A Look Back On The Clock Speed Myth

How PowerPC RISC chips won the battle but lost the war

The Megahertz Myth was coined by Steve Jobs in an effort to dispel the notion that raw clock speed meant faster performance.

The Megahertz Myth was coined by Steve Jobs in an effort to dispel the notion that raw clock speed meant faster performance.

No could have anticipated in the early days of personal computers that clock speed would become the marketing hammer that it did. When Macintosh was introduced in 1984, Apple made the decision to go the the Motorola 68xxx family of microprocessors. IBM and the multitude of IBM clone manufacturers opted for the Intel x86 CPUs. Each platform was noted for specific tasks it did better than the other. Whether those performance advantages were really true wasn’t the point until the arrival of Windows 95.

Macs were generally recognized as being better for graphics intensive work. Desktop publishing, photo editing and non linear video work was more at home on a Mac. Scientific calculations, spreadsheets and other business applications, especially relational databases were the areas where the IBM and IBM compatible PCs held sway.

Macintosh computers powered by the Motorola CPUs were sold until the last LC 520 and Perfoma 588 CD were discontinued in May of 1996. The last laptop Apple offered with a Motorola CPU was the PowerBook 190. It was discontinued in October of 1996. The fastest clock speed of the Motorola 68040 was a mere 33 MHz! When Apple introduced its first Macintosh with a PowerPC CPU, the 601 had a clock speed of 60 MHz.

Intel introduced its 386 family of CPUs in 1985. During the entire life of that particular CPU family, clock speed was between 16-33 MHz. Intel’s next CPU, the 486, was introduced in 1989. During its lifecycle, the clock speed of the CPU was measured at 25-50 MHz. It was Intel’s first CPU to have a built in coprocessor. This was a big advantage for gamers at that time.

When the Pentium CPU was introduced in 1993, Intel pushed the clock speed to 60 MHz. Eventually the original Pentium series would reach 233 MHz. It was the Pentium’s arrival which brought clock speed comparisons into the discussion. Initially, the comparison was considered more legitimate because both the Motorola and Intel chips were of the CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) design. In that sense, it was like comparing apples to apples.

Apple’s migration to IBM’s designed Powr RISC CPUs changed things in a big way. It was clearly a superior design. Unfortunately, Intel seized upon an inherent difference between the two designs. CISC of the sort Intel manufactured could run at much higher frequencies than the 60 MHz PowerPC 601 chips Apple used in its Macs beginning with the Power Macintosh 6100 in 1994. When Microsoft leveled the operating system playing field with Windows 95, it was game on.

Though Apple's PowerPC Macs outperformed Pentium PCs running at twice the clock speed, it never closed the deal with the customer. In 2006, Apple threw in the towel on PowerPC. Now, Intel's Inside Macs too!

Though Apple’s PowerPC Macs outperformed Pentium PCs running at twice the clock speed, it never closed the deal with the customer. In 2006, Apple threw in the towel on PowerPC. Now, Intel’s Inside Macs too!

It was a game dominated in every way by Microsoft and Intel until 2006. That’s when Apple yelled “Uncle” and migrated its operating system again. Only this time Apple switched to Intel Chips. The war was over and Intel won.

In those eleven years, Apple did everything it could to highlight the performance advantages in real world applications over Intel’s Pentium family of CPUs. The buying public just didn’t care. As far as Joe Consumer was concerned, a 1.7 GHz Pentium trumped an 800 MHz PowerPC G4 every day. After all 1.7 GHz was more than twice as fast as 800 MHz. It was an argument Apple was unable to overcome.

Please help support macs4newbies.com. It’s real easy to do. When you order one or more of the ebooks highlighted below, you will provide much needed help. Thank you very much.

What do you think about this? Share your comments.