Last week Apple unveiled a revamped line of
Power Mac G4 systems to the crowd at Macworld Expo. Now that the dust has settled, we’ve had time to evaluate the new hardware offerings from the perspective of the Mac gamer. Both systems offer some solid improvements that should be welcome news for gaming enthusiasts — there’s a bit of room for improvement, too.
Power Mac G4s are still running at a perceived megahertz deficit compared with high-end Windows systems equipped with Athlon and Pentium processors, but Apple has definitely worked hard to close that gap. The company has also included some long-sought-after features that are sure to appeal to gamers.
All new Power Mac G4 systems come equipped with a 133MHz system bus. Previously, Power Mac G4’s ran at 100MHz, so the incremental speed boost is welcome — and many would say overdue, as well.
Support for write combining on the Power Mac G4’s AGP and PCI interfaces is another important improvement for gamers. Write combining moves data more efficiently between the CPU and expansion cards. In the past the Mac’s absence of write combining has been cited by some as a critical bottleneck in the Mac architecture. It’s still a bit early to see if the addition of write combining will offer a huge boost in performance for Power Mac G4’s, but few would argue that the buzzword-compliance alone is worthy of note.
All Power Mac G4’s except for the entry-level model now sport a 32MB AGP graphics card based on
Nvidia’s GeForce2 MX chip (it’s also a US$100 build-to-order option on the low-end model, which features an ATI Rage 128-derived card). Mac gamers have been waiting for Nvidia’s graphics technology to appear on the Mac ever since the GeForce2 MX’s Mac compatibility was touted last year.
The GeForce2 MX is a mid-range product in Nvidia’s graphics chip line, and the card installed on the new Power Mac G4s provides comparable performance to similarly equipped systems featuring ATI’s Radeon GPU — both of them sport hardware transform and lighting capabilities, DVD decoding support and a host of other features. The Radeon’s 3D rendering abilities edges the GeForce2 MX out at high resolutions (1600×1200 pixels), but both cards should perform similarly otherwise.
Many Mac gamers have asked why the Power Mac G4’s don’t sport a high-end Nvidia chip, such as the GeForce2 Ultra. The short answer is because Nvidia’s high-end chip architecture isn’t Mac-ready today — the core technology isn’t capable of biendian calculation, which is necessary to get it working both in PCs and Macs. Fortunately, Nvidia has made it clear that once it supports a platform, that support is usually there to stay in future chip designs.
Already, a second new Nvidia graphics chip with Mac support has been introduced — the GeForce2 Go, a mobile chip design that could conceivably be installed in future PowerBook models (though neither Nvidia or Apple will commit one way or the other). Nvidia is widely expected to announce new, faster chip in the coming months — time will tell if that new chip will support the Mac, but Nvidia seems confident that it’s here on the Mac platform to stay.
One point of interest regarding the Nvidia-based Power Mac G4 graphics cards — for all intents and purposes they are Apple-manufactured boards. At the moment, the only way of getting one is to buy a new Power Mac G4 (they are not available as a separate accessory purchase from the Apple Store). No manufacturing partner of Nvidia’s has stepped forward with plans to produce a Mac-compatible graphics card, either.
These uncertainties make it hard to say at this point what upgrade path will be open to performance enthusiasts looking to add newer, faster Nvidia-based cards to their Macs. But, as buyers of 3dfx Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 cards from last year will tell you, the presence of an independent third party doesn’t guarantee you that upgrades will be available indefinitely. Still, it’s a factor that may merit some consideration towards future purchases.
Faster processor clock speed — all the way up to 733MHz — is welcome news to Mac gamers. 3D games tend to impose exorbitant demands on the processing ability of any computer, and the faster Apple can make its Power Macs, the better.
Apple’s inclusion of CD-RW and DVD-R technology on the Power Mac G4 line also has some benefits for gamers. Games regularly occupy hundreds of megabytes on the user’s hard disk, with some taking up a gigabyte or more. Huge mods — third-party add-ons for popular games like Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena — have become standard equipment for many gamers, with some mods occupying tens or hundreds of megabytes on top of the game’s already prodigious installation size.
All that data means that users must be selective about what they install and where. Removable recordable media with high data storage capacity — in particular the DVD-R technology offered on the high-end Power Mac G4/733 — make the installation and removal of such software remarkably easy. Apple’s new CD and DVD burning software makes such efforts a drag-and-drop affair — much more intuitive than the CD burning software route which Mac users previously had to learn in order to store data on CD-R’s.
Room for Improvement
Apple’s revamped Power Mac G4 isn’t the perfect gaming system. Many gamers considering a Power Mac G4 would argue that they still get a better bang for the buck buying a desktop PC clone, since Windows has so many more games available and the cost of buying a high-end PC is relatively lower than buying a high-end Mac. But Mac gamers are a funny bunch — unlike most of our PC-using comrades, we’re usually Mac users first and gamers second. And Apple has done a lot to compel Mac users to want these new machines. Here’s a short list of ways that Apple could make these systems even more attractive to gamers. More RAM — The standard issue on the “Fast” and “Faster” Power Mac G4 configurations available from the Apple Store is a paltry amount — only 128MB. We know Apple is trying to save money wherever it can, but RAM is still dirt-cheap. Even 256MB of RAM is cutting it close for some of today’s more demanding games — I would like to see this be the bare minimum that Apple ships any new system with. Multi-button mice — Apple makes the Pro Mouse standard equipment on all desktop Macs. It’s certainly better than the puck it replaced, but gamers still grouse about the lack of a scrolling three or five-button mouse. It’d be great if Apple would design one with great ergonomics and offer it to Apple Store users as an even swap for the Pro Mouse, in build-to-order configurations. Barring that, even partnering with a good third party mouse maker would be welcome. 3D surround sound — 3D gaming is unquestionably augmented by the addition of 3D positional audio, which performs the same function for sound that 3D cards do for graphics. Apple’s new Power Mac G4 audio hardware, its Harmon/Kardon-derived “Pro” speakers, and the iSub certainly make a pretty and clear sounding audio option, but it’s no substitute for 3D audio.
Creative Labs’ SoundBlaster Live! card will be out for the Mac shortly, and it supports both Creative’s own EAX standard and OpenAL — an open standard for audio that Creative and other groups are promoting. If the cards are well-received and well-engineered, we hope that Apple may consider taking them on at least as a build-to-order option through the Apple Store, if not making them standard issue on some configurations.
Some compelling reasons to upgrade
Apple still may have a way to go before they provide gamers with the perfect machine that we’ve all been waiting for, but these machines definitely get us closer to that goal than ever before. Owners of Power Mac G3s and older systems now have some compelling reasons to upgrade, as well.
With each iteration of its hardware, Apple has shown tangible examples of how it’s responding to user requests and industry pressure to provide better-equipped machines at lower price points than ever before, adding value wherever it can. The revamped Power Mac G4 line certain succeeds on that level — they’re faster, easier to use, and better equipped than the machines they replace.