While Apple’s been getting kudos for fighting the beige-box blues with the iMac, professional users have been staring at their plain Power Mac G3 boxes and wondering when
be able to use a computer that doesn’t just
different, but looks it.
Their wait is over.
Decked out in blue and white plastic, Apple’s new Power Mac G3 series promises to add some color to the lives of professional Mac users by combining iMac style and affordability with impressive power and leading-edge connections.
Separated at Birth
These new Power Mac G3’s may be minitowers with external monitors, but they’re still undeniably related to the iMac. They use the same polycarbonate plastic that makes up the iMac’s shellbut in a darker shade of blue. And their daring curves, translucent surfaces, and two-tone color scheme are definitely derived from the iMac school of design.
But the story of these new Macs is hardly one of style over substance. Beneath the striking design is an impressive update to the Macintosh hardware architecture that will deeply affect the way you use your Mac in the next millenniumin a good way.
Good-bye, Beige Box
Once you get past the striking blue and white plastics, the most noticeable feature of the new chassis is the addition of four curved handles on the corners, which make this Mac less unwieldy when you need to move it. Its ribbed white sides sport a blue Apple logo with a bold G3 silk-screened onto the metal case, just visible behind it.
Unfortunately, some of Apple’s more questionable iMac design elements are also a part of its big brother. For example, while the new Power Mac G3 does not come with a floppy drive (no surprise there), what most configurations are really missing is an Iomega Zip drive, currently available in only one of Apple’s standard configurations. And then there’s the compact iMac keyboard and ergonomically dubious round iMac mouse, both of which come standard with these models.
Aside from the flashy colors and a few curved corners, the biggest change on the new Power Mac series is the way you hook up peripherals. Some foreign ports have taken the place of the historic, and quickly becoming archaic, Mac serial (printer and modem) ports: USB and the much-anticipated FireWire.
As with the iMac, the new Power Mac G3 offers two USB ports on a single bus, for peripherals such as keyboards and digital cameras. This replacement for both Mac serial and ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) ports is faster and much more flexible than those old technologies (see “The USB Connection,” October 1998).
But unlike the iMac, which doesn’t offer any high-speed means of connecting external devices, these new Macs also include two FireWire ports. FireWire is an impressive new connection technology that makes its debut on these new G3 Macs and will probably appear on all future Power Macs as well. These two new FireWire ports replaceand are much faster thanthe SCSI port on the back of your current Mac (see the sidebar, “So Long, SCSI? FireWire Arrives”).
The arrival of FireWire spells the end for built-in SCSI on the Mac. If you want to use SCSI hard drives with these new Power Macs, you’ll need to buy a PCI SCSI card. (The top-of-the-line Power Mac G3 model comes standard with both a 9GB Ultra II SCSI hard drive and a PCI SCSI card.) For users of SCSI devices who need lots of PCI slots, that’s bad newsthe migration of SCSI off the motherboard means you’ll need to fill a slot if you want to keep using your SCSI devices.
Although these Macs have abandoned serial ports and SCSI, they haven’t quite given ADB the boot yet. There’s still one ADB port on the back of the new Power Mac G3, meaning you can squeeze a little extra life out of older input devices. So if you hate the new, round mouse, you can keep your old one, at least for now.
In addition to the colorful exterior, the new Power Mac G3 design offers some impressive high-end features. These new G3’s are by far the most easily accessed (and upgraded) Macs we’ve ever seen. Just pull on the small round handle on the side of the tower, and the entire side of the computer opens up. The Mac’s motherboard is mounted on that surface, giving you easy access for upgrading RAM or installing PCI cards. And unlike Macs of the past, the new G3’s don’t have to be turned off before you can open the door and show off what’s inside.
Apple’s Base Configurations at a Glance
Power Mac G3/300MHz
Power Mac G3/300MHz
6GB Ultra Atapi
Power Mac G3/350MHz
6GB Ultra Atapi
32x DVD player
Power Mac G3/350MHz
12GB Ultra Atapi
Power Mac G3/400MHz
9GB Ultra II SCSI
*available as an option
A computer targeted at professionals and high-end consumers stands or falls based on its performance and price. And what Apple’s got in store behind that white side door is clearly a step in the right direction.
