The Adventures of Systems Boy!

Confessions of a Mac SysAdmin...

PPC VS. Intel Macs: A Buyer's Rationale

Having just bought a batch of Quad-Core PowerMac G5s for my lab, I must admit to a touch of buyer's remorse and defensiveness over said purchase. We knew the Mac Pros were coming, and there was much discussion here about whether or not to wait for them and buy Mac Pros instead of PowerMacs — or to do a half-and-half type scenario somehow. We even drew a pros-and-cons chart on the whiteboard. The bosses were on the fence; the decision was ultimately mine. As I mentioned in my last post, I argued in favor of getting all PowerMacs and waiting two years (which is the length of our lease cycle) to get Intel hardware. As drool-inducing as the Mac Pros look, I stand by my decision. And now I have some additional validation in the form of benchmarks.

My basic rationale for sticking with the PowerPC platform was the following:
  • The PowerMac is a known quantity. We know what we're getting here. We know it will be great, and fairly precisely just how great it will be. It's the safe bet.
  • This machine, while perhaps maybe not the fastest, will be plenty fast for our needs for the next two years.
  • New Mac hardware tends to have "growing pains" — usually minor, but still sometimes troubling bugs and problems — that I'd just as soon avoid. Stability and reliability over speed and novelty. It doesn't matter how fast the machine is if it won't boot or it's in the shop.
  • Buying Intel hardware would entail working with, and maintaining, essentially two separate platforms — one Intel, one PPC — each with it's own separate OS, applications, troubleshooting routines and set of software updates. Our lab is heterogeneous enough, thank you. Adding a new platform would only complicate things more in our already complicated lab.
  • But perhaps the strongest argument I made was that, for all these potential troubles, we won't see much real-world advantage on the Intel hardware for at least the first year of the lease. Why? Because a large proportion of the applications we use on our Macs won't be Universal Binaries until some time next year. Applications like Maya, the entire Adobe suite (which now includes all former Macromedia apps), and the Microsoft Office suite are all mainstays of our lab. They are, in fact, the apps that get used the most. And they currently run slower on Intel Macs than on PPC. While the performance of Intel-native or UB apps is certainly better on the new Macs, this advantage is largely negated by the performance hit apps running in Rosetta will experience.

The Mac Pro: Be Afraid; Be Very Afraid
(click image for larger view)

After the initial release of the Mac Pro, I started to worry that I'd overestimated that performance hit. But a few sites have already gotten their hands on the new machines and are testing them. They seem to confirm my initial suspicions and my decision to stick with PPC for this lease term. MacWorld raves about the performance of the new Macs. But their tests mainly include native or UB apps. The one exception is the Photoshop test, in which the Quad G5 soundly trounces the Intel. Bare Feats' tests are more comprehensive, and again show the G5 Quad beating the Intel Mac Pro in all non-native applications. This is especially significant for us, since this includes our most commonly used apps. If you really think about it, at worst we break even, and at best come out slightly ahead in the performance game by buying G5s because of the apps we use. And we'll probably come out way ahead on convenience and manageability and all those little lab admin intangibles that mean so much to folks like me.

Finally, while factors like the amazing upgradability of the Mac Pro might influence some users to buy the new machine (and rightfully so — if I were buying for myself I'd probably go Intel), such issues don't concern us. Our machines are leased for two years. We will not be upgrading them. We're mainly interested in a certain level of performance — though not necessarily the absolute best — and stability. We want fast, reliable, easy-to-manage machines. And that's what we got.

In two years the transition to Intel will be truly complete from the standpoint of the end-user, and at that point we'll certainly buy Intel Macs. (We won't have a choice anyway.) But for now I'm pretty confident that I made the right choice in sticking with the G5. And so far, the users love the new Macs. They are great machines.

Except for the one that shot sparks out the bottom and had to be returned. That one, not so great.

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7:23 PM

We had to return 4 of the 6 quads that we bought. Great machines when they're working. 400% good. Great for maya and shake! Great for Terminal and TextEdit. ;) Our render queue software keeps good stats, so I had fun tracking the performance of those beasts! 24/7 they burned through data! Yowza.    

7:53 PM

Holy crap! That's a bad return ratio! Hopefully ours don't all go kablooey. Glad to hear they're fast. I was a little worried. And, hey, there's no guarantee the quad Intels will be any less likely to explode. FWIW.


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