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Power Mac G4 - photo by Kevin Candland
Comic books made their mark on the world by telling the stories of people with amazing and bizarre powers that place them far above the realm of mere mortals. Invisibility, superhuman strength, invulnerability, blinding speed--in the world of superheroes, no capability is too fantastic to be possible.

Though the ability to bend steel with a single thought is still firmly seated in the realm of fantasy, another kind of super power just became a reality. With the arrival of the Power Mac G4, the personal supercomputer is finally here.

Based on the new PowerPC G4 processor, which is capable of executing well over 1 billion floating-point instructions per second (the requirement to qualify for supercomputer status), the Power Mac G4 is to most computers what Superman is to the average citizen of Metropolis.

In a world where Apple spends a fortune to get just the right tone, saturation, reflection, and transparency in its plastics, little things can mean a lot. As some readers may remember, Macworld was underwhelmed by the look of the blue-and-white Power Mac G3 (see "iMac Envy," March 1999), now discontinued after a whopping eight months in existence. It wasn't that we didn't like the blue-and-white G3; we simply felt it borrowed a little too much from the consumer-friendly look of the iMac to be taken seriously by the professional user it was designed for.

Glorious Graphite   We're happy to report that we feel no such ambivalence about the chassis of the Power Mac G4. Words like elegant, refined, and striking come to mind. Although the overall design of the case remains the same as for the G3, the Power Mac G4 replaces the blueberry front panel with a shade of gray that Apple calls graphite. The sides are now an opaque silver gray, and you can no longer see through the Power Mac's skin to the metal framework inside. Perhaps most striking are the clear handles, which beautifully offset the graphite Apple logo on the side panels.

Best of all, our favorite feature of the blue-and-white G3's design remains unchanged in the G4--the easy-to-open door that gives users full access to all the Power Mac's internal components.

By any measure, the new PowerPC G4 chip is incredibly fast. Using megahertz as a measurement is a start: these three new Power Macs clock in at 400MHz, 450MHz, and 500MHz. But those numbers don't adequately describe the speed of the G4 chip.

The Flash   That's because in addition to being faster than the G3 processor and offering higher clock speeds, the G4 includes a new subprocessor that Apple has dubbed Velocity Engine. The name may be new, but the technology is something we've been hearing about for some time--a high-speed subprocessor called AltiVec by the G4's inventor, Motorola. (For more on the G4 processor, see the sidebar "Introducing the G4 Processor.")

Although Motorola and IBM plan to produce G4 chips both with and without Velocity Engine, Apple currently plans to use only G4s that feature the subprocessor. This is a good thing, because applications have to be modified in order to take advantage of Velocity Engine features.

Several companies have already announced plans to support Velocity Engine--in fact, an Adobe Photoshop plug-in for Velocity Engine will come with every Power Mac G4. The first day the G4 arrived, several other companies announced Velocity Engine support in their products, including Casady & Greene's SoundJam MP and Terran Interactive's Media Cleaner Pro.

Depending on the program, users could see up to a fourfold improvement over non-Velocity Engine versions in the speed of certain functions, such as complex encryption, graphics filters, and multimedia compression. That's undoubtedly why SoundJam MP (MP3 audio compression) and Media Cleaner Pro (QuickTime compression) made the jump to Velocity Engine so quickly.

Speed Racer   However, the speed improvements from the G4 don't end with Velocity Engine. According to Apple, even applications that aren't Velocity Engine-savvy will see significant performance boosts. Some of this has to do with the faster speed of the G4 chip itself, but some of it also has to do with improvements in the logic board on certain models of the G4 (see the section "The Invisible Mac" below).

And keep in mind that the Power Mac G4 is a supercomputer even though there's only one processor inside that gray-and-silver box. Apple stopped shipping Macs with multiple processors mostly because the G3 chip didn't work with multiprocessing. However, the G4 has no such limitations--meaning that G4 Macs with several processors inside are a distinct possibility down the road, especially considering the powerful multiprocessing abilities that will be built into Mac OS X.

Not everything about these new Power Mac G4s is as crystal-clear as their curved handles, however. That's because while all these models share the same G4 moniker, some striking differences become apparent when you open their side doors.

Wonder Twins   In the initial Power Mac G4 lineup there are two different configurations, one an intermediate step between the faster G4s and the blue-and-white Power Mac G3, the other a high-end configuration featuring impressive new technologies.

In order to get one model in the G4 lineup down under $2,000--and to get it out to customers as soon as possible--Apple placed a 400MHz G4 processor onto a slightly modified version of the blue-and-white G3's logic board, and put it in the new Power Mac G4 case. In almost all other respects, the low-end Power Mac G4 is exactly the same as the G3 Power Macs. One notable exception: none of the Power Mac G4 models features an ADB port; the last vestige of old Mac input-output technologies from the G3 is now gone.

