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I found enormous value in my time away from Mac

Several months ago, I determined that my years-long fondness required reexamination. I quietly took a break from the Mac to get some perspective, to check out Vista, AMD, and Longhorn (Windows Server 2008) untainted by Apple's PR and uninfluenced by other journalists and bloggers. I elected to take a break from reviews of new Mac hardware, the occasion of which always piques my interest in Apple's platform. There were times when I felt I'd chosen the worst possible time for this hiatus. I ended up passing on MacBook Air, Time Capsule, Harpertown Mac Pro, and most painful of all, the new MacBook Pro. It was difficult seeing reviews of these from sister publications, but I take my responsibility to readers very seriously. I can't very well counsel you on technology choices if I consider the field limited to one worthwhile player, especially when that player projects the image that it competes only with the generation of systems that preceded what's presently sold.

I found enormous value in my time away from Mac. I made the kind of discoveries I used to make routinely before I took on the Mac as a specialty, and as I take up the Mac again -- which I am doing immediately -- it's clear that my appreciation for the platform is justified, and that the customary split of my effort and attention between Apple and AMD is justified.

The genuine, practical superiority of AMD's Barcelona server platform, and its Phenom desktop platforms that derived from Barcelona, came to light during the break I took from Mac. A one-socket, quad-core Spider (Phenom plus ATI CrossFire graphics) runs Vista so obscenely fast that even a die-hard Mac user's head will turn. Privately, of course.

I found it extremely intriguing that systems built on Phenom platforms can tune themselves autonomously for the maximum possible CPU and GPU speed over a surprisingly broad range, based on a whole system approach that takes cooling, power supply capacity, and your preferences for noise and maximum power consumption into account. I found that I could speed bump an AMD Phenom desktop for free by moving it closer to the floor, where the cooler air prevails. What a grand idea that in itself shows genuine customer-focused insight.

I gained a fresh appreciation for the GNU compiler collection, which has taken remarkable strides since I last took a deep dive in it. I was unaware of the level of engagement from commercial partners, including Apple, AMD, and Novell. Each is undoubtedly pursuing its own agenda, but it does so within the framework and culture of one of the most tightly controlled and liberally licensed open source projects in existence. AMD has finally embarked on the long road to compiler parity with Intel with its contribution of Family 10 (Barcelona/Phenom) architecture-specific optimizations to GNU.

Apple has been busy on the gcc front as well. Objective-C 2.0, with its desperately needed garbage collection, has been a reality in the GNU toolchain since Xcode 3 was in nondisclosure beta. In release 4.2 of gcc, auto-parallelization joins auto-vectorization to adapt projects to multiprocessing and vector acceleration without developer intervention. Unless I'm mistaken, the public beta versions of the iPhone SDK, now at Beta 3, mark Apple's first swing at Microsoft-style free public distribution of pre-release dev tools. The privilege of early access has been reserved for paid members of Apple's Developer Connection programs. That iPhone SDK carries all of the latest GUI tools, documentation, and GNU command-line compilers, including Fortran, into Apple's default distribution. Hit Apple's iPhone Dev Center and scroll to the bottom of the page for the download link. You do not need to pay the US$99 fee to register as an iPhone developer to use the new tools, which compile applications for Leopard as well as iPhone.

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