Shattering A Myth?

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There’s a voice among Macsters that is crying out loud after the switch.

What it is crying out is, “Macs won’t be special anymore.” (this is just an indirect way of saying, “I won’t be special anymore,” but we’ll leave that subject alone today).

The purpose of this article is to prove that when it comes to hardware, Macs aren’t special now, and haven’t been for a long, long time.

You have glimpsed the truth, and it hurts. We feel your pain, and now we’re going to increase it.

Welcome to X86, Macsters. Now you’ll have a box like the rest of us.

But then, you already did.

The Myth of Hardware Superiority

There was a time when Macs did use better quality components than PCs. Those days petered out during the early-to-mid nineties. They definitely died when Little Stevie came back.

To cut costs and save the company, Jobs began subsituting off-the-shelf PC parts and adopted PC standards for the Mac.

The hard, cold reality is most of a Mac is built from off-the-shelf PC parts. Even more to the point, they are rarely the best the PC world has to offer. They’re PC parts with a Mac driver (when needed), that’s all.

Hard drives? Currently, the G5 PowerMacs are using either Seagate Barracudas or Maxtor Maxline Plus IIs. 7200rpm, 8Mb cache. They’re OK drives, but hardly the best the PC world has to offer; in the case of Maxtor, they’re not even the best Maxtor has to offer.

Video cards? PC video cards from nVidia and ATI, and with the exception of the optional nVidia 6800 Ultra card, pretty old/low performance at that. They’re AGP cards (another PC standard), and a rapidly obsolescent one at that.

Memory? PC vanilla DDR PC3200. Intel has already moved to DDR2 memory. Nothing special here.

I could go on and on and on.

Apple doesn’t buy shoddy parts, but on the whole, they’re best described as reliable rather than cutting-edge. They certainly aren’t special or premium, and usually, they’re best described as trailing-edge.

The general pattern is that of trailing PCdom, then periodically catching up (though rarely exceeding):

For the last number of years, the only parts of a Mac that are uncontestably not PC have been the CPU and the motherboard.

The same is at least as true for the Apple components themselves, and they’ve been trailing-edge, too. The PPC has usually trailed x86 designs (though ironically, much less than usual with the G5s).

Yes, we know all those charts Apple put up over the years “proving” that the PPC was soooo much better than anything Intel had. Well, to make a long story short, those charts were based on pretty cherry-picked information. The general consensus outside of Macfandom is that the last few generations of PPCs almost catch up with x86 when first introduced, then fall behind. A few programs like Photoshop, with a long tradition of Mac sales and support, tend to be highly optimized for Macs and do relatively better, but then programs that originated in the Windows world tend to do relatively worse.

It may come as another shock to Macsters, but again, the hard, cold reality is Apple isn’t a very innovative company. What they’re extremely good at is looking like one, and this is how they do it:

First, when they catch up to PC technology, they talk about it like the improvement was something new and unique. They never say it’s new or unique to the PC world, but easily leave that impression among the credible.

Second, what Apple does is take some up-and-coming PC technology, and makes it standard, or near standard before the PC makers do. They don’t invent or make the technology, they make it standard before anyone else.

For instance, DVD recorders and large LCDs were certainly available in the PC world at the time Apple made them standard or a high-priced option. So was 802.11g cards (aka Airport). So was Firewire (the only recent technology Apple DID invent) cards, Apple just made them standard.

In the near future, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Apple make something like the Gigabyte i-RAM card standard in its Power Macs (that ought to make the graphic designers happy) sooner rather than later.

The only tangible area where Apple can be said to do a better job than the average PC company is in machine design. Cases look nice, and are built well. The interiors are more ergonomically-inclined than the typical insides of a PC. That won’t change with an Intel processor inside.

Nor is there any validity to any notion that Apple magically makes the whole more than the sum of its parts by carefully matching components. Computers don’t work that way; we’re not making blended Scotch whisky here. You don’t and can’t get a first-rate system by carefully matching a number of second-rate parts. It is possible to have component mismatches: a very fast video card won’t come near its potential with a very slow CPU, but that doesn’t mean a slower video card would perform better.

So, you see, when it comes to hardware, you won’t be stepping down when Apple goes x86. If anything, it will likely be a bit of a step up. Apple will continue to be free to “innovate” the same way.

This isn’t a matter of the Mac being degraded into a pretty Dell. You already have the functional equivalent of a pretty Dell, and a pretty dimwitted one at that. This will get rid of the “pretty dimwitted” part, that’s all.

