First look: Dual-2.7GHz, -2.3GHz, and -2.0GHz Power Mac G5s

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The Power Mac G5 is and always will be a striking feat of design and engineering. It’s packed with state-of-the-art technology, and its capabilities are still marvelously matched to the needs of the pro users it’s made for. But one thing has clearly changed since the machine’s debut almost two years ago: it’s no longer something anybody’s likely to get too excited about.

At least that’s my reaction after spending a couple of days with the three new dual-processor configurations Apple announced in April. Without the 3GHz processors many of us had hoped to see by now, and with no other major changes in technology, design, or even pricing, this spring’s “speed bump” strikes me as something of a yawner.

Sure, there are welcome advances: the processors are a little faster, the hard drives are bigger, and there’s more memory—double the video memory in the standard graphics cards, and an overdue increase to 512MB of system RAM in the $1,999 “Good” configuration.

The problem is that such changes are scarcely noticeable when you sit down at the new machines. Except that they came with Tiger preinstalled, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish them from their predecessors without running System Profiler or pulling out my stopwatch. Even on benchmark tests, the improvements are modest—in the Macworld Lab’s Speedmark tests, the new models outpaced the corresponding systems from the previous Power Mac generation by only about 11 percent.

In short, the Power Mac G5s remain great products for those who require maximum performance and expandability. But if you haven’t felt compelled to get one yet, nothing in the latest update is likely to change your mind now. And if you already have a Power Mac G5, you probably won’t find the improvements compelling enough to justify trading up.

Ready for the Big Screen

That said, some of the changes deserve a little more attention. One is improved support for giant displays. Previously, none of the Power Macs, not even the top-of-the-line model, supported the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD display without a $450 or $500 upgrade to the Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL graphics card. That card blocked one of the PCI or PCI-X expansion slots.

In the new $2,999 Power Mac, however, the standard graphics card—the ATI Radeon 9650 with 256MB of RAM—can drive the Apple mega-monitor, the 30-inch Cinema HD display. The Radeon 9600 (the card that’s standard in the $1,999 and $2,499 systems) still can’t handle the 30-inch display—it’s limited to a paltry two 1,920-by-1,200-pixel displays, such as Apple’s 23-inch Cinema HD flat panel—but buyers of either of those models can upgrade to the Radeon 9650 for a mere $50.

(If you want to run two 30-inch Cinema HDs from one card, you’ll still have to spring for the Nvidia card, which will still cost you an extra $450 or $500, depending on which system you’re upgrading.)

One historical note: the new Power Macs apparently mark the final passing of the Apple Display Connector (ADC). All the video cards Apple offers with the new Power Macs feature dual DVI connectors. If you want to hook up an older ADC-based display, you’ll need Apple’s DVI-to-ADC adapter ($99) or a third-party equivalent.

Double-Layer Fun

All three dual-processor machines now feature a SuperDrive with two significant improvements over earlier versions. First, this drive is faster: it reads DVDs, and burns DVD+R discs, at up to 16X, twice the speed of the previous generation of drives. Second and more important, the new drives can handle double-layer DVD+R media, which hold a whopping 8.5GB—nearly twice the capacity of single-layer DVD discs (4.7GB).

In concrete terms, double-layer discs (already used in factory-pressed commercial video DVDs) hold up to 3.5 hours of MPEG-2 video, compared to 2 hours on single-layer discs. If you’re moving to high-definition video, it’s impossible to be as specific, because file sizes produced by H.264, the standard codec for high-definition video, vary with the content. But in any case, you can expect a double-layer disc to hold about 70 percent more than the single-layer kind.

Professional video producers are the biggest beneficiaries of double-layer support. Double-layer technology has long been standard for commercial, factory-pressed DVDs, but until now, Mac video editors needing single-disc versions of big projects for final proofing either had to send their work out to a service bureau or use non-Apple drives that aren’t directly compatible with Apple’s iDVD and DVD Studio Pro. Now that Apple has moved to double-layer for its own drives, video editors can burn professional-scale projects directly from the Apple applications.

Even if you’re not a video pro, the increased capacity of the new SuperDrives also makes them more serviceable for backups or archiving old projects. I was afraid such discs would be readable only on computers with the latest DVD drives, but I was pleased to discover that’s not the case: just as older drives can read double-layer DVD video discs, they can also read 8.5GB data discs.

A few cautionary notes, though:

1) You may have to hunt a bit to find double-layer DVD+R discs. The Apple Store in downtown San Francisco had none on the shelf, and when I asked, the clerk seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. At this writing I can’t find them at Apple’s online store, either, though other online outlets do carry them.

2) They’re not cheap. When I finally located some double-layer discs at CompUSA, the store only had three-packs for $20. You can find lower prices online, of course, especially if you buy in bulk, but don’t expect the kinds of bargains that are now common on single-layer DVD media.

3) If you go double-layer, you’ll have to start minding your pluses and dashes again. Apple so far supports only double-layer DVD+R media, not the DVD-R equivalent that’s just now reaching the marketplace. (Careful readers will note that even as the DVD-format wars seems to be spluttering, they have expanded into the linguistic realm: Apple is following the DVD+RW Alliance in calling two-layer +R discs “double-layer,” even though the -R association Apple has previously been aligned with, the DVD Forum, insistently refers to its version as “dual-layer.”)

4) Don’t expect blazing speed. The new SuperDrive, like other double- or dual-layer drives, has a maximum speed of 4X for two-layer burning. When I tried backing up 7.5GB of data from the Finder, Disc Burn needed nearly an hour—51 minutes and 37 seconds, to be exact—to do the job. (The drive spent half that time on verification.)

[ Henry Norr is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to correctly list the kind of double-layer media supported by the Power Mac’s SuperDrive.

Power Mac G5 with 23-inch Apple Cinema HD
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