Power PC: not ready for you and me?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, July 1994

Question: What is it that's fast and cheap, and runs all your existing
Macintosh and Windows software?

If you answered the new PowerMac, running the first product of Apple and
IBM's alliance, the PowerPC chip, then you've been reading Apple's ads.

Unfortunately, at least for right now, the reality's a little more complex.

The new PowerMacs are becoming available at a lower price than Apple has
previously priced its high-end Macintosh personal computers (though watch
out... you'll need to set aside some money for a monitor and a keyboard on
top of the advertised price). And they have the potential to be
screamingly fast... when you get all new software, specially rewritten for
its PowerPC chip.

While all of the big-name Macintosh software products will eventually be
released in PowerPC versions, most aren't available yet. But if you've
got a collection of current Mac software, designed for the Motorola
680x0 series of chips, it will run on the new PowerMacs. The catch is
that it will run in emulation. That means that the PowerPC chip has to
pretend that it's an older 680x0 chip... and that means it will run more
slowly than it would in 'native' PowerPC mode.

Kind of like ordering food in a French restaurant if you have to look up
each word in a French-English dictionary. Recent testing suggests that
even the fastest currently available PowerMac runs current generation
Mac software more like a medium-range Mac IIci that like the speed demon
it could be.

Because of this, when the new generation
of software, compiled for the PowerPC, becomes available, you'll want
to upgrade your entire software collection. Even at discount upgrading
prices, that can cost a bundle.

And the ads like to point out that the PowerMacs can run DOS and
Windows software too. Well, this has been possible on Macintosh machines
for a while, in the same way as on the PowerMacs... using Insignia
Software's series of products, Soft PC, Soft AT, and now Soft Windows.
But while it's been possible, it hasn't been desirable. Even the Mac
magazines have pointed out that this capability has been too slow to be
of any practical use to anyone.

Because the PowerPC is such a powerful processor, Soft Windows runs
faster now... it's been estimated that a PowerMac with Soft Windows will
be able to run Windows programs at speeds somewhere between a 386-DX40
and a 486SX-25-- that is, while cretainly usable, at the speed of an entry-level PC costing about $1250 today in

Ironically, some people have suggested that the PowerMac will run
Windows programs faster than the equivalent current generation of Mac programs, running both
in emulation. That's because, while the performance of the PowerPC's
numeric co-processor is one of its strengths, it emulates an older-
generation Mac, without a numeric co-processor. Spreadsheets,
graphics, and CAD programs' performance suffers.

But there are a couple more problemsif you want to run Windows
software on your new PowerMac. First, the
machines on sale in the ads with 8 meg ram won't have enough memory for this... you'
ll need to upgrade them to at least 16 meg. So budget an additional $1000 ($500
for Soft Windows and $500 for additional ram) in order to get your Power
Mac to run your Windows software at the speed of a $1250 clone PC. Might
be better to simply buy the second PC.

As well, the current version of SoftWindows under runs Windows in 286-
standard mode... not the preferable 386-enhanced mode. Some programs
rely on enhanced mode, and won't work at all. As well, many device
drivers are missing. Insignia is aware of these problems and promises
that they'll be fixed-- someday.

There are three potential big winners connected to the PowerMac. First,
there's Apple. The company's been in a bit of a doldrum, lately. Its
last big hope, the Newton Personal Digital Assistant, has hardly made much of a sales
splash. With the PowerMac, they hope to see a lot of current Mac users
upgrading to the new machines.

Second, there are the software companies. In the past, many home users
could buy a Mac (or a PC for that matter), and illegally get pirated copies of
software for free from their friends or co-workers. (some estimates
suggest a dollar lost to software piracy for every dollar spent on
legitimate software). But no one has Power Mac software to pirate... if you want to get software that lets you make
use of your machine's power, you're going to have to be prepared to (
gasp!) purchase it.

Finally, there are the people who will really benefit-- the people in
the graphics and publishing industries, who have been paying too much
for too little power on Macintoshes for years. Instead of paying $10,000
for a MacIIFX, as they did would have just a couple of years ago, they
can get a genuinely powerful PowerMac, fully equipped for much less.

But a lot of other people have been waiting hopefully for the PowerPC
for a year or so, since its advance publicity started coming out. They
include the people who've felt frustrated running Windows on top of DOS
on an Intel CPU, who've felt that Intel's Pentium chip was overpriced,
and that Microsoft's 'next generation' Windows NT operating system didn'
t really have anything to offer them. And most Windows users are Mac
wannabes at heart.

Some time in the future, the PowerPC/Mac combination may be a realistic
alternative for these computer users. Maybe when there's a critical mass
of real PowerMac software available. If future generations of
PowerPC equiped Macs outperform future PCs with Intel Pentium and
later CPUs, and at a lower price. But not yet.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan