One-Two Punch

When Apple revises its desktop offerings these days, the most talked-about changes seem to occur on the surface. The new iMacs introduced last January, for example, may now run on G4 processors, but it's the flat-panel display and domed casing that immediately capture the eye. Mention the newly released eMac, and the first thing you're likely to hear about is its bright 17-inch flat-screen CRT monitor.

The same holds true for the newly redesigned Power Mac G4 line announced by Apple Tuesday, but only to a point. Like its consumer-friendly counterparts, Apple's pro-level Power Macs feature a noticeable new look -- in this case, redesigned front and rear panels that distinguish the newer models from previous Power Mac generations.

But with this latest desktop update, Apple has radically redesigned the inside of the Power Mac, bolstering performance beyond a slight increase to processor speed. Coupled with an improved operating system -- these Power Macs will come equipped with OS X 10.2, even before the Jaguar update ships on August 24 -- Apple figures the redesigned machines will be able to handle whatever processing-intensive task pro users can throw at it.

What's Inside

The reason for Apple's confidence? It starts with the Power Mac's processor -- both of them.

G4 Times Two -- Every Power Mac now comes with two processors, from the 867MHz base model to the top-of-the-line 1.25GHz configuration. A few years ago, that news would have mattered only to graphics and video pros with software capable of using the second processor. Now, with OS X's built-in support for symmetric multiprocessing, the new Power Macs can take full advantage of both processors.

Faster Chips -- While the number of processors may have doubled, the increase in chip speed is slightly more modest. The fastest processor in the Power Mac line features a 25 percent jump in clock speed from the previous top model, powered by two 1GHz G4 chips. But chips are far from the only speed-boosted items aboard this new built-for-speed Power Mac.

Bus Boost -- In terms of overall speed boosts, perhaps the most significant change in these new Power Macs is a faster system bus. Apple has increased the 133MHz bus featured in recent Power Mac generations with a 167MHz version (available only in the dual 1GHz and 1.25GHz configurations). The system bus connects a Mac's processor to its RAM; the faster a bus operates, the more efficiently a Mac's processor can work.

Xserve Inspired -- Other changes to the Power Mac's architecture are clearly inspired by another Apple hardware offering. The Xserve rack-mounted server Apple introduced earlier this year includes several features designed to maximize performance, and Apple has rolled those features over into these new Power Macs. Like the Xserve, the top-of-the-line Power Mac now has 2MB of L3 cache for each of its G4 processors (The dual 867MHz and 1GHz configurations feature 1MB of L3 cache) to feed data directly to the CPU at high speeds.

The new Power Macs will be the first to ship with high-speed Double Data Rate (DDR) RAM (256MB in the 867MHz and 1GHz models, 512MB in the high-end configuration) for system memory. DDR RAM transmits data on both the rise and fall of the clock signal, unlike the PC133 RAM in previous Power Macs that only sent data on the rising edge. Having DDR RAM in the Power Mac line effectively doubles the bandwidth of the system memory, allowing the dual G4 processors to stay busier.

ATA/100 -- The latest Power Macs also follow the Xserve's lead by featuring an ATA/100 bus for attaching internal hard drives. Allowing data bursts at rates up to 100MB per second, ATA/100 provides a faster connection to internal hard drives than the ATA/66 technology found in previous Power Macs. The new Power Mac G4's stock internal drive is attached to the ATA/100 bus by default; the systems come with an additional power and connector for adding another drive to the ATA/100 bus and two drives to an ATA/66 bus.

Video Power -- With these Power Macs, you've got several options when it comes to video cards. Previously available only in high-end Power Macs, the Nvidia GeForce4 MX with 32MB of DDR SDRAM now ships with the dual 867MHz configuration. The other two Power Mac models feature ATI's Radeon 9000 Pro with 64MB of DDR SDRAM. An even-more-powerful graphics card, the Nvidia GeForce4 Ti, is available as a build-to-order option. All cards support Mac OS X 10.2's Quartz Extreme, which lets a Mac's video hardware take control of screen drawing, freeing both G4 processors for other work.

More impressively, all these cards also support the ability to connect two digital flat-panel monitors natively. Each card includes an ADC connector, which is the format supported by Apple's own displays. A second DVI connector is more versatile -- it can connect to third-party flat-panel monitors directly, to CRT monitors via an included DVI-to-VGA adapter, and even to Apple-made displays via a $150 DVI-to-ADC adapter.

Room to Expand -- The Power Mac remains the most expandable of Apple's desktop products, retaining the four PCI slots and one AGP 4X slot found in previous versions. There are enough RAM slots to boost system memory to 2GB. The redesigned Power Mac also features space for a second optical-drive bay, a feature that Apple says was requested by pro users who burn a lot of CDs. The eject button on the keyboard still opens one of the optical drives (a DVD-burning SuperDrive on the 1.25GHz and 1GHz versions, a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive on the base model); option-eject opens the other.

Best Face Forward

Those tray-based optical drives reside behind a reflective metal strip on the Power Mac's redesigned front panel. The recessed speaker, introduced with the 2001 Quicksilver models, has moved to the top of the panel; four vents replace it on the bottom. On top of the optical drive, next to the power button, Apple has placed a headphone jack, saving users from having to awkwardly reach around to the back of the machine whenever they need to unplug.

The ports on the back of the Power Mac remain unchanged, save for two returning features that will be welcome to audiophiles -- the Power Mac once again features audio line in and audio line out ports. Those join two USB and two FireWire ports, a built-in 56K modem jack, a gigabit Ethernet connector, an Apple speaker jack, and ADC and DVI connectors for monitors.

These changes don't come without a cost. The base model Power Mac is priced at $1,699, $100 more than what Apple previously charged for its least-expensive configuration. Of course, that extra $100 gets you a faster G4 chip, a second processor, L3 cache, a 20GB increase in hard-drive capacity, and a combo drive. The dual 1GHz Power Mac G4 is priced at $2,499; like the dual 867MHz model, it will ship later this week. The dual 1.25GHz Power Mac G4, expected in late September, costs $3,299.

Apple unveiled more than just dual-processor Power Macs on Tuesday. It also announced a SuperDrive-equipped configuration of its all-in-one eMac desktop. The 800MHz G4-powered eMac features 256MB of RAM, a 60GB hard-drive, and a $1,499 price tag for consumers. Also equipped with OS X 10.2, it will be available at the end of August. Last month, at Macworld Expo New York, Apple introduced an eMac configuration with a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive; that model now costs $1,099. In addition, Apple cut the price on two of its 15-inch flat-panel iMac configurations -- the CD-RW and Combo drive configurations are now available for $1,299 and $1,499, respectively.

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