Of course, the heart of these new G3’s is a G3 processor. Apple offers three different processor speeds in these new models: 300MHz, 350MHz, and a new speed record for Apple, 400MHz.
These new Macs also offer a 100MHz system bus instead of the 66MHz bus of previous G3 desktop models. According to preliminary tests run by Macworld Lab, the new Power Mac G3/400 offers 32 percent faster CPU performance, 52 percent faster disk speed, and a whopping 95 percent faster graphics speed than the old top of the line, the beige Power Mac G3/300.
When it comes to RAM expansion, these Macs excel. If you feel the need to max out your RAM, you caneach slot can handle DIMMs up to 256MB, meaning the upper limit for RAM is an astonishing 1GB. Hard-core Adobe Photoshop users, take note.
However, these new RAM slots do make one compromise: compatibility with earlier Macs. The new Power Mac G3’s use the same PC100 RAM that the iMac uses. PC100 RAM is usually cheaper, since it’s also used on Wintel-based PCsbut it’s incompatible with previous Mac RAM types.
At one time, a fast graphics accelerator was considered an expensive add-on, but an ATI Rage 128 graphics card comes standard on all new G3’s. The Rage 128 supports resolutions up to 1,900 by 1,200 pixels and up to 24-bit color. Because the card uses SDRAM, a different type of video RAM than SGRAM, which was found on previous models, these cards are less expensive. The card’s Rage 128 chip gives these new systems 3-D power for graphics-intensive games and other 3-D applications.
The card fits into a high-speed PCI slotit runs at 66MHz, as opposed to the traditional 33MHz bus speed of the Power Mac G3’s three other PCI slots.
The Three-Slot Shuffle
Not counting the 66MHz PCI slot, which houses the graphics card, these new G3 Macs offer three general-purpose PCI slots. But several technologies commonly placed on PCI cards are now built in or available as options that don’t use up slots. For example, you won’t need a Fast Ethernet card because the system comes with 10/100BaseT Ethernet. MPEG-2 decodingnecessary if you want to watch DVD movies on your Macis available as an optional daughtercard that plugs into the system’s video card, and therefore doesn’t require an additional slot. And, of course, the graphics card itself goes into that special fourth slot.
The bottom line: This arrangement of slots and built-in capabilities should satisfy all but the most demanding usersthose looking to load up their Macs with multiple video and sound cards, for example. For those users, PCI expansion chassis remain the only option.
Thankfully, when it comes to expansion, these systems are loaded. The new G3’s offer three internal 31/2-inch bays for installing additional drives and two more externally accessible 51/4-inch bays for storage devices such as a 24[infinity] CD-ROM drive, or the optional DVD-ROM and Zip drives. But keep in mind that since there’s no built-in SCSI bus on these models, you’ll need to add a PCI card if you want to add internal SCSI devices.
A New View
No new Power Mac would be complete without a matching display, and Apple hasn’t disappointed here. Apple’s flat-panel display and new line of CRT monitors shine in the same translucent plastic as the new computers they’ve been matched with. Apple’s new 17- and 21-inch Studio Display monitors stand on a sturdy tripod that doubles as a space to stow away the pint-size iMac keyboard when you’re not using your computer.
The price of these new monitors is also appealing. The 17- and 21-inch monitors (the latter with ColorSync) cost $499 and $1,499, respectively. The 17-inch display promises up to 1,600 by 1,200 resolution, with a 60Hz refresh rate. The 21-inch display features a Sony Trinitron tube, internal calibration (phosphor-decay), a four-port USB hub, and a shortcut display module that launches all screen functions.
Apple’s current flat-panel Apple Studio Display monitor has also gotten a minor makeover, picking up the style of the new G3’s by adding a ribbed white plastic casing. It’s also gotten a bit more affordable: the new display costs $1,099, $200 less than the original Studio Display.
