Hands on with the Power Mac G4/867

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I'm writing this review on a Quicksilver Power Mac 867MHz with the memory bumped up to 512MB. Though the machine makes no quantum leap over its predecessors, it is a considerable improvement in most areas.

The Quicksilver line has a slightly tweaked design and the fastest G4 chips to date. As for the 867MHz model, it packs the fastest single processor ever to see the light of day in a Mac.

I've been switching back and forth between Mac OS X 10.0.4 and Mac OS 9.2.1 (the latest Power Mac models ship with Mac OS 9.2 and Mac OS X 10.0.4 pre-installed on the hard drive). Both run well, but I've really been surprised at the speed of Mac OS X on this machine.

The Quicksilver Power Mac was introduced by Apple CEO Steve Jobs at July's Macworld New York -- and was met with a resounding yawn. Seems everyone was anticipating the next iMac. However, since its introduction, the Quicksilvers have proven to be big sellers -- and I can understand why. Though they're not earthshaking upgrades to their predecessors, they do offer some outstanding features at good prices.

The Quicksilver 867MHz is the midrange model in the revamped line. It's an excellent machine for anyone who wants a SuperDrive, but doesn't need the processing powerhouse a dual processor system can provide.

The original G4 tower was unwrapped a little over two years ago, and the shape hasn't changed much. That's not so bad as it's a fine case. One of the best features is the flip-down side door that offers access to the Mac's innards.

The standard Quicksilver 867 configuration costs approximately US$2,500. But it offers some incredible bang for the buck. It ships with Apple's SuperDrive, which was formerly only available in a 733MHz G4 mini-tower that cost $3,500. The SuperDrive is an optical drive that can read and write CDs, CD-RWs, DVD-Rs, and DVD-RWs. It writes DVD-R at 2x, reads DVD at 4x, writes CD-R at 8x, writes CD-RW at 4x and reads CD at 24x. The Quicksilver 867MHz comes with iDVD software that lets you create DVD movies.

The 867 MHz system ships with Nvidia's 32MB GeForce2 MX video card. The card performs well on all graphics applications and motion/animation-intensive games, but if you want even more oomph, you can upgrade to the GeForce3 card for $350.

The Quicksilver system ships with 2MB of Level 3 cache, which supplies an impressive boost in performance for cache-intensive applications. It uses PC133 RAM chips rather than the PC100 chips of the prior generation. Also sweetening the pot is the fact that Apple now offers 7,200 rpm UltraATA/100 drives for these systems.

The Quicksilver models also come with a new built-in Harmon Kardon speaker. You'll still want a good set of external speakers with a subwoofer -- I recommend the $199 SoundSticks from Harmon Kardon. The new speaker is an improvement over those in previous G4s. Also, the speaker doesn't have a protective grill as in previous models, so it's more susceptible to damage.

Up to three additional drives can be added in a number of different configurations. The ATA bus on which the default hard drive is hosted has capacity for one additional drive and with the addition of a SCSI card, up to three SCSI hard drives can be added internally. The storage bay beneath the optical drive can also be used for a Zip drive.

So, what was that "slightly tweaked" design change? For one the color is different, a bit more subtle and metallic. Sit a Titanium PowerBook next to a Quicksilver and it's obvious you're seeing siblings. The Power Mac's handles are now completely transparent. The shape and layout of the external drive covers are also different, more subdued.

However, one change is not for the better. The eject button on the front of the CD/DVD tray is gone. Like the iBook, the CD/DVD tray can only be opened by pressing the eject button on the keyboard or via the eject control strip module (found in the Eject Extras folder which is found in the Apple Extras folder which is found ... oh, never, mind, you'll locate it). If you only use Apple's Pro Keyboard, no problem. But if you use a third-party keyboard that has no such button, it can be aggravating. And if you ever need to manually eject a disc (say, in certain "crash" situations), well, it's a headache.

And that hole next to the optical drive for inserting a paper clip to eject a stuck disc? That's gone, as well.

Another aggravation is the dearth of RAM in the standard configuration. While it's strange to describe 128MB of RAM as a "dearth," you'll need that much at the very minimum to run Mac OS X comfortably. And if you want to jazz your Quicksilver up to the maximum 1.5GB capacity, you'll have to remove the supplied 128MB or 256 MB DIMM and replace it with a 512MB DIMM.

Connectivity interfaces for the Quicksilver systems are unchanged from its predecessors. There are two FireWire ports, two USB ports, 10/100/1000-bit Ethernet, a 56k modem and a slot for an AirPort card. Standard audio minijacks provide an interface for earphones and speakers. An additional digital audio jack provides support for Apple's Pro Speakers and Harmon Kardon Soundsticks.

It also packs five PCI slots, including four high-performance 64-bit 33MHz PCI slots and a 4x AGP slot with an Nvida GeForce2 MX graphics card. And of course, it offers 10/100/1000 BASE-T Ethernet built-in on the motherboard for transferring large files, such as image and digital video files.

Also aggravating is that the Quicksilver model has no power pass-through port. If you're not using an ADC (Apple Display Connector) monitor, you'll have to plug your display into an external power socket.

Some folks have complained about the "noise" the Quicksilvers make. To my ears, the hum of the internal fans are, for better or worse, no louder or quieter than in previous models.

In my opinion, the midrange Quicksilver is the perfect desktop Mac for anyone whose needs aren't met by the iMac line. The price is excellent -- especially considering that you get the SuperDrive -- it looks classy, and its performance will be more than sufficient for just about everyone.

This story, "Hands on with the Power Mac G4/867" was originally published by PCWorld.

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