Commentary: Macworld 2006
Posted Jan 14, 2006

"The PowerBook is dead." Or so one blogger wrote who attended the Macworld Keynote. He updated a Web page from the audience as Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the Intel Core Duo Processor MacBook Tuesday morning.

In actuality, Apple was one of many to announce new laptops with Intel's Core Duo. Several other companies announced Core Duo chips at CES the week before. The buzz around the many products announced at the annual convention is on par with what was not announced, despite many rumors and considerable, reasonable expectation. Despite the year that the Mac Mini has been on the market, relatively unchanged, and the recent introduction of Apple's Front Row software, which is a very good basis for a home media center, Apple did not bring these two products together today, as many had anticipated.

Also, the first two products that have migrated to the Intel processors are the iMac and the PowerBook. The most recent iMac was just announced in October. The Power Mac G5 Quad and updated PowerBooks were announced in November. We have to go all the way back to July to find updated for the iBook and the Mini. Those updates were basically faster processors and a tweaked product selection, respectively. The Mini has remained basically unchanged for over a full year now. So it is a surprise to see two of the most recently updated PowerPC-based products to be the first Intel-based offerings from Apple.

Why is this important? Steve Jobs recounted some numbers... 32 million iPods sold, just in 2005. Three quarters of a billion songs have been downloaded from iTunes. And 8 million videos have been sold through iTunes. More media companies and media is being added every day. If a company with this sort of market share introduced a home media center computer, you can bet there would be big ripples throughout media delivery systems. But it hasn't happened--not yet, anyway--so we can continue to twiddle our thumbs waiting for Blu-ray.

But back to the interesting tidbits. The new MacBooks differentiate themselves from PowerBooks with more than just the processor. There is optical audio in and out. This is good news for those using digital audio. However, the PC card is gone. If you relied on the PC card for a specific I/O system, you'll have to wait till new ExpressCard/34 cards come to the market in force. Given the current dearth of cards available, one has to wonder why Apple dropped the PC Card clot so definitively now. We can only hope it plays out like it did with the original iMac, which was the first to ditch all the old I/O ports for USB, well before USB was so readily available.

With the new MacBook, Apple also dropped FireWire 800, which has consistently provided better throughput than FireWire 400 on G4-based systems, including the laptops. The optical burner still does not offer specifications for dual-layer burning capability. So while this now dual core computer has some numbers that show it is faster than the G4 chip it previously had, it is more limited in terms of fast I/O to peripherals, and still does not have a dual-layer burner.

These points are very important to ponder for mobile editors intending to move to HD or HDV. If you like the new Panasonic HVX-200, be aware that the new laptops are moving to ExpressCard, which does not work with P2 cards because the P2 cards physically won't fit. No PC Cards fit. Also, the loss of Firewire 800 is the lost of the fastest connection available for laptops.

Tests have shown the built-in FW 800 to be capable of 60-70 MBps. If you need more speed, add a FW-800 PC card and run a dual-channel RAID for speeds over 100MBps on a laptop. There are also SATA PC cards boasting speeds of 70-80MBps without a RAID. Until there are FW 800 or SATA cards for ExpressCard slots, mobile users will be back down to FW 400/USB 2.0 speeds of around 20-30MBps. Down the road, however, ExpressCard has the potential to offer several times the speed of a PC card so future ExpressCards may offer faster throughput, when they become available.

The color speed charts on Apple's MacBook page show the new chip should do video rendering at least 2x faster than the fastest previous G4 PowerBook. This is good news for mobile professionals because a 1.8g Core Duo processor is also in the new iMac. This processor is touted to be 2x faster than the 2.1g G5 it replaces. We know that there was little possibility that the hot-running G5 could be shoehorned into a PowerBook, so a different processor that runs cooler and supposedly runs 2x faster amicably solves the problem. Barring any software hiccups, this should be a welcome move for the future.

This is important because it is clear that Apple is really tweaking their iLife software bundle. The latest iMovie and iDVD include true 16:9 themes. The software is already designed to handle both widescreen video, as well as HDV, and produce a standard-definition DVD from HD content. Now all the menus and interactive elements can be widescreen as well. The big addition here is that iMovie gets the "theme" treatment as well, enabling the more casual user to deliver really polished and consistent results in their final movie without having to create all the elements from scratch. The only thing that is missing is a HD-DVD burner to deliver the finished product in HD.

This is no small advancement. iMovie adds the ability to keyframe audio levels and continues to cover more of the capabilities pros expect in their software. While no Final Cut Pro, or even Final Cut Express, iMovie has offered certain capabilities and functions that Final Cut has never, and still does not offer. At the same time, iMovie continues to gain strength and capability with each revision. For one, iMovie has always rendered every effect in the background. You never, ever had to wait for a render progress bar to go away before you continued working on your project. Final Cut still does not have true background rendering while you work in the same application. In addition to the key framed audio, iMovie also now takes a page from Final Cut and adds real time effects that require no rendering.

However, pro users are not left out in the cold. Jobs also announced that the Pro apps are scheduled to be "Universal" (which means they can run on both current PowerPC or Intel chips) by March 2006. That's just two months. Best of all, Jobs also says that current apps can be upgraded to Universal Binary versions for just $49. This is really insignificant to the person who stays at the edge of technology.

Despite all the talk about Apple's consumer iLife apps, I'm not saying that consumers with iMovie are going to be stealing pro work. I am saying that the finished video they will be producing will be keeping us on our toes. Moreover, there's nothing saying that seasoned professionals can't use the same basic tools that consumers use. In the end, our goal is to produce materials that please and delight our customers. Whether we do it on Betacam or DV, or edit it on a Mac or PC, or in FCP or iMovie is not as important as the fact that our customers are satisfied. So it is important to be aware of the new tools, including the inexpensive ones, if they can help us do our job better, easier or faster. With the new hardware and software introduced today, it looks like all three may be true.