its input costs, its product cycles, its software, and its hardware base. Nothing worse could happen, right?


A regular reader emailed me a link to this securityfocus interview between Federico Biancuzzi and a guy named Loïc Duflot who gives this introduction for himself:

I am a security engineer and researcher for the scientific division of the French National Security Agency, namely the Central Directorate for Information Systems Security in Paris. I am also a 2nd-year Phd student in Paris XI University. My research work is mostly focused on the security aspects of interactions between hardware components and software.

The interview is about the potential for attacks against Intel's lowest level of processor control code - enabling an attacker to gain full systems control entirely without the OS "knowing" about it at all. In Unix, including Apple's Darwin variant, that's actually possible from the console on a working machine -and almost trivial on any machine booting EFI regardless of OS if the attacker can gain access to co-processors like those on network, RAID, or graphics cards.

Now I haven't looked at this enough to really understand it, but here's the exchange that caught my eye with respect to Apple's Mactel decision:

[Federico Biancuzzi]: Are other architectures (Sparc, PowerPC, ...) vulnerable?

[Loïc Duflot]: To be able to carry out the privilege escalation scheme, the attacker needs to be able to write to Programmed I/O ports from userspace. As far as I know this is not possible on architectures other than x86.

And that's what worst about Apple's x86 decision: they've given away their security advantage.

Topic: Apple

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  • Hit the nail on the head

    My own pet theory was for Apple to use the Alpha chip. InHell had the dies and the fab (from DEC), and Alpha "users" were as chauvinistic over their chip as any mac user was with PPC (i.e. Loyalty). This would have kept the mystique of having a processor that no one else had (in home computers). M$ was able to create Windoze for Alpha once - and with enough interest from dual-booters, they could do it again. Heck they just did it with PPC (Xenon)! I wonder if you can dual boot that G5 . . .

    Transmeta would have also been an excellent choice. The code-morphing software could have been tuned for OS/X, and automatically - Apple would have a cpu that could run in any size platform from server to handheld (Oh yeah, that handheld could run NewtonOS also . . .).

    Apple could have partnered with the cpu "losers" - MIPS, VIA, Matrox, NEC, TI ... and had their chips customized for OS/X (if they could deliver).
    Roger Ramjet
    • I was hoping for a move to Cell.

      The whole thing about a new partnership with IBM and Sony really had me going on the Cell architecture.

      Oh well. I just hope Apple can gut it out. Even if Intel turns out to be a bad decision, I don't think Developers could handle yet another architecture jump.

      The Intel CPU/Motherboard release cycle is so much faster than Apple's traditional hardware cycle.
    • VIA doesn't have enough Umph...

      The VIA chips are still not up to par performance wise with the low end offerings from Intel and AMD. The VIA chips however do have three advantages;

      1. Price. VIA has EGBA chips which reduce costs on the MOBO as you can solder it directly to the board and the VIA chips are low priced to begin with.
      2. Power Consumption/Heat generation. Although the new Pentium Ms and AMD Geods are also low powered chips.
      3. Form factor. The low heat conversion from the VIA chips allow them to be passively cooled which means no fans and a smaller case.

      With that said VIA chips are now actually made at IBM's Fabs.

      Transmeta doesn't actually fab chips anymore.
      Edward Meyers
  • Apple more expensive - OF COURSE

    What "myth" are you talking about with Apple being more expensive? They were ALWAYS more expensive. It really borders on shilling they way mac enthusiasts defend the price "issue".

    What I do agree on is that Apple is a better VALUE than a PC. The hardware itself is usually better grade than the typical Dell. The software/OS is the epitome of ease-of-use, and I find that Apple puts more "innovation" into their products than M$ could ever hope to match.

    Apple IS better - and you should be willing to spend A LITTLE more to get the best. Don't demean it by using silly pricing comparisons that as you said - are a moving target THUS non-accurate.
    Roger Ramjet
    • Now yes, then no.

      I've done several careful comparisons - including a response in this blog to some oudiocy on the subject.

      For starters, check out:
      and the follow-up

      In August of 2004, macs really were cheaper except for the very low end.
      • Apple and Oranges

        Can you buy an Apple deskside for less than a grand? Not really (sometimes). Macs usually (historically) cost around $1500 with the accessories you wanted. Laptops were always $1500 - $2000.

