Steve Jobs sent a seismic shocker across the tech landscape in June when he announced Apple would phase out PowerPC chips and put Intel processors inside Macs. To some, the move seemed puzzling: Why would Jobs, the king of cool design, make a deal with half of the empire that conquered the world with cookie-cutter beige boxes? Jobs said a switch to Intel chips means better Mac hardware down the line. And analysts agree that the move ensures Apple's ability to craft unique designs.
Innovation was key
But one aspect of the "Why switch processor suppliers?" question hasn't been answered. Intel isn't the only X86 chipmaker in town. Why didn't Jobs, ever the maverick, opt for the scrappy challenger, AMD, instead of the old-money establishment, Intel?
The reason, according to industry analysts, is innovative designs. And such designs require the lowest-voltage chips, which IBM and Freescale were not going to make with the PowerPC chip core - and which AMD has not yet perfected.
"This is a practical, pragmatic Steve Jobs decision," PC semiconductors program manager for market research firm IDC, Shane Rau, said.
Intel serves up the most complete line of low-power chips for mobile and small form factor computers, and a good-looking future roadmap for it. Also, Intel's mammoth production capacity erases any supply worries.
Mac users have come to see that Apple had good reasons for kissing PowerPC goodbye. The company knows trends when it sees them: mobile computing has moved past being a mere fad among a few users to become a way of life for many consumers. Yet PowerPC chips aren't travelling down this road. Apple also needs faster chips, with more room to grow, and a chip partner with a clear roadmap for the future.
Still, that doesn't explain how AMD lost out to Intel. AMD has made a name for itself with super-fast machines, especially popular with gamers and bargain hunters, who value the couple of hundred dollars you can often save by buying AMD-based PCs instead of Intel-powered ones. Jobs may have liked AMD's hard-charging reputation - but it's possible he saw some problems he couldn't ignore.
"One of the biggest considerations for Apple was getting a roadmap in all possible markets where it might play," IDC's Rau said. "If you look at AMD's product line, there are some holes."
How low can you go?
Most notably, AMD hasn't invested in creating a line of low voltage and ultra-low voltage processors that competes with what Intel offers.
AMD would need to develop a chip core especially suited to low-power, as Intel did with the Pentium M. This is a costly undertaking and sales of such chips aren't huge yet, principal analyst for Insight 64, Nathan Brookwood, said.
By choosing Intel, Apple gets access to the highly-anticipated chip code-named Yonah, a low-power chip with a dual-core processor, which aims to band together the power of two regular chips. Aimed at notebooks, Yonah should arrive in PCs in the first quarter of 2006.
"Yonah could have been the tipping point for Apple," editor-in-chief of The Microprocessor Report, Kevin Krewell, said.
Yonah can power Apple notebooks that fly past today's models and AMD does not have a direct competitor that would be available in the same timeframe that Intel is discussing. AMD won't discuss timeframe or specifics, but the company is currently developing a low-power, dual-core chip for thin and light notebooks, according to a company spokesperson.
Intel also employs a huge cadre of programmers, a resource that could be important to Apple as software gets rewritten for x86 architecture, Krewell said.
Interestingly, performance really isn't the driving force behind Apple's Intel versus AMD decision. While the chip rivals have battled on performance for years, the machines now go toe-to-toe on everyday productivity applications. For most consumers on the PC side, the buying decision is much more about the PC maker than the chip supplier.
That said, on some measures, AMD shines. Gamers, for example, who want the absolute fastest speed on traditional applications, know that AMD's single-core Athlon 64 XP FX chips offer an edge over Intel's best right now.
Dual-core chips, which both AMD and Intel are emphasising, marry two CPUs together for horsepower, but can share certain parts like caches and buses. Unfortunately, the dual-core chips are currently throwing a lot of heat, so both CPUs cannot operate at their maximum clock speeds.
Intel will tackle this problem in the second half of 2006, revising its product line with a new generation of lower-power dual-core chips code-named 'Merom' for mobile, 'Conroe' for desktops, and 'Woodcrest' for servers.
Intel will emphasise low power consumption and performance, but not megahertz, Brookwood said. (AMD has emphasised performance, not megahertz ratings, for years.)
"Intel seems to have kicked the megahertz habit," Brookwood said. "It's probably music to Steve Jobs' ears," he adds, noting how Jobs had to explain PowerPC chip performance on applications, not raw megahertz ratings.
Might Apple turn to AMD for future processor needs, post-transition to x86 architecture? An AMD low-power chip line would be required for Apple to consider a switch. But Intel will have a production capacity edge for at least a couple of years, an important factor, so a switch seems unlikely before then.