The Soul of the New Macs

By Matthew Rothenberg  |  Posted 2002-08-15

The Soul of the New Macs

Ive said it before, but its worth saying again: Apple Computers perennial efforts to block all "rumor and speculation" (to quote a well-worn Cupertino mantra) about future Mac directions are futile—and frequently counterproductive.

Lets say Apple could plug each of the myriad trickles of unauthorized information about its forthcoming products: a perpetual, tidal flow I see as a positive indicator of the Mac communitys unquenchable enthusiasm and support. Even without the "rumors" part of the formulation, though, "speculation" would inevitably continue among any interested Mac user willing to take even a cursory look at the cyclical rhythms of Apples product schedule.

Consider this weeks announcement of new Power Mac G4 towers for the professional desktop. While I derived plenty of entertainment value from the images and product specs that made their way onto the Web last month (as well as by Apples strenuous attempts to stop them), they offered only a fragmentary picture of the new boxes.

A more compelling argument for a mid-August Power Mac refresh was simply the weight of precedent: It had been more than a half-year since the company nudged up its top of the line to 1GHz, and supplies of the current pro desktops were drying up in the retail channel (historically, a sure sign that new Macs are on the way). Given those time-tested circumstances, can Apple really pin expectations for hot new Power Macs on the "rumor sites"?

So whats counterproductive about Apples policy? In this case, Im afraid Apples anxiety not to reveal any hints about processor performance set these systems up for a bit of a fall. The fact that the Motorola chips at the top of the line (due in September) will clock in at only 1.25GHz thwarts common wisdom about optimum speed gains from upgrade to upgrade—and threatens to take a bit of the luster off machines that are otherwise admirable for their enhancements.

Under the Hood

Under the Hood

Even though the Mac community is less megahertz-obsessed than are its PC counterparts, the average Apple watcher could be excused for expecting a bigger jump in processor performance. Ive certainly heard reports for months of prototype systems running at 1.4 to 1.6GHz, but apparently Moto simply wasnt able to produce these peppier chips in sufficient quantities to slake Apples thirst.

The relatively puny delta between the speeds of Januarys models and Augusts undoubtedly colored Apples decision to roll out these new towers without benefit of a Steve Jobs-orchestrated media event or other marketing bells and whistles afforded, say, the flat-panel iMac. (Thanks a lot, Motorola!)

Thats a shame, since theres a lot to like about the new Power Macs, including new architectural features derived from the same wellspring of innovation as the Xserve, Apples new rack-mounted server.

For starters, the whole professional line is now dual-processor. Apple toyed with doubling up chips as far back as the Spindler administration, but the effort dwindled because of limitations in some earlier flavors of the PowerPC—and especially in the classic Mac OS. For professional users who are ready to make the leap to Mac OS X (a population still gated by the lack of Carbonized versions of QuarkXPress and some pro-multimedia applications), the Unix-based OS support for symmetrical multiprocessing should give these systems a serious goose compared with single-processor Wintel boxes at higher clock speeds.

Other niceties promise to propel these new systems comfortably ahead of the 25 percent speed boost: Xserve-derived support for DDR-RAM; an ATA/100 bus for storage, compared with ATA/66 for its predecessors; 2MB of L3 cache on the 1- and 1.25GHz models; and an ATI Radeon 9000 Pro video card on those two machines. The system bus has risen to 167MHz system bus from 133MHz in earlier models. While I expect a bigger boost in future Macs, Apples Greg Joswiak does argue that the new systems feature multiple independent buses a la the Xserve, which should wring some more performance out of the hardware.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the hairiest fly in this soothing Apple ointment apparently bears a Motorola logo: According to XLR8YourMac and other independent observers, the G4s in these Power Macs are old-school PowerPC 7455s, not the newfangled 7470s Mac watchers had anticipated. According to these naysayers, that limits bandwidth and takes some of the luster off the bidirectional performance of the DDR-RAM.

So where does that leave us unregenerate Mac rumormongers? For the most part, looking away from Motorolas PowerPC efforts and at the intriguing developments from IBM, which is reportedly modifying its 64-bit Power4 processor (originally intended for the server market) to meet the AltiVec (a.k.a Velocity Engine) vector-processing specifications Macs ask for by name.

Motorola may have precipitated a bit on Apples parade this time around, but the architectural advances these machines represent already make them a compelling purchase for serious Mac users.

Oh, and one more bit of speculation for the road: If Apple succeeds in shaking up its PowerPC relationship in the coming months, the value of these hardware innovations will become much clearer very quickly.

Are you ready to pony up for a new Power Mac? Drop me a line and tell me if these machines are all that—or if youll stay tuned for the sequel.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.

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