capsule review

Power Mac G4

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Past generations of desktop Macs had many perceived deficiencies, but the latest crop of Power Macs should put those criticisms to rest. These Macs include CD-RW drives and an additional PCI slot (bringing the total to four), and the top three models -- those with 533MHz, 667MHz, and 733MHz G4 processors -- sport one of the most powerful graphics processors on the market, nVidia's 32MB GeForce2 MX. Less-obvious changes include a faster system bus and sprightlier PCI throughput.

New Power Mac G4s You can tell the difference.

We tested the two less-expensive models -- the 466MHz ($1,699) and the 533MHz ($2,199) -- and we are pleased to report that in nearly every respect, these are finer and more capable Macs than their predecessors.

Dynamic Desktops

Apple includes a 30GB (5,400-rpm) hard drive in the 466MHz model and a 40GB (7,200-rpm) hard drive in the 533MHz machine, plus a generous 128MB of RAM in each. Both models demonstrate that Apple's system-level improvements pay off with better performance. The new 466MHz model, for example, matched the Speedmark score of our test-bed system -- the previous-generation 500MHz Power Mac G4-thanks in large part to the new Mac's faster system bus (see the benchmark). And in our Photoshop Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Mask tests, the 466MHz machine lagged only a second behind the older G4.

The inclusion of a 4X AGP slot also offers rewards. Although both the new 466MHz G4 and the old 500MHz G4 carry an ATI Rage 128 graphics chip set, the old G4 offers a 2X AGP slot; the new model squeezed an additional five frames per second out of Quake III Arena.

As we expected, the 533MHz Power Mac easily outmatched both the new 466MHz and the old 500MHz Power Mac models. Although its six-percent performance gain in our Speedmark tests was less than earth-shattering, we were mightily impressed when the 533MHz model clipped five seconds off the 500MHz Mac's Photoshop scores -- that's a 25 percent improvement. We were somewhat surprised that the previous-generation Power Mac G4 fared better in our MP3 encoding test, taking 1 minute, 50 seconds to encode our 9-minute, 25-second-test file; the new Power Macs took a full two minutes. Because both the 466MHz and 533MHz models encoded our test MP3 file at the same rate, we can probably attribute this difference to slower read times in the new CD-RW drives.

The most dramatic difference between the 533MHz Power Mac G4 and the 466MHz (as well as the older 500MHz model) is in 3-D graphics performance. In our Quake III tests, the ATI Rage 128 card yielded a perfectly acceptable 46 frames per second. The 533MHz model's nVidia GeForce2 MX card produced nearly half as many frames in this test-an impressive 66 frames per second. Little wonder that nVidia's graphics cards are revered by PC gamers. Unfortunately, the nVidia card's 2-D performance doesn't match its 3-D capabilities: in our 2-D scrolling tests -- particularly the PDF test -- the ATI card ran noticeably faster.

Power to Burn

Prior to the release of these Power Macs, Steve Jobs commented that Apple had missed the boat when it failed to include CD-rewritable drives in its computers. The company has rectified the situation by including CD-RW drives in each Power Mac model. And to be sure that these drives are actually useful, Apple offers Disc Burner, an application/extension combination that allows you to create data and music CDs using the Mac's built-in CD-RW drive. The Disc Burner/CD-RW combination is a winner, making tools such as Adaptec's Toast seem clumsy in comparison. Unlike other CD-writing software, Disc Burner lets you burn a CD simply by inserting a blank CD-R or CD-RW disc into the Mac's CD-RW drive, choosing a format for the disc, and then dragging and dropping files onto the CD's icon. When you're ready to write that data to the CD, simply select Burn CD from the Finder's Special menu, and Disc Burner burns and verifies the disc.

Disc Burner becomes even more capable when coupled with Apple's free MP3 encoder/player utility, iTunes. From within iTunes you can extract tracks from an audio CD, add those tracks to a playlist, and then burn those tracks to a CD-R. iTunes and Disc Burner can just as easily turn MP3 files into CD-player-compatible AIFF sound files and burn those files to disc. As we go to press, neither Disc Burner or iTunes is bundled with the Power Mac G4s, but you can download them for free from Apple's Web site.

Something's Missing

Considering Apple's current focus on multimedia and its push to paint the Mac as a "digital hub" for multimedia devices, it's odd that the company chose to strip the Sound Input port from these new Macs. Granted, the introduction of new USB and FireWire audio input devices and sound cards makes it possible to bring in audio by alternate means, but none of these alternate means are bundled with the Mac. Surely those who have invested in audio and speech-recognition programs that rely on sound input will be disappointed to learn that they must purchase additional equipment to make their applications work with these new Macs.

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