A gamer's look at the new iMac G5

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When Apple first took the wraps off its iMac G5, I thought it was a fantastically designed machine, but the system did share one critical flaw with just about every iMac that preceded it: A really rotten video subsystem for gaming. I'm really happy to see Apple finally get it right with the updated iMac G5, introduced on Tuesday. Hands down, this is the best iMac Apple's ever come up with when it comes to games.

The new iMac features a faster CPU and faster front side bus, and more memory as well -- 512MB is now standard across the line. Gigabit Ethernet, built-in wireless networking and Bluetooth are all now standard features. There's more storage capacity and, at least on the mid-range and high-end machines, a better SuperDrive, but what's really significant to gamers is the replacement of the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 graphics subsystem with an ATI Radeon 9600, and a doubling on the video RAM from 64 to 128MB. Amazingly, the price remains the same.

The timing is obvious: These machines ship with Tiger preinstalled, and Tiger's Core Image technology makes much more significant demands of the video processing hardware of today's Macs than Panther did. As this technology is exposed in more applications that process video or perform image editing and manipulation, the heftier graphics hardware in the brand new iMacs will be better suited to take advantage of those capabilities than the system it replaces.

The side-benefit is that games will run better, too. It'll still be some time before we have hard benchmarks that will tell us for sure, but there's no question that the Radeon 9600 is better suited for games than the FX 5200.

Apples to Apples

It's not a direct apples to apples comparison (pardon the pun), but our friends at Inside Mac Games posted a shootout between the Radeon 9600 Pro and GeForce FX 5200 Ultra graphics cards in the Power Mac G5 some time ago.

Ultimately, IMG reviewer Tim Morgan demonstrated that the Radeon 9600 outclassed the GeForce FX 5200 Ultra in performance and capabilities. The 9600 turned in better framerates at higher resolutions, and was capable of showing details you couldn't see on the 5200, thanks to the Radeon's support of pixel and shading options that aren't exposed on the 5200.

That showdown should yield somewhat comparable results for the new iMac G5 as well. There are other factors to consider, such as VRAM and the core architectural differences between the Power Mac and the iMac, but it's a good place to start.

Better off than before

Does this make the iMac G5 an ideal gaming machine, compared to a PC or a game console? No. Mac users are still limited in their choices for games and still have to wait months later than their PC counterparts for most A-list releases. And even with these enhancements, for the money you'd spend on an iMac you could still conceivably buy or build a PC-compatible clone that would significantly outperform the iMac.

Mac gaming is now and is always bound to be a niche market in a niche market. Gaming isn't something that draws new users to the Mac platform, but it's certainly a pleasant benefit for many of us who like to play with the same gear with which we work.

When the iMac G5 first debuted, I took a straw poll of Mac game developers to find out what they thought of the new system. Unanimously, Apple's decision to include the GeForce FX 5200 Ultra video graphics processor on the iMac left Mac game developers cold -- many knew right off the bat that they'd have trouble getting games they were working on to run well on the new iMac.

There don't seem to be any significant complaints with the new and improved iMac among that esteemed population this time around, however. That, perhaps, is the most telling attribute of the new iMac G5. If the game developers are happier, then gamers are bound to be happier as well.

For more Mac game-related news, reviews and information, please visit Macworld's Games topic page.

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