Accidental Advantages

“What about viruses?” some might ask. First, PC viruses have seen their heyday, the real problem with PCs these days is malware.

Second, the main reason why there aren’t many Mac viruses is because there aren’t many Macs. If you want to make people’s lives miserable, what are you going to do, write something that could hurt 98% of the people, or 2%? Unix may well be a harder nut to crack than MS, but being obscure is probably more protection than being secure.

Apples generally do well in repair statistics and customer satisfaction surveys. Why is that?

Well, Apple does use decent parts (unlike some storefront OEMs). A bigger advantage, though, is that the Mac world is simpler than the PC world in that there are fewer components, fewer software programs, fewer marginal players in hardware or software, and less of a rush to get things out the door.

The more players you have and the more possible combinations, the more likely it is that something’s going to screw up and the harder it is to find it. Add time pressure to that, and you have more problems.

However, one can make much too much of this. Many Macsters still think it’s 1996, or even before then. Windows has improved immeasurably since then; it’s hardly the torture chamber some Macsters claim that it is.

In any event, these accidental advantages aren’t going to go away just because there’s Intel Inside. MacOS X will continue to be less vulnerable to attack, Apple will continue to limit hardware/software options.

Accidental though they may be, they’re still advantages. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. 🙂

Old Myth Cracking

As you can see, the myth of Apple superiority, at least on the hardware side, is just that, a myth, a truth from ancient times that no one bothered to update. Like the ancient legends, there may have been something to it long, long ago, but certainly not any time recently.

And this particular ancient myth is cracking, even among Macsters.

If you go to places where Macsters congregate, they are far more critical of Apple than they were, say, five years ago. They may still mostly love Mac OS X more than their wife, but they’re starting to laugh at those “200% faster than Pentium claims,” and even know what AMD is. They ask, pretty often, “Why don’t we have this?”

And that’s what Stevie is going to do, give them that, while still giving them Mac OS X in a nice case.

Dispelling Delusions

The hard cold reality is that if you’re going to find functional superiority anywhere in an Apple machine, it’s going to be found on the soft end and only the soft end: in the OS and applications.

I personally don’t see what the big deal is, but maybe I’m just insensitive when it comes to the finer points of GUI implementation. It obviously makes at least a few people very happy.

In other words, I could be wrong in thinking MacOS X isn’t so much better than Windows. I know I’m not wrong about the functional hardware not being better.

The Truth, The Whole Truth

From a PC perspective, it’s a bit amusing to see people who have been using PC hard drives, PC video cards, PC memory, PC recorders in machines running under most PC standards suddenly saying, “OMG, the Mac is turning into a PC.” Uhhhh, the horse left that barn a long time ago.

All that’s happening with this change is that Macsters will go from a machine that’s 70% PC and 30% trailing-edge Apple smothered in MacOS secret sauce to a machine that is 99% PC smothered in MacOS secret sauce.

Outside of the admittedly large factor of obsoleting all operational Macs within a couple years, objectively, this really isn’t a big change. Macs won’t be much different overall, if anything, they’ll be a little bit better.

Subjectively, though, it is a big change. This will cripple the myth of Apple hardware superiority, and thus kill more than a few feelings of elitism some Mac owners have gotten from that.

This is what really bothered me about Mac fans when I first encountered them in cyberspace; this belief in certain realities that simply, objectively were not true. Talk about OS superiority never much bothered me (except when some talked about Windows like every PC owner was still running Windows 95). It’s was the “Look at my Mercedes, oh jealous one” talk and attitude when all I could see was a VW, and one that needed a tune-up.

Times have changed, and not as many Macsters believed that any longer, even before the switch announcment. Times have changed in Macdom the last five-six years.

But for those who still did, or do, now that you’ve gotten hit by a reality 2X4, and have been told black is really white, might as well completely clean your clock.

Outside of the pretty cases and better design, from the nuts and bolts end, it’s not that you’ve been told a fairy tale about just the CPU. It’s Oz, it’s all been Oz.

All you’re losing now is a mirage, a false belief. It isn’t and hasn’t been real. It hasn’t been real for a long, long time. You got told a story, and you filled in the details with your desires, your dreams, your fantasies.

If you have to believe in something, believe in MacOS X. Superior or not, if that makes you happy, that’s all that really matters, isn’t it? But don’t hang on to beliefs that can be proven to have no more basis in truth than the tooth fairy.

Ed

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