Another look at the 20″ iMac Core Duo

Two weeks ago we arrived in Seattle. We planned at least seven weeks here. Being gone for so long required that I set up a portable office so Jen and I could work. She brought her laptop, I limited myself to the PowerBook and 20″ iMac Core Duo. Upon arrival, I accepted a one week contract job helping out Microsoft. That contract meant putting my iMac to work in new ways.

My project was the instruction of a course on LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP/Perl/Python) development. I had to document a process by which Microsoft employees could install LAMP on their computers and then use the LAMP stack in a development environment. Of course, it had to be delivered in the form of Word docs and PowerPoint “decks.” With that in mind, I had to have several things all running at the same time:

  • Windows XP
  • LAMP: Linux (via virtualization)
  • MS Word & PowerPoint

While instructing the course, I learned quite a few things about my Core Duo iMac, Parallels Desktop, and MS Office under Rosetta.

For starters, and reference, Parallels Desktop does a great job of running Windows XP. Previous to this contract, I had no problems running XP under it, but I had not really used it other than to boot it up and see that it worked.

Parallels Desktop & Boot Camp
While Parallels Desktop lets me run XP under Mac OS X, it is not quite as good as rebooting into XP via Boot Camp. I ran into a limitation when I installed and attempted to use Virtual PC 2004 for Windows. It simply will not run under XP when XP is running under Parallels, giving a “CPU not supported” error. Since I needed Virtual PC 2004 to work, I had to reboot into Windows under Boot Camp.

When Jon, the project manager, came over to broadcast the Live Meeting from my house, he looked at Windows XP on the screen and asked, “Where’s the computer?” I replied, “that is the computer.” Apple hardware rocks. As I have pointed out in previous articles, and continue to be surprised by, Windows XP runs much faster and smoother under Boot Camp on my iMac than on the dual 3.0GHz Xeon server I have. I was reminded of how “authentic” my experience was when MSN Messenger asked to enable my video camera. When I allowed it, the system promptly rebooted. I let it try once more with the same results before disabling the built-in iSight’s hardware profile. Am I the only one that finds it inexcusable that a vendor supplied chat program can crash the operation system?

MS Office & Core Duo Macs
Previously I noted that PowerPC apps like MS Office work just fine on the new Core Duo systems running under Rosetta. I have found that my assertation was a bit hasty. While Office does run and appears to work fine, when I began using it I found its performance is intolerably slow. I had to generate a number of PowerPoints and Word docs. None were very large, 15-30 slides for PowerPoint and 5-15 page Word docs. I started out building them on the iMac in Office 2004 but redraws, scrolling, and general use was too slow. This is on a 2GHz Core Duo with 2GB of RAM!

How slow is “too slow?” I did not bother with benchmarks because I had work to do. When I grabbed a scroll bar and drug, I would have to drag and wait for the screen to update, and it would often take up to a second and sometimes a few to redraw a page or a slide. This was after turning all of the auto-* features. If you are content with the speed of OS X or XP on a 4 year old computer, then the performance would be acceptable to you. For everyone else, if you must use Office regularly, avoid the new Intel powered Mac system unless you intend to buy the new version of Office the day it ships so you get get decent performance again.

I worked around the problem in two ways. The first was by running Office under XP (under Parallels). The rest of the time I edited the files on my aged but trustworthy G4 PowerBook. To summarize, the Core Duo equipped macs are really great systems, but if you spent a good portion of your day working in Office or any other app that is not yet Universal, you will want to continue using a PowerPC based Macintosh.