These new monitors get their signals via the new VGA video connector on the back of the new Power Mac G3’s. That means these desktop Macs can use PC monitors and video cables without needing a Mac-to-VGA adapter. (Of course, if you want to use an old Mac monitor with these new models, you’ll need a VGA-to-Mac adapter instead.)
The Last Word
The design of these new G3’s is a variation on a popular and successful themethe iMac. Like the iMac, these new Macs are daring, eye-catching, and even a bit shocking. Their almost whimsical look is a far cry from what we’ve been conditioned to think of as a professional-looking machine. Apple has taken the minitower, a utilitarian computer meant to be hidden under a desk, and dared its users to show theirs off.
But aesthetics aside, the real news about the new Power Macintosh G3 series is what’s inside that blue plastic case. These Power Macs change the rules of Macintosh computing in subtle but significant ways. With improved internal architectures, fast processors, easily accessible interiors, and remarkable prices, the new Power Mac G3’s are impressive products. They’re much faster than what’s currently on your desk and more affordable than you’d ever imagine. Don’t let the flashy exterior fool you.
Senior Associate Editor ALLYSON BATES reports on systems and cross-platform issues for
So Long, SCSI? FireWire Arrives
By Henry Bortman
“SCSI vs. FIREWIRE”
The iMac introduced Mac users to USB, a simple and powerful new way to connect peripherals to your Mac. But USB is only half the story: it’s faster than the old Mac serial and ADB ports, but not a suitable replacement for the SCSI port that’s been standard on the back of every Mac up till now. Enter FireWire, the new connection technology that makes its debut on the new Power Mac G3’s and combines USB’s simplicity with blazing-fast speed.
USB is great for connecting keyboards, mice, and joysticks (and perhaps even slow disk drives or printers) to your Mac, but when it comes to sheer speed, USB is no replacement for SCSI. When you need to move lots of data in a hurryfor example, if you want a really fast hard driveFireWire is the answer. Boasting a combination of speed, ease of use, and configuration flexibility, FireWire is destined to become the high-performance standard for connecting computers, digital camcorders, digital VCRs, DVD-ROM drives, high-speed hard drives, printers, and even High-Definition TV sets.
From Apple with Love
FireWire was invented at Apple and approved as an industry standard in 1995. Most companies that produce FireWire-compliant devices don’t need a license from Apple, but no one can use the Apple-trademarked FireWire name without paying a licensing fee to Apple. That’s why just about everybody but Apple calls FireWire “1394,” the name it was given by the IEEE, an international standards body.
So if Apple came up with the idea (and has the market cornered on the cool moniker), how come PC vendors such as Compaq managed to get FireWire into their PCs before Apple got it into the Mac? Good question.
Actually, Apple got support for FireWire into the Mac OS before Microsoft got it into Windows, and has offered a FireWire PCI card since April 1998. FireWire just hasn’t become standard on new Macs until now.
So Long, SCSI
FireWire shares many of USB’s best features, meaning it’ll be a big improvement over SCSI in terms of ease of use. FireWire devices are hot-pluggable, so you can connect and disconnect them even when your Mac is running; there’s no need to turn everything off just to add or remove a device, as you must with SCSI.
FireWire’s connectors are simple to use: they don’t have the clips or thumbscrews typical of SCSI connectors (see the illustration “Make the Connection”). To add a FireWire device, you just plug in the connector; to remove it, you squeeze the connector slightly and pull it out.
FireWire also doesn’t force you to worry about sticking terminators on the end of a chain or setting device IDs. If you’ve spent much time working with SCSI drives, scanners, and the like, you know what a pain it can be to carefully flip switches, push little tabs, and rotate thumbwheels to ensure that no two devices have the same ID. FireWire devices have unique device IDs, too, which allow devices to identify each other. But FireWire automates much of the hassle: when you plug in a new device or remove one, a FireWire bus reconfigures itself, assigning new IDs as necessary.
You can connect up to 63 devices to a FireWire bus, a big improvement over SCSI, which is limited to 7 devices. While that 63-device limit might seem like an embarrassment of riches to most people, it’s not even really the upper limit. If you add a bridge to a FireWire bus, it divides the bus into multiple segments, each of which can support 63 devices.