As a result of using the older logic board design, Apple was able to pack a lot into the low-end G4, considering its $1,599 price tag--a 400MHz G4 processor with 1MB of L2 cache, 64MB of RAM (expandable to 1GB), ATI Rage 128 2-D/3-D graphics acceleration with 16MB of graphics memory, a 10GB Ultra ATA hard drive, and a CD-ROM drive. A version of the low-end G4 featuring a 450MHz processor will be available in October, according to Apple.

Clobberin' Time   The high-end G4s, initially running at either 450MHz or 500MHz, are based on a totally new logic board design and include some impressive refinements. For instance, the 66MHz PCI graphics card slot in the blue-and-white G3 and the 400MHz G4 has been replaced by a 133MHz AGP 2x slot. AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) is a high-performance PC industry standard for connecting graphics cards, and, according to Apple, with the right driver software, any of the ultrafast AGP cards currently available for Intel PCs will work in the 450MHz or 500MHz G4s.

The combination of the G4 processor, Velocity Engine, and the AGP slot is so powerful that the high-end G4s don't have any video decoder hardware built in. That means these models can play back DVD movies all by themselves, without needing an extra boost from an MPEG decoder chip.

Memory bandwidth has also been doubled on the higher-end G4s--to 800 MBps (up from 400 MBps on the low-end system)--with the maximum amount of RAM increased to a whopping 1.5GB. That translates to systems that are much faster reading to and writing from RAM--which means RAM-intensive applications, such as Photoshop, will receive major speedups with these models.

Connection Colossus   Even USB will run faster on these systems: while maximum throughput remains at 12 Mbps, there is now a separate USB controller for each USB port, giving users with multiple USB devices two independent 12-Mbps data connections, so all USB devices no longer need to share a single connection. Apple has even added an internal FireWire port on the high-end G4s, so you'll be able to add fast internal FireWire devices later.

Taking a play out of Apple's own iBook announcement (see "Meet the iBook," October 1999), the high-end Power Mac G4s come with an AirPort wireless networking slot and an AirPort antenna built into their handle. For $99, you can add an AirPort card that will let the G4 hop on a high-speed wireless network.

What's more, software that will come with the high-end G4s will allow them to act as an AirPort hub, negating the need to buy the $299 AirPort base station. Apple is still testing the maximum number of wireless connections a Power Mac G4 can handle, but the company expects this capacity to be the same as the hardware base station's (up to ten clients with a range of 150 feet).

With Great Power...   At what price comes all this computing muscle? A 450MHz model with 1MB of L2 cache, 128MB of RAM, an ATI Rage 128 AGP graphics card with 16MB of graphics RAM, a 20GB Ultra ATA hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive, and a Zip drive will sell for $2,499, according to Apple.

The top-of-the-line 500MHz configuration offers 256MB of RAM, a 27GB Ultra ATA hard drive, and a Matsushita DVD-RAM drive (offering both DVD playback and up to 5.2GB of writable DVD storage), all for $3,499. Interestingly enough, this high-end configuration offers a 56K modem only as an option, rather than as a standard component. Perhaps Apple assumes that anyone who can venture into the rarefied air of the 500MHz G4 shed the shackles of analog Internet connections long ago.

If you're itching to rush out and buy one of the high-end Power Mac G4s, hold your horses. While Apple says the low-end 400MHz system is shipping now, at press time the company was predicting shipment of the 450MHz G4 model sometime in September and the 500MHz unit in October.

Unless you absolutely can't afford the pricier models or can't wait another minute, we suggest you bide your time and wait for the high-end G4 configurations to appear. Although the G4 processor does account for a lot of the performance improvements in the new models, the niceties of the new logic board design will also have major impacts on speed. And, if you opt for the low-end model, you won't be able to play with cool new capabilities like using an AirPort card, internal FireWire devices, two separate USB ports, or the new Apple Cinema Display (see the sidebar "The G4's Groundbreaking Sidekick").

Beauty, speed, flexibility--the new Power Mac G4 could put even the most powerful comic book superheroes to shame. Able to leap the fastest Pentium PCs in a single bound, this new Mac proves that Apple is truly a superpower in the desktop computer world.

