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Dual-processor Macs don't impress analysts

Under closer scrutiny, Apple CEO Steve Jobs' decision to offer two processors as standard fare on higher-end PowerMacs is nothing more than a sleight of hand, say analysts.

Is two for the price of one a good deal?

That's the question lingering over Apple Computer's decision this week to double up the processors in high-end PowerMacs. And many analysts are answering "no."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs had lots of wonders in his bag of tricks at this week's Macworld Trade Expo in New York. Besides wooing Mac enthusiasts with new iMacs and the trendy G4 Cube computer, Jobs also delivered new PowerMac G4 computers with not one but two processors.

On the surface, dual-processor Macs might be yet another innovation from Apple. After all, the company led the industry by abandoning floppy drives in its Macintosh systems and ditching slower SCSI and serial ports in favor of USB and IEEE 1394, or FireWire, connectors.

And the dual-processor announcement seems like a good value. A top-of-the-line PowerMac ordered last week packed a 500-MHz PowerMac processor, 256MB of RAM, a 27GB hard drive, a 16MB ATI graphics card, DVD-RAM, 10/100 networking and Mac OS 9.04 for $3,499. For the same price, Mac buyers now get a second processor, larger hard drive, greater-capacity DVD-RAM and faster, 1-gigabit Ethernet.

But under closer scrutiny, Jobs' decision to offer two processors as standard fare on higher-end PowerMacs is nothing more than a sleight of hand, masking weaknesses in both Apple's hardware and software strategies, say analysts.

"Mac OS doesn't do anything with the second processor, and most Mac applications don't do anything with the second processor," said MicroDesign Resources analyst Peter Glaskowsky. "Mac Office, which also was introduced with much fanfare (Wednesday), has no idea another processor is there, either."

Judith Hurwitz, an analyst with Hurwitz Group, cut to the point: "If the software can't use two processors, it's just a marketing ploy."

Mac OS X, Apple's next-generation operating system, takes full advantage of two processors. But in May, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company pushed back the release date from summer until early next year. A fairly complete beta is due soon, however.

"To some extent it may be an indication of how the hardware people have hit their schedule and the software people have not," said Gartner analyst Chris Le Tocq. "Imagine you're on the hardware side, you've got this ready, what do you do, hold off until you've got OS X? No."

Offering a second processor for free is also a way of drawing attention away from a larger problem. While Intel and AMD have reached clock speeds of 1 GHz, the PowerPC G4 hasn't budged beyond 500 MHz.

The chips are actually closer in performance than the megahertz speeds would indicate. A 500-MHz G4 will outperform a 1-GHz Pentium on certain multimedia applications, while the 1 GHz will conquer in other areas. Still, faster speeds on the G4 would have meant enhanced performance for Apple computers.

"We were expecting higher clock frequencies than were announced, based on previous announcements from their CPU suppliers," Glaskowsky said.

Many analysts had been expecting to see at least a 600-MHz version of the G4 because Motorola unveiled a 700-MHz version at October's Microprocessor Forum, an annual processor industry conference. But the chip has yet to materialize in Apple computers, putting the company at a clock-speed disadvantage with Intel's Pentium III and AMD's Athlon and Thunderbird.

"It's fair to say they're offering two CPUs because it's the only way they have to deliver improved performance at this time," Glaskowsky said.

Apple introduced the PowerPC G4 processor at last August's Seybold trade show. Motorola and IBM produce the chips for Apple, but supply and production problems have dogged the processor since its introduction.

This would not be the first time chip delays have hampered Apple. G4 production problems last year sapped Apple's fourth-quarter earnings. A secondary problem affecting 500-MHz G4 chips had Apple jiggering to compensate and canceling some PowerMac orders.

Apple would not say when faster G4 processors might be coming. "I know Motorola and IBM are always working hard to make things faster," said Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide marketing. "We're seeing megahertz increases, and we always will."

Schiller also defended the significance of a second processor. "I think for professional applications that take advantage of it--and there are many--multiprocessing is a great, targeted thing," he said.

Adobe Photoshop is one of only a handful of applications that can utilize a second processor, and performance is impressive.

"I would agree with Apple's characterization that it puts these 500-MHz dual-processor machines in the same category as two 1-GHz Pentium IIIs," Glaskowsy said. But he cautioned that even heavy Photoshop users spend a good chunk of their time using applications that don't use the second processor.

"Apple would have done better to introduce higher clock speeds if they could, because that would have delivered more to the ordinary buyer," he added.

With Apple ready to launch a public beta of Mac OS X next month, two-processor PowerMacs, which are available in 450-MHz and 500-MHz configurations, might have some allure to software developers.

"If you're looking at OS X or you're a developer, you would probably go and get (the dual-processor PowerMac) right now," Le Tocq said. "To some extent, there is some advantage there, so that at the OS X launch Apple will have an opportunity to show apps that take advantage of multiprocessor capability."

Analysts said they don't expect any appreciable sales gain from Apple's two-processor gambit. And Schiller made it clear two processors would not be coming to the more consumer-oriented iMac.

For now, the dual-processor system's appeal may mean most to Mac's most stalwart enthusiasts, but to few others, Le Tocq said.

"(For) people who go out and buy Apple's two-processor system today, that requires an act of faith."