Apple is playing the name game again. To simplify its product lineup, Apple has placed each model in one of four categories: Power Macintosh G4, PowerBook G3, iMac, and iBook. To learn the specifics of a particular model, you must look to its parenthetical name, such as PowerBook G3 (Bronze Keyboard). With the release of the new Power Macintosh G4 series, Apple further confused matters by including a low-end model?the 350MHz Power Macintosh G4?that has far more in common with a blue-and-white Power Macintosh G3 than with its siblings, the 400MHz and 450MHz Power Macintosh G4 models.
Making things even more complicated, Apple reconfigured its Power Mac G4 product line after releasing the first model. A 350MHz configuration has replaced the original 400MHz Power Mac G4 but is still based on the blue-and-white Power Mac G3 design (see
Reviews, December 1999). The original $2,499 450MHz system, featuring Apple’s new Sawtooth architecture with AGP graphics and other speed enhancements, now sports a 400MHz processor.
Not surprisingly, we found that the 350MHz system is just a little slower than the original 400MHz model but still delivers better performance than any G3 system. The new 400MHz configuration, with its revamped system design, is even faster, but it has a few kinks that need working out.
It’s All in the Motherboard
If you were to place the new 350MHz and 400MHz models side by side, you’d notice only slight differences. The 400MHz model includes an internal Iomega Zip drive, places the video port near the center of the machine, and has vertically aligned sound ports. However, when you open the cases, the differences become more apparent. On one side of the 400MHz model’s fold-down door, you can see a silver AirPort cable and connector, indicating that this model, unlike the 350MHz system, supports wireless networking (Apple sells the AirPort card separately). The cleverly hidden antenna cable connects to two metal posts on top of the case.
Both systems include ATI’s Rage 128 graphics accelerator with 16MB of SDRAM. However, the 350MHz system uses a PCI bus connection, while the 400MHz model uses the faster AGP 2
graphics slot. This is a welcome change; new PCs have shipped with the faster slot for more than a year, and it’s nice to see Apple finally join the AGP party. The AGP-equipped Macintosh supports the new 24-inch Apple Cinema Display, but the PCI model does not.
The 400MHz G4 also has an internal FireWire port, sure to become more useful with the introduction of new FireWire storage devices. However, the connector is placed awkwardly next to four RAM slots near the top of the door. To connect an internal FireWire peripheral, you will have to route the cable around PCI cards and the G4 processor’s massive heat sink. Apple generously provides a FireWire cable for just this purpose; it works with external devices as well.
The 350MHz Power Mac G4 uses the same internal 56-Kbps modem found in blue-and-white G3 systems, but the 400MHz system uses a different 56K modem. This isn’t significant unless you hope to use a serial-port adapter that works only with the older modem slot.
What You Don’t See
Some of the 400MHz model’s enhancements, such as the new USB implementation, are less noticeable. Not only does the 400MHz G4 sport two discrete 12MB USB controllers, allowing you to connect as many as 127 USB devices to each port, but you can also boot from a USB drive. The 400MHz model also supports USB audio devices such as speakers and microphones. Of course, you still need Mac-compatible drivers for these audio devices.
Unlike the 350MHz system, which features a CD-ROM drive, the 400MHz model sports a DVD-ROM unit. Regrettably, instead of using a hardware-based DVD decoder, the 400MHz model uses a software decoding scheme that causes DVD playback to stutter when other tasks occupy the system. For example, when we adjusted the movie’s volume, video playback skipped momentarily. More troubling is that the video and audio channels quickly lose sync. When we watched a movie on a PowerBook G3 equipped with a DVD-ROM player and hardware decoder, audio and video synced perfectly. On our G4/400, the same movie appeared to be dubbed?the actors’ mouths and the audio track were perceptibly off.
If you change the monitor’s bit depth while Apple DVD Player is running, you can lose the video signal completely, ending up with a static, greenish screen. On two occasions when we changed monitor resolutions during playback, the G4 froze. Because we had no similar problems switching bit depth and resolution on a PowerBook G3, we can only assume that software decoding is to blame for this behavior. Apple is aware of the sync issues with the AGP G4s and is reportedly working on a fix, which it hadn’t released as we went to press.
We tested system performance using Adobe Photoshop 5.5, MetaCreations’ Bryce 4.01, Activision’s Quake II, and Casady & Greene’s SoundJam MP 1.1.1. As we expected, the 400MHz G4 system was much faster than a 400MHz Power Mac G3 when using applications, such as Photoshop and SoundJam MP, that take advantage of the Velocity Engine subprocessor (see ”
Old and New
“). For example, the G4 was about twice as fast as the G3 when applying a Gaussian Blur and almost three times faster when running the Lighting Effects plug-in. The G4 was much faster when encoding MP3 files and a little faster when rendering a Bryce scene. However, Quake II performance was similar on both machines, thanks to their identical Rage 128 graphics accelerators.
Thanks to the system-design improvements, the 400MHz G4 also outpaced its 350MHz sibling, even though the latter includes Velocity Engine as well. For example, the 400MHz G4 saved 13 seconds over the 350MHz G4 when encoding our MP3 test file?this could add up if you plan to encode an extensive audio-CD collection. The performance difference was more dramatic in our Bryce 4.01 rendering test; here, the 400MHz G4 was about 4.5 minutes faster at rendering a scene than the 350MHz model.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
With a slower processor but the same price tag as Apple’s originally announced midrange model, the 400MHz Power Mac G4 is not as good a value as it could have been. However, given its faster graphics bus, more flexible and more robust USB capabilities, internal FireWire port, and built-in Zip drive, the 400MHz system goes a long way toward tempering any complaints we have about Apple’s software-based DVD decoder.
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