Suggested Configuration* Power Mac G4/400 (low-end) Power Mac G4/450 (high-end) Power Mac G4/500 (high-end)
Estimated Price $1,599 $2,499 $3,499
Processor Speed 400MHz 450MHz 500MHz
RAM (Maximum) 64MB (1GB) 128MB (1.5GB) 256MB (1.5GB)
Maximum Memory Bandwidth 400 MBps 800 MBps 800 MBps
Cache RAM 1MB 1MB 1MB
Graphics Slot 66MHz PCI 133MHz AGP 133MHz AGP
Hard Drive 10GB Ultra ATA/33 20GB Ultra ATA/66 27GB Ultra ATA/66
Zip Drive No Yes Yes
FireWire Ports 2 3 (1 internal) 3 (1 internal)
USB Ports 2 2** 2**
56K Modem Yes Yes Optional
AirPort Option No Yes Yes

* = Models can be configured differently at the online Apple Store ( ). ** = Each port on these models is on its own bus, doubling the potential USB throughput.

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The PowerPC G4 processor that drives Apple's latest Power Mac systems is not merely a faster version of the previous G3 chip. With its Velocity Engine subprocessor, the G4 incorporates functions that would previously have been performed by separate chips such as digital signal processors or MPEG decoders.

In technical terms, Velocity Engine--Apple's clever brand name for the AltiVec technology developed by Motorola--is a 128-bit vector-processing unit that works in conjunction with the existing floating-point and integer units. Most processors chew data one piece at a time, but with its Single-Instruction Multiple-Data technology, Velocity Engine can perform up to 16 simultaneous calculations. It's especially well suited to accelerating such calculation-intensive graphics operations as Adobe Photoshop filters, 3-D rendering, voice recognition, encryption, and audio and video compression.

Developers must rewrite their software to take advantage of Velocity Engine features. However, Adobe has already developed a Velocity Engine plug-in for Photoshop, and many other developers have announced Velocity Engine support.

Along with Velocity Engine, the G4 has other performance-boosting features. Unlike the G3, the G4 is well suited to multiprocessing, and it's likely that we'll eventually see Mac systems that incorporate two or more G4 processors.

As with Velocity Engine, software must be written specifically to support multiprocessing. However, some other G4 features will accelerate performance in any application. Its floating-point unit--used extensively in 3-D rendering operations--is up to 25 percent faster than the G3's at any given CPU speed. In addition, the G4 supports up to 2MB of backside cache RAM, compared with a limit of 1MB in the G3. The backside cache speeds performance by storing frequently used data for quick access by the CPU. Finally, the G4's cache-management system has been improved, so applications run faster than they would on a G3 processor running at the same speed, even if they don't make use of the G4's new features.

One downside of the chip is that it consumes more power and generates more heat than the G3. The main consequence is that current G4 chips cannot be used in laptops. However, it's likely that Motorola will develop low-power versions suitable for future PowerBooks.--STEPHEN BEALE

Yet again, Apple is taking the lead when it comes to computer display technology. The $3,999 Apple Cinema Display is the industry's first 22-inch, 8:5 (wide-screen) aspect ratio, digitally controlled LCD panel. We were suitably impressed during our first look at near final prototypes of the display--this sleek, silver device looks remarkable even when it's turned off, and when it's on, it's truly stunning.

The Cinema Display is designed for designers. It's the first LCD panel that looks great from any viewing angle, horizontal or vertical, and it offers the most consistent color of any LCD we've seen to date. With 1,600 by 1,024 pixels, there's plenty of desktop space for a razor-sharp two-page spread, with lots of room left over for palettes and tool bars.

Because it uses a digital interface, the Cinema Display is free of complicated setup procedures common to analog LCD panels. In fact, the Cinema Display does away with complicated controls altogether--the only two buttons included are for adjusting brightness.

The Cinema Display perfectly complements the new G4's clear, silver, and charcoal color scheme. The LCD panel is framed by a faintly striped silver bezel, which sits atop clear plastic legs that are wide enough apart to let you tuck your keyboard out of the way. An elegantly counterbalanced clear plastic support leg juts out of the rear of the Cinema Display, allowing for easy, single-handed tilting of the display from near vertical all the way back to an angle that's perfect for viewing by a standing group.

There is only a single, permanently attached cable coming out of the Cinema Display. It leads to a doughnut-shaped box that features video, USB, and power inputs. The back of the Cinema Display also offers two USB ports.

The display quality on the prototypes we saw was impressive. The display was bright, sharp, and rock-solid. Colors were vivid and natural, even at wide viewing angles. The result is probably the first LCD worth consideration by serious designers and technology buffs alike.

However, at $3,999, it's clearly not for everyone. In fact, that price is somewhat misleading--you can purchase the Cinema Display only through the Apple Store, and only if you buy it with a specially configured version of Apple's fastest G4 systems. Prices start at $6,498. Even then, expect quantities to be limited for quite some time, as 22-inch LCD technology is brand-new and--at least for the time being--limited exclusively to Apple.--JEFF PITTELKAU

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