Back in the game

If you see a Mac user this week with a barely concealed smile on their face, they're sure to have heard about the long-awaited big news at Apple's recent World Wide Developers Conference.

If you see a Mac user this week with a barely concealed smile on their face, they're sure to have heard about the long-awaited big news at Apple's recent World Wide Developers Conference.

As the usual audience is Mac OS developers, Apple doesn't typically announce major new hardware at the WWDC. This year was different: developers were let in on the secret that the upcoming Mac OS X 10.3 (aka Panther) was optimised with IBM's 64-bit PowerPC 970 chip in mind. Given that Apple's professional machines have been in a sales slump for at least the past 12 months, any announcement that new hardware was due would have had dire consequences for its bottom line. Apple was in a classic catch-22 dilemma -- it had to talk about a new OS that was designed for these new machines, but the OS wasn't ready to go and neither was the hardware.

The way it resolved this was by pushing back the developer's conference for a month and developing an update to Mac OS X 10.2, codenamed Smeagol, that would allow it to release the hardware with a functioning, but unoptimised OS in advance of the launch of Panther later in the year. It hasn't been confirmed, but it is widely expected that the machines will ship with a coupon for a free upgrade to Mac Panther. This solution gives developers and early adopters the best of both worlds: access to the vastly updated machines now, and a free software update that will improve the machines performance by 10-20% in the near future.

As interesting as an OS update is, it is the hardware of these new machines that has been sending techies in internet chat rooms and discussion lists spinning.

The new Power Mac G5 comes in three models, largely differentiated by the processor configuration. Two of the machines have a single G5 processor running at 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz respectively, but the real beast is the top of the line machine with dual

2GHz G5 processors. The second-tier machine is expected to gain a second processor in the medium term once supply from IBM picks up, but for the moment the only way to have a multiprocessor G5 is to buy the premium model.

Still, faster processors don't mean much if the supporting hardware isn't up to scratch. The biggest bugbear people have had with the outgoing G4 models is that while they ran at a fairly respectable speed of 1.42GHz, they were often starved for data because they could not communicate faster than 167MHz with the rest of the machine. With two processors on board, it was even worse because the processors shared this bandwidth. Even though, on a clock speed basis, the G4s could in theory easily keep up with or surpass the fastest of Pentium IV processors, this limitation severely restricted their performance.

It is for this reason that Apple has dedicated what is likely to be a good chunk of its R&D budget to ensuring that the motherboard of these new machines takes full advantage of the new IBM processors.

To start with, Apple has ensured that the 2GHz processors will never starve by placing them on independent 1GHz processor buses. Apple claims that this provides an aggregate bandwidth of 16GB/s and means that RAM is now the bottleneck on the performance of the machine. Sitting on the other end of that bus will be up to 8GB of DDR400 RAM - that's right, 8GB. Now that there's a 64-bit chip under the hood, applications can directly access more than the 32-bit maximum of 4GB. While very few have a need to do so currently, it is inevitable that now that the capability is available, applications, especially media editing applications, will be written to take advantage of the increased RAM ceiling.

In addition to these upgrades, you will find fast serial ATA hard drives that rival the fastest SCSI drives for performance at a greatly reduced price, an AGP 8x Pro slot supporting a graphics card from either Nvidia or ATI, three 64-bit 133MHz PCI-X slots, three USB 2.0 ports, optical audio in/out, two FireWire 400 ports and a FireWire 800 port. If that isn't enough, you'll be pleased to know the machines are also ready for Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme (802.11g).

With the first G4-based computer being released on August 31, 1999, this chip reigned as Apple's performance king for an extraordinarily long time. So long, in fact, that many professionals who generally upgrade on a two- or three-year cycle have been putting off replacing their old machines in the hope the that G5 would soon be released. Now that it has, I fully expect that the biggest problem Apple is going to have in the coming months is supply.

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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