Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled what Apple claims is the world’s fastest personal computer at last week’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. While the news of the introduction had leaked several days before the keynote, the specs of the Power Mac G5 were still a surprise — developers and analysts say this is what they have been waiting for from Apple.
“The G5 is a real milestone for Apple in terms of price and performance,” Jupiter Research analyst, Michael Gartenberg, told MacCentral. “Clearly what matters most are the real world application tests and Apple is doing quite well. The G5 is going to serve them well in their traditional markets and it may even get them some converts.”
Apple gave its customers and developers a new processor, dubbed the G5 and based on IBM’s 970, but more importantly they gave the machine a completely new architecture. Bottlenecks in previous machines have been overcome leaving developers the room they need to build the next generation of their applications.
“Anything that draws new business to the Mac platform, advances the rate of Mac OS X adoption, and sells new machines is a good thing,” Rich Siegel founder, president and CEO of Bare Bones Software, told MacCentral. “It’s going to get faster and easier for us to develop great products, with advancements ranging from simple things like faster hardware for faster builds, to new OS APIs that shorten our design and development cycles, and new tool features that smooth the engineering workflow.”
The next generation Power Mac
The Power Mac G5 offers software and hardware developers a lot to work with in future projects. The heart of the new Power Mac is the PowerPC G5 processor, developed by IBM. The 64-bit microprocessor features full support for 32-bit applications, and sports a massively parallel architecture that can handle 215 simultaneous in-flight instructions, features two double-precision floating-point units and an optimized Velocity Engine. The chips are also designed for full support of symmetric multi-processing (SMP).
“From a performance and spec standpoint, Apple’s new G5 is outstanding — delivering more than most expected, and putting in place several new hardware initiatives,” said Mike Mihalik of LaCie. “Appearing for the first time are SATA [Serial ATA], GHz bus and advanced cooling. Panther takes advantage of these technologies, and should deliver the best platform for graphic and video intensive applications.”
The new systems are also equipped with standard Nvidia GeForceFX 5200 or ATI Radeon 9600 Pro graphics cards (the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro is also available as a build-to-order option). The G5s also come equipped with Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, two FireWire 400 ports, and, for the first time on the Macintosh, three USB 2.0 ports. In another first, optical digital audio input and output is included as well.
Some developers had a chance to test the G5 before WWDC and were pleased with the performance the machine offered in application testing and with compile times — something that was echoed by many other developers throughout the week.
“The first thing that surprised us was the compile time,” said Brad Peebler, President & Co-founder, Luxology. “We moved our source code to the G5, recompiled the application and it was 2+ times faster than what we had on our fastest G4. The G5 also consistently outperformed the fastest Pentium 4s we have — the tests were very impressive to us.”
For a company that is notorious for keeping its future plans under wraps until an official announcement is made, CEO Steve Jobs surprised attendees by giving some information of the future of the G5. Jobs announced during his keynote that the G5 would reach 3GHz within the next 12 months.
“It was important to let our customers know that there is a very rich roadmap here,” said Joswiak. “This is a partnership [between Apple and IBM] where we are working on really cool stuff — they are the best at what they do. The combination of our innovation and their processor technology expertise has resulted in this first machine, but we wanted people to know that there is a future for the chip.”
Making the claim of having the world’s fastest personal computer is not without its problems as Apple found out shortly after the introduction of the G5. The benchmark tests were done using the industry standard SPEC CPU 2000 benchmarks and conducted by an independent third-party lab, but the results were quickly challenged.
“We knew that when we made the claim that we were the fastest computer in the world that we would have to back it up — that’s why we wanted to completely above board from the beginning,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of hardware product marketing. “We used an independent lab to do the tests and we made sure we had the report available right after the keynote — it was not, ‘the report will be forthcoming’ or any of the other stuff that could have been done if we wanted to hide it. The report not only had the test results, but also the methodology that was used.”
Apple benchmarked the G5 against the Pentium 4 and machines running the Xeon processor, using the GCC compiler. Critics of the tests countered that the Intel machines could have achieved much better results if an Intel optimized compiler had been used instead of GCC.
“On the SPEC side I think the only point people needed to have explained is why we used GCC,” said Joswiak. “It really comes down to the fact that SPEC measures the performance of hardware and the compiler. In order for us to make a fair hardware to hardware comparison, we needed to use the same compiler on all the pieces of hardware — the logical choice for that was GCC.”
Application testing on the G5
One of the more impressive demos during Steve Jobs’ keynote was by a new company called Luxology. Company President, Brad Peebler joined Jobs on stage to give a demonstration of the G5 running an animated 3D landscape with objects moving on the screen.
The G5 handled the complexity of the application as more objects were added and a 360-degree view was activated, while the Intel-based machine showed signs of slowing down as the picture got choppy. Peebler explained to MacCentral that as they prepared for the demo they did optimizations to the code, but the changes actually helped out the PC more than the Mac.
Mac users are accustomed to keynote demos as Apple executives claim an application is many times faster on a Mac than its Intel-based competitor. Accusations of fixing the demo to make the Mac look better than the PC usually follow such an event, something Luxology was all too aware of.
“We were really sensitive about the integrity of the demo materials,” said Peebler. “All of the 3D code on our program is exactly the same — 90 percent of our engineering staff don’t write anything platform specific. There is one small layer for the Mac version and one layer for the Windows version to draw windows or put text on the screen — everything else is entirely the same.”