FireWire is also more flexible when it comes to how you connect your devices. SCSI requires that you string all the devices together in a chain. With FireWire, you can connect up to 16 devices in a chainbut you don’t have to link all your devices in one continuous chain. That’s because unlike SCSI, FireWire allows branching. For example, imagine a FireWire external hard drive with three ports. You use one port to connect the drive to the chain leading back to your Mac, and another to connect more devices down the chain. But you can also connect additional devices to the third port, creating a second branch if you want to spread out your peripherals in several directions simultaneously.
Out on a Limb
Not only can a FireWire chain branch out in different directions, it can also go for long distances (if you’re using an Ultra 2 SCSI PCI card, this can be extended to 12 meters). The SCSI on the back of your Mac can barely take you to 6 meters, whereas a FireWire segment can be as much as 72 meters long. But FireWire provides a way out here, too. By adding a repeater, which cleans up and amplifies the signals traveling on the wires, you can extend FireWire’s reach even further without having to worry about degradation.
FireWire’s ease of use makes connecting peripherals easier, but its greatest strength is its speed. To transfer uncompressed, full-frame full-speed video requires around 210 Mbps. USB can’t transfer more than 12 Mbps, which isn’t even in the ballpark. The SCSI port on the back of previous Macs could manage 40 Mbps at best. The FireWire port built into the new Power Mac G3’s, on the other hand, can transfer data at up to 400 Mbps. (SCSI can reach faster speedsup to 640 Mbps via a SCSI PCI card.)
FireWire even has room to grow. Soon there will be an upgraded version of FireWire hardware that will be able to handle up to 800 Mbps, and future versions might support transfer rates that exceed 1.5 Gbps. With bandwidth like that, a video-editing system could receive multiple live video feeds simultaneously and never drop a frame.
Not only is FireWire speedy, but it has the ability to guarantee speed to applications that need it, something that SCSI can’t do. When your Mac wants to read a file from a SCSI hard drive, for example, it has to compete with all the other data being exchanged on your SCSI chain. If several devices are all trying to transfer data simultaneously, the exchange between your Mac and the hard drive will slow down. That’s not great for any task, such as handling digital video or burning CDs, that requires a guaranteed real-time data delivery rate.
But FireWire supports a system called isochronous transfer, which can provide that guarantee. In an isochronous transfer, two devices on a FireWire bus stake a claim to a guaranteed amount of bandwidthand they get ownership of that bandwidth for the duration of the data transfer, regardless of what other devices may be using the bus. So when you’re capturing video, burning a CD or DVD disc, or performing some other task that requires a steady stream of data, you don’t have to worry about other devices’ interrupting your data stream and causing dropped frames or failed disc burns.
One of FireWire’s most interesting features is that it supports more than one computer on the same bus segment. Thus you could use it to let several computers share a peripheral device, such as a scanner or a printer. You could even use it as an alternative to Ethernet for file transfers between computers. (Apple, however, says it has no plans to provide software to enable either device sharing or Mac-to-Mac file transfers. For any of that to happen on the Mac, other companies will have to step into the breach and write that software themselves.)
The flexibility doesn’t stop there. FireWire even supports device-to-device transfers that don’t involve a computer at all. That makes it possible to copy digital-video data from a digital camcorder directly to a digital VCR, or directly to a hard drive, without the need for computer control. This is all assuming that vendors build such capability into their devices, of course.
The Wait Begins
FireWire products are beginning to make their mark in the digital-video domain. FireWire-enabled digital-video camcorders are available from Sony, JVC, Panasonic, Canon, and Sharp; Sony, JVC, and Panasonic also offer FireWire-savvy digital VCRs.
As the Mac community starts buying new Power Mac G3’s, it’s clear that the number of available FireWire products will continue to grow. At press time, however, all the companies we contacted were playing their cards close to the vest. Though many companies announced last summer that they’d be producing USB products for the iMac, those products are only slowly starting to arrive. FireWire-savvy MIDI devices, printers, CD changers and CD-R recorders, and hard drives are on the way, but just how quickly they’ll begin to reach users’ desktops is still anyone’s guess.
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