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Friday, July 08, 2005, 01:25 pm PT (04:25 pm ET)

New IBM chip could serve a PowerBook G5, but is it too little too late?

IBM's announcement of a low-power 970FX PowerPC G5 processor yesterday came as a bit of a surprise to some analysts and industry insiders who believe the chip could be the first worthy contender to power a G5-based laptop from Apple, but question if Mac maker will choose to use it.

Two variants of the chip — a 1.2GHz version and a 1.4GHz version — consume an approximately 13 watts of power, believed to be cool enough to operate inside a PowerBook enclosure with an advanced cooling system. A high-end 1.6GHz version consumes 16 watts.

By comparison, Freescale's recently introduced MPC7448 PowerPC G4, the successor to the chip used in Apple's current PowerBook G4 systems, will consume about 10 watts of power running at 1.4GHz, and just under 15 watts of power at its top speed of 1.7GHz.

"The [low-power 970FX] mobile G5 may surprise some given Steve Jobs' comments at his keynote that one of the key reasons why Apple is moving to Intel is that IBM cannot come up with a low-power G5 processor for use in a PowerBook," American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu wrote in a research note released to clients on Friday. "The irony of this is that these new mobile G5 processors consume 13 to 16 watts, very competitive with Intel Pentium M processors" which power today's Centrino laptops.

The current generation Pentium M mobile processors are believed to draw between 10 and 15 watts of power, with typical operation in the 13 watt range, according to Intel documents. By some industry standards, chips that consume less than 10 watts do not always require a cooling system, while those drawing a bit more power are often accompanied by cooling fans.

"For Apple, the good news is that it now has more choices on PowerPC processors to bridge the gap over the next two years as it transitions to Intel processors," Wu said. "But the bad news is that we believe it will remain a marketing challenge to say that Intel Macs are the future and at the same time be selling powerful dead-end PowerPC Macs over the next two years."

Tim Deal, an analyst for Technology Business Research, also believes Apple's switch to Intel chips may have buried any hope for a PowerBook G5 this late in the game. "Apple has made it quite clear that a PowerBook G5 is not in the company’s product roadmap," the analyst told AppleInsider. "After the company’s announced move to integrate Intel processors, the introduction of a PowerBook G5 would contradict Apple’s implication that IBM is unable to meet its ongoing product evolution."

Still, Deal acknowledges that demand for a PowerBook G5 exists amongst consumers. "If Apple could meet that demand, then there is likely a revenue opportunity in the introduction," he said.

The time between now and mid-2006 — when Apple is expected to begin introducing the first Intel-based Macs — has raised concern amongst some analysts who wonder if sales of PowerPC-based Macs will slip as consumers anticipate the company's first Intel-based systems. They fear changes in demand for Apple's current offerings could affect short-term Mac revenue growth.

Apple last updated its PowerBook G4 product line in January with 1.5GHz and 1.67GHz processors from Motorola's Freescale subsidiary. If Apple choose not to use IBM's new low-power 970FX G5 chips, it seems unlikely that any forthcoming PowerBook update would sport a processor faster than Freescale's recently announced 1.7GHz MPC7448 PowerPC G4.

The first PowerBook to sport an Intel processor is not expected until July 2006 at the earliest.