In the last couple of years, a new group has appeared in cyberspace with the goal of creating an open source PowerPC laptop. They are currently raising money and are in the early planning. The question is: Can they pull it off? And, if they do, will it be worth it?
What is PowerPC again?
First off, how many of you have heard of PowerPC? Go ahead and raise your hand if you have. Undoubtedly, most people remember PowerPC from old Macs. For you whippersnappers, Apple used PowerPC processors in all their computers until the early 2000s.
PowerPC is a computing architecture created an alliance between Apple, IBM, and Motorola. PowerPC technology is based on a reduced instruction set computer (or RISC). This means that RISC chips work by processing a series of short, general instructions. This is different than the x86 processors that run most computers today. Those chips use the Complex instruction set computer (or CISC) architecture, which uses complex or multi-step instructions to work.
Currently, PowerPC can be found in embedded systems and niche computers, like the AmigaOne series.
Meet Linux PowerPC Notebook Project
The Linux PowerPC Notebook Project is made up a group of Linux fans who want to revitalize the PowerPC for the open source community.
When we first covered them in July of 2017, they were raising money to hire a company to design a schematic for a modern PowerPC motherboard.
Since then, the company that they contracted (ACube) delivered the schematics. However, the people at the Linux PowerPC Notebook Project asked for further revisions because they “thought some design decisions had to be improved. These hardware reviews are quite complicated, and we would need additional volunteers, possibly hardware engineers able to properly address the task.”
One of the project’s ongoing problems is to find a suitable laptop chassis. ACube is currently searching for an existing laptop chassis that they can adapt for the PowerPC laptop. They are also exploring designing their own laptop chassis with new 3d technology. If you are interested in helping, you can visit their site or their GitLab project.
The software side of the project looks more promising. They are maintaining their own repo of PowerPC software. The project originally planning to maintain the PowerPC version of Debian, but it appears that they are also working on their own distro based on the Yocto Project.
Advantages of PowerPC over x86
Why PowerPC? To begin with, the PowerPC architecture is much newer than the x86 architecture that we use every day. x86 was released in 1978 and PowerPC was released in 1991. Undoubtedly, this means that the creators of PowerPC learned from the mistakes and shortcomings of x86.
The rest of the reasons on the Linux PowerPC Notebook Project site are too technical for me to understand. For those of you who know about this stuff read on:
- 64-bit architecture with a proper 32-bit subset
- Wide vector instructions with large register file allow efficient data moving without the use of off-chip memory
- RISC architecture introduces Superscalar concept of multiple execution units: Branch, Fixed Integer, Floating Point
- AltiVec SIMD vector processing
- ISA 2.04/2.05/2.06 support multicore/multithreading, virtualization, hypervisor, and Power Management
Based on my own research, the CISC architecture used more power and thus runs hotter than RISC. This is because a CISC chip completes fewer instructions per process, but each step is more complicated.
Also, it seems as though, PowerPC has an advantage when it comes to processing large amounts of data. According to an article in ComputerWeekly, PowerPC shines when it comes to “enterprise workloads”.
This includes “databases, data warehouses, data transaction processing, data encryption/compression, and certainly in high-performance computing, which most in business think of as analytics.” PowerPC comes out ahead in this regard because virtualization and hypervisors are included in the architecture. In the x86 architecture, most hypervisors are third-party products.
Would I buy a PowerPC based Linux laptop? It would depend on two things:
- If I could afford it
- whether it had a big performance boost over x86.
My question is: has PowerPC development kept up with x86 development? According to one article I read, the reason that Apple switched to Intel x86 was that they were disappointed with IBM’s speed in improving the PowerPC chips. Of course, that was over a decade ago. Who knows what advanced IBM would have made in that time.
I also wonder why not focus on creating an ARM-powered laptop? After all, ARM used the same RISC instruction set as PowerPC and is used in a wide range of computing devices. ARM has exploded in popularity with the release of the Raspberry Pi. I’m sure there are more Linux distros with support for ARM than have support for PowerPC.
On the flip side, PowerPC is a lot closer to actually being ready for desktop use. IBM has continued to pursue the development of the PowerPC architecture through the OpenPOWER Foundation.
Currently, the biggest problems that face this project is getting their schematics completed, getting them approved by the Open Source Hardware Association, and finding a suitable chassis.
The PowerPC Linux laptop is not going to appear overnight. Right now they are at the planning stages. There are multiple hurdles they will have to get over in the future and more money they will have to raise. I wish them good luck in their endeavors.
Would you buy a PowerPC Linux laptop? Where do you stand in the PowerPC vs x86 discussion? Let us know in the comments below. If you want to donate to the project or learn more, visit their website.