Peebler and his two co-founders are not new to the 3D space on the Mac — Peebler ran the LightWave 3D division at NewTek for 7 years and his two co-founders were the original creators of the LightWave application.
New tools for developers
One theme that came out of WWDC was what else developers would be able to do now that they had a fast architecture and new tools from Apple. Some developers have already made the move over to Apple’s tools to build and compile their code and last weeks announcements should only help that trend. Interest in the new architecture and speedy G5 processor piqued as developers brought their code into the on-site performance lab to compile and test applications.
“The developers that are interested in our tools run the gamut — they are not just Mac only houses, there are people that do large cross-platform applications, as well,” said Ron Okamoto, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide Developer Relations.
Last week, Apple rolled out Xcode, a Unix-based development environment with a simplified user interface, and performance technologies including Fix and Continue, Zero Link and Distributed Build. While it’s still not as fast as its main competitor, CodeWarrior (unless you use the Distributed Build feature), Apple has made some significant strides in helping the developer community.
Zero Link removes the linking stage for all development builds. Project build times are minimized through a Rendezvous-enabled Distributed Build feature allowing developers to compile applications using multiple systems. This feature works with Apple Xserves, as well, opening the possibility that Mac developers may add the rack-mounted Mac OS X Server-equipped boxes to their environments as “build farms” to help speed development.
“I like the look of Xcode, and I’m looking forward to spending more quality time working with it,” said Bare Bones’ Rich Siegel. “The distributed builds will make it possible for us to harness all our available computing power, and the quick-turn features (Zero Link and Fix&Continue) have long been missing from the platform.
Film studios knocking on Apple’s door
After seeing a demo of the Power Mac G5, film studio executives may have thought they were “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” as representatives from studios that had not signed up for WWDC started to appear at Moscone on Monday afternoon, after the G5 was announced.
“Film studios are a lot like our other users; in OS X there are a lot of things they really like — its Unix underpinnings are a perfect example,” said Okamoto. “The fact that we are much more media savvy than many of the alternatives out there is something they just gravitate towards. Now that we have the hardware, it complements what we have and that should be attractive to them.”
One studio in particular that Mac users are interested in seeing use the G5 and Mac OS X Panther is Pixar — the animation studio headed by Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Pixar is responsible for Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. finding Nemo and other hot movies.
Pixar makes a series of commercial products aimed at professional 3D animators under the RenderMan label. RenderMan provides industrial-strength 3D rendering and animation technology that’s been used to produce Pixar’s own movies. RenderMan has been used in recently released movies like The Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as well as forthcoming films like The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Pirates of the Caribbean and Terminator III: The Rise of the Machines.
Pixar president Ed Catmull is an early booster of the Power Mac G5. An introduction video for the Power Mac G5 posted to Apple’s Web site features Catmull explaining that the G5 allows Pixar animators to show frames at full resolution.
“After running our RenderMan benchmarks, we can now say that the G5 is the fastest desktop in the world,” said Catmull.
While being careful not to promise anything concretely, Pixar has outlined in broad strokes the company’s potential plans for such an offering. Pixar would possibly announce plans for a Power Mac G5-related product in August, and would begin a beta program at that time.
G5 gives headroom to developers
The G5 is capable of running processor intensive applications that were once the sole domain of high-end Sun workstations. But most users won’t be running those types of applications in their day-to-day life — the most processor-intensive applications the average user will see is in the games space.
Aspyr President Mike Rogers admits that as system requirements for games continue to rise, the industry was concerned with Apple’s processor strategy. After all, the games his and other companies choose to bring to the Mac have been testing the high-end Macs as it is — it wouldn’t be long before they hit the top.
More than being impressed with the current G5 specs, Rogers said the G5 gives developers the needed headroom to not only release games today, but look at the future of games in a different way.
“We couldn’t be any more excited about it,” said Rogers. “The system requirements for games keep going up and it’s been a concern that Apple would keep doing the incremental upgrades to the G4 platform. With some of the games we have plans for in the second half of the year, we were very happy to hear that they were doing this whole architectural leap.”
What does it all mean?
The preview of Mac OS X Panther, the release of new development tools for developers and the introduction of the G5 — a big week for Apple. Now Apple needs developers to take advantage of the extra power and the tools that are available to them. For their part, Apple’s Ron Okamoto said his group would be following up with developers this week to make sure they have everything they need.
Jupiter research analyst Michael Gartenberg thinks this could be a good start for Apple, although they will have some of the same old problems to overcome.
“Apple is fighting three myths: one is that you pay a huge price premium; the second is that there is no software; and the third is that they are tremendously proprietary,” said Gartenberg. “The truth is, none of those things are accurate — Apple is price competitive relative to their competitors; there is plenty of software for the tasks most individuals need to do and beyond; and Apple supports far more open standards than any other competing operating system. You combine that with a product like the G5 and you have to believe that lots of people are going to start taking a look at this — if they can overcome their Apple prejudice.”
With the release of so many products so far this year like Safari, Final Cut Pro, a new line of PowerBooks and others, Apple still knew the pro desktop customer was left behind. This is the company’s most vocal and most critical segment of users — with the week behind them Apple executives feel they have answered the call.
“The news at the conference was received very well — it energized our customers, our developers and it energized us,” said Apple’s Joswiak. “Nobody else is delivering this type of innovation; no one else is even close to doing what we’re doing and it’s paying off. What we needed to do was energize the pro desktop market and delivering the world’s fastest computer is the best way to do that.”