Power Play

This time around, there was no Time magazine cover story. Steve Jobs didn't announce the news to an appreciative Macworld Expo crowd. Apple didn't even hold a media-only briefing like it did when it introduced the iPod. Instead, the only indication that Apple had updated its Power Mac G4 desktop offerings came via a press release issued when half the country was just getting out of bed.

While Apple's method for announcing the Power Mac news may have been low-key, the update itself certainly wasn't--for the first time ever, a Macintosh will sport a processor that runs at 1GHz. And all three Power Mac configurations come with newly released graphics processors--the 933MHz and 1GHz models featuring Nvidia's new GeForce4 MX graphics chip.

Boosting the speed of its Power Mac desktops racks up two important objectives for Apple. First, it offers pro users a more powerful computer, matching many of the improvements introduced to the consumer-friendly iMac earlier this month. Just as important, hitting the gigahertz mark gives Apple more ammunition for the argument that its desktops can outperform Pentium-powered machines.

Apple's New Gig

The updated Power Macs feature the same silver-tone face, flat and buttonless drive-bay doors, and recessed speaker as the models introduced last summer. Inside, you'll find largely the same QuickSilver architecture as well. And the machines still run on PowerPC G4 processors, as opposed to the rumored G5 CPU that's in the works.

The CPU may be the same, but it packs more of a punch this time around--two 1GHz G4 processors, in the case of the top-of-the-line Power Mac introduced by Apple. Hitting the gigahertz mark represents an important psychological barrier for Mac users, who've watched Pentium processor speeds skyrocket while Mac megahertz ratings have climbed more gradually. But Apple insists the significance of a dual 1GHz Power Mac is more than just psychological. After all, the first Power Mac G4, which debuted in 1999, delivered one billion floating point operations per second, or one gigaflop; this latest dual-processor Power Mac delivers 15 gigaflops.

There's more to the new Power Macs' performance than just a faster processor, though. All three Power Mac models feature the same 133MHz system bus found in previous generations. Both the dual-processor machine and the single-process 933MHz model include 2MB of double date rate L3 cache to further bolster performance (The new 800MHz Power Mac features the 256K of on-chip L2 cache that also comes with the higher-end models). A fast system bus helps a processor work faster. And backside cache improves performance by storing repeated commands and data so that your Mac doesn't have to continually read them from the RAM on the motherboard.

How do those specs affect the Power Mac's performance when measured against a Pentium-powered PC? No one can say for sure until independent testing is conducted. However, Apple claims that its own testing indicates a dual 1GHz G4 Power Mac runs Photoshop 72 percent faster than a 2GHz Pentium 4-based PC. The reason for the difference? Different CPUs complete different amounts of work during each processor cycle.

"A Power Mac can perform faster than a PC simply because it gets a lot more done per clock," said Tom Boger, director of Power Mac product marketing.

One thing that is clear about the performance of the updated dual-processor Power Mac: it should thrive under Mac OS X. Apple's new operating system supports symmetric multiprocessing, which means speedier performance. "It isn't just a handful of applications that take advantage of the dual processors," said Greg Joswiak, senior director of hardware product marketing. "It's the entire OS."

What's Inside

Besides ratcheting up the clock speed, Apple also increased the installed memory on its Power Mac models. The low-end configuration, which used to ship with 128MB of RAM, now features 256MB. Buy a dual-processor machine, and you'll get 512MB of memory (A build-to-order option lets you assemble a dual 1GHZ Power Mac G4 with 1.5GB of RAM).

The other major change to the Power Mac line involves new graphics chips. Apple says the dual 1GHz and 933MHz Power Macs will be the first computers to ship with Nvidia's GeForce4 MX graphics card, which features 64MB of DDR SDRAM and the ability to generate 1.1 billion textured pixels per second. Essentially, that translates to improved 3-D graphics performance--a boon for Power Mac-using graphics pros. The 800MHz Power Mac contains a Radeon 7500 graphics processor from ATI. The recently released AGP card comes with 32MB of DDR SDRAM. Build-to-order options allow Mac users to select either graphics card for their Power Mac.

X on Board

Like the now-shipping iMac, the new Power Macs hit the shelves with OS X as their default operating system (users can still switch the default OS to Mac OS 9, which also ships on the desktops). Also taking a page from the iMac, which shipped with a number of consumer-friendly apps pre-installed, Apple is including OS X-native software on the Power Mac aimed at graphics and pro users. The Power Mac ships with Snapz Pro X, PixelNhance 1.5, Art Directors Toolkit for X, GraphicConverter 4.1, OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner, PCalc, FileMaker Pro Trial 5.5, and Apple Developer Tools X.

When Apple released a dual 800MHz Power Mac last summer, it sold the machine for $3,499. The new 1GHz dual-processor Mac costs $500 less at $2,999. Like its 800MHz dual-processing predecessor, the 1GHz model comes with 80GB of storage and a DVD/CD-burning SuperDrive. The 933MHz Power Mac also features a SuperDrive, along with a 60GB hard drive, and a $2,299 price tag. As for the single-processor 800MHz model introduced by apple Monday, it comes with a CD-RW drive and 40GB of storage. But, if you already have a monitor, the $1,599 800MHz costs only $300 more than the least expensive iMac.

(Along with the new Power Macs, Apple is offering mail-in rebates on its flat-panel displays. Purchase a Power Mac and 15-inch display, and you get $100 back; a Power Mac and a 17-inch display gets a $300 rebate; and a Power Mac and the 22-inch Apple Cinema Display gets a $500 discount.)

With the new Power Macs, Apple has updated every one of its desktop and laptop product lines within the last four months. "We've got our product line set for the next several months," Joswiak said.

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