The Mac Observer has a report from an investment analyst predicting near-future Apple hardware upgrades:

  1. The PowerMac G5 will be upgraded with dual-core 970MP chips, giving Apple effectively a quad-processor system at the top of their line.
  2. The PowerBook will be upgraded to around 2 GHz, using the 7448 that I discussed last week.
  3. The PowerBook will get a HD screen.
  4. The Mac mini will get a G5.
  5. The iPod mini will get a color screen.
  6. There will be a video iPod.

Some of this seems pretty obvious–the color iPod mini has been rumored for almost a year, and it’s a pretty obvious direction for Apple. I don’t think anyone doubts that it’ll happen, it’s just a question of when. Similarly, the dual-core PowerMac G5 is Apple’s only available upgrade path for the G5 systems–if they’re going to upgrade them at all before they get dropped for Intel systems, then Apple’s going to use the 970MP.

The PowerBook upgrades are a bit more of a mystery to me. I can see a simple upgrade that swaps the current 7447 CPU for a 7448–they’re basically pin-compatible. The 7448 has a slightly faster FSB, which will help since the G4 suffers from a painfully slow bus, but it’s basically just a continuation of the current G4 line. The problem is that several rumors say that the PB G4 is moving to DDR2 memory, and that confuses me. It suggests that Apple’s building a new north bridge, which seems kind of expensive for a product that will only be on the market for 9-12 months.

The DDR2 change would make perfect sense if Apple was really swapping the current 7447 for a MPC8641 and using the MPC8641’s on-chip DDR2 controller, but as far as I can tell, the MPC8641 isn’t supposed to ship in quantity until early next year.

Engadget hinted last week that the DDR2 move was really a power-saving move, not a performance move. Since moving to DDR2 wouldn’t help performance a whole lot when even PC2100 RAM is faster then the 7448’s FSB, power savings make as much sense as anything. I don’t know enough about laptop power budgets to know if dropping 5W on the CPU and a few more Watts on the memory is enough to really extend the laptop’s battery life by a significant margin, but it suggests that Apple may be aiming for 6-7 hours, rather then the current 4-5 hours that most PowerBooks currently get.

Back to the rumored Mac mini G5–I can’t see this happening at all:

  1. Cost. The G5 is supposed to cost more. The Mac mini is Apple’s most price-sensitive Mac. Even a $50 price bump would probably be unacceptable.
  2. Cooling. The dinky little Mac mini case has many of the same cooling problems that G5-based laptops would face. Battery life isn’t an issue, but getting rid of 30W of waste heat is.
  3. Lineup. If Apple speeds up the mini, then it’ll have to either drop the eMac or upgrade it too. It could also cannibalize iMac and iBook sales. Those wouldn’t be a big deal if Apple could upgrade either model and get more performance, but they’re basically stuck with both of them. I guess they could build a dual-core iMac G5, but they have cooling problems with the iMac, and adding a hotter CPU probably wouldn’t help with that.

I don’t know about the video iPod–I can see a 5th generation iPod that’s capable of playing videos on the 2” display while still being optimized for audio playback, but I have a harder time seeing Apple producing an iPod with a huge display. I don’t feel really strongly either way, I guess.

Finally, on the x86 upgrade question–I’ve been wondering which Apple model will be the first to be switched, and when it’ll happen. Apple said that consumer systems would be first, and that’ll happen sometime in 2006. My personal guess would be the iMac in March or so–it’s Apple’s most distinctive system, and it would appeal to users even as a stylish Windows box. It’s not really going to be fast or cheap enough to kill PowerMac G5 sales, so that’s a safe move for Apple. The Mac mini and iBook are the two other consumer options, but I can’t see either one being part of the first wave of upgrades–they’d kill sales of the PowerMac and PowerBook. So I expect that we’ll see systems upgraded in roughly this order: iMac, PowerMac, PowerBook, Mac mini, iBook.