        A friend of mine just got that Dell Duo special - 19" flat panel, Duo core 2.1 Ghz, 1Gb memory - for $700. I checked and its about $800 today.

        Yes, the next thing to happen is for Apple fanboys to declare "But you don't get the same stuff!" and "The parts are not as quality" and such. But the bottom line is this - Spend 700 bucks and get a barn-burner PC with a few nice options, or buy a Macmini with no monitor . . .
        Roger Ramjet
        • Dell "specials".

          Dell reallocates savings in various ways. Sometimes free upgrades, sometimes free shipping, sometimes a discount on the box itself. The total cost usually stays about the same.

          Time and patience at the Outlet can produce a real cost difference. Like a number of other items, best to buy when you don't need the product yet.

          I also am hoping that Mr. Ou provides public service links to coupons as much as possible.
          Anton Philidor
          • Employee Discount

            Company 'F' gets the Dell discount (since we have about 150,000 of them . . .). On that last Duo deal, it was about $150 better than the "regular" sale price.
            Roger Ramjet
        • $1500 seems to be a magic number

          About a month ago, the NY Times had a business story about
          Dell attempting to increase profitability. The article stated that
          Dell's average system (unit) sale was $1500. I assume that
          meant desktop with monitor or a notebook.

          If you look at the business sections of Dell's site, that figure
          would seem to gel.
          • And top of the line was always $2500

            Dual G5 or original Mac, the price has remained the same - $2500. Just about every computer my parents ever bought (all macs) cost around 2500 bucks. The latest Duo Macbook TOL is around 2500 bucks.

            Without a super-high end graphics card, its hard to imagine a PC today costing 2500 bucks.
            Roger Ramjet
          • Base Dell -$2822

            Just for fun I just went to and clicked on the Business
            section. Then I clicked on Precision and picked the first
            machine. Then I went through all the "customize" screens and
            didn't change a thing. The result was Dell Precision Workstation
            670 - $2,822.

            I have no idea about the specs or anything. I just picked the
            first machine on the page.
        • Dell Duo Life spam

          We have a slew of Dell in production. They inflitrated the exec offices and now we can only buy from them.

          My computer storage space (the graveyard of all hardware until we can get approval from accounting to dump it) is litteted with Dell's. There is a reason. It's cause they don't last as long because they are cheaply made.

          That Dell Duo for $800 is going to fall apart in 12 to 16 months. That new iBook is going to keep chugging along for another 4 to 5 years.
          • Sadly, not anymore

            The new ibook is a mini in a 13" laptop case... made from the same parts, by the same people, at the same price as the Dell stuff.
          • agreed

            I got an iBook for the wife (just a little before the Mactels came out). Workmanship is questionable. But let's see how long it stays on one piece.

            I have had my Dell D400 for just over a year. In that time my screen needed to get replaced and a few keys poped out and had to be pushed back in. The only thing that impresses me about this one is that all the hardware works with SUSE - even the WNIC. I have not had to fiddle with one driver on it since 9.x.
          • to add...

            but i still have my IBM Thinkpad 390 from way back when. it still works and is in tip top shape. not a think poped out or died yet. the only thing that has worn off is the "designed for windows" sticker.
          • So

            for $2500, I can get a <b>NEW</b> Dell every 16 months for ~4 years.
            Roger Ramjet
          • do you ever wonder?

            Why do you think you "need" a new Dell every 16 months?
          • Landfiller?

            Roger Ramjet
        • Yes, macs cost more NOW but not before mactel

          Right now Dells are cheaper - no question. My point is that Apple WAS cheaper despite the B.S. in the pc press.
          • thats BS

            Dell is only cheaper if your using some super discount, coupon or special sale. Standard price they are not cheaper. People often think they are cheaper just because they have such a wide range of things, not nearly as limited as Apples, that it appears they are overall.

            Yes you may be able to buy a Dell for much cheaper that suits your needs, but that doesnt mean that the same value of a system costs more from Apple.

            I configed a MacBook and a Dell Inspiron almost identical. even going down to adding a modem to the MacBook becuase the dell came with it, 3 year warranties on both, pretty much ideintical across the board. Dells was 14" not a 13.3 inch wide screen, and was quite a bit bigger. Dell wanted $23 more for theirs than the MacBook.