Dual 1GHz Mac: better machine, better price

High-end designers have no excuse not to upgrade.

Apple has finally broken the 1GHz barrier with a new high-end Power Mac G4 mini-tower. In fact, the company’s new top-of-the-line system sports two 1GHz chips for $500 less than its previous best-of model. When you consider that this model has the industry’s first NVIDIA GeForce4 graphics card and a software bundle that’s been sweetened considerably, the $2,999 dual-processor system is a fine buy for professional users.

Delivering 15 gigaflops (15 billion floating point operations per second), the dual 1GHz Power Mac G4 runs software such as Adobe Photoshop up to 72 percent faster and encodes DVD Video over 300 percent faster than a 2GHz Pentium 4-based PC, according to Apple.

The dual GHz machine comes with Mac OS X as the default operating system (though you can choose to boot up into Mac OS 9, if you prefer). Since the new operating system supports symmetric multiprocessing, the new Mac is the perfect machine for running Mac OS X and OS X native applications. It enables the operating system, as well as applications, to take full advantage of dual processors for some serious performance gains.

Powering the new line of G4 mini-towers are Apollo G4 chips that not only offer GHz performance, but also (for the technically minded among you) fabrication using Silicon On Insulator (SOI) technology and an improved power consumption/performance ratio.

The Apollo has four integer-execution units, one double-precision floating processor unit (FPU), and four 128-bit AltiVec execution units; this is the same as Apple used in previous G4 models. Also, as with previous G4s, the Apollo has a 256KB on-chip L1 cache. But it adds cache-locking instructions to allow critical instructions or data to be locked into the cache for a performance benefit. With the L2 cache, the Apollo allows up to 2MB of DDR RAM to be used. DDR RAM lets data be sent or retrieved on both the upswing and downswing of the clock cycle. The result: a practical doubling of the bandwidth over conventional RAM.

The big change with the new G4’s Apollo comes with its manufacturing. It’s built using a 0.18-micron copper fabrication process that takes advantage of SOI technology. SOI is the addition of a thin layer of silicon between the transistors on the chip and the nonconductive base of the chip. This layer reduces the capacitance, or the necessary time and amount of energy, needed to close the gate.

The benefits of SOI are numerous. The new G4 processor runs faster, uses less energy, and generates less heat.

All this techno-speak aside, and using no technical benchmarks (just my stopwatch), I can attest to the fact that this is one wicked-fast machine. It’s about twice as fast as my 867MHz G4 in most tasks. Mac OS X’s Aqua interface really flows smoothly with this machine. The dual 1GHz ripped my new Alan Jackson CD into iTune files for transferring to my iPod in just under three minutes. And it encoded a two-minute iMovie of my kids playing on their basketball teams in just slightly over two minutes. Of course, not all software solutions will generate this much of a speed boost because most applications don’t take advantage of multiprocessors. However, the extra speed of each of the GHz processors certainly provides noticeable oomph for such applications.

If you really want to turbocharge your dual-processor Mac, add a GeForce4 Titanium graphics processor. They’re available as a build-to-order option at the online Apple store or (hopefully by the time you read this) as a $399 standalone option that you can insert yourself if you already own one of the new Power Macs.

The GeForce4 Titanium can purportedly process 87 million triangles per second and 4.9 billion textured pixels per second to perform more than 1.23 trillion operations per second. It also allows for the simultaneous connection of two Apple flat-panel displays in a single slot by providing both Apple Display Connector (ADC) and Digital Visual Interface (DVI) connectors (requires DVI to ADC adapter)–a first for a Mac graphics card. The GeForce4 Titanium also provides extended desktop as well as video mirroring, and enables standard VGA devices to attach via the included DVI-to-VGA adapter.

If you’re into high-end graphics or you’re a hardcore gamer, this is a must-have addition. For example, the Lightspeed Memory Architecture (LMA) II that’s in the GeForce4 Titanium specifically promises to boost performance in existing games, simply because it’s a much more efficient memory pipeline. I’m not sure how that translates into actual, qualitative improvements, since Apple hasn’t released benchmarks for the new board, and I don’t have one to try out.

The new memory architecture of the GeForce4 Titanium line sports four independent memory controllers and support for 128-bit Double Data Rate (DDR) memory. The architecture delivers double the effective memory bandwidth and up to three times the overall performance of the GeForce3 (previously the high-end graphics chip available to Mac users), according to NVIDIA. This will result in a major performance boost right off the bat for existing applications, according to Apple.

Even the GeForce4 MX (the new G4’s standard graphics processor) is a big step above GeForce2 MX, though the latter has LMA II and Accuview Antialiasing Technology (which smooths the edges of sharply defined objects for a more natural appearance) and some of the other improvements over older chip designs. The big thing that the Titanium has that the MX doesn’t is a larger supported memory buffer. This means, for instance, that games can support bigger texture sizes, which results in more realistic-looking objects. The Titanium also boasts the nfiniteFX II engine, a programmable engine designed to let game makers create new levels of detail in their character animation and environment. Also, the GeForce4 line sports multiple memory caches on a single chip: There are four individually dedicated and optimized memory caches to improve pipeline access through the chip.

Games and applications must be programmed specifically to take advantage of the bigger memory buffer and nfiniteFX II engine. In all honesty, it will probably be some time before we see anything that can really use the horsepower. But it’s just waiting for someone to tap into it.

Some folks were expecting Apple to overhaul the design of its high-end Power Macs, much as it did with the new iMac, and have complained that the quicksilver design is getting a bit long in the tooth. From a practical viewpoint, there’s really little to complain about with the unchanged design. It looks sharp and is very accessible.

Upgrading RAM, adding a hard drive, or installing an AirPort card is a breeze. You just pull the handle latch, and the side of the machine drops open, providing easy access to everything you need.

So what’s not to like? Just a few things, actually. The dual GHz system seems pretty noisy if you use one of the whisper-quiet new iMacs for a couple of days. (On the other hand, the dual-processor Macs are quiet compared to some Wintel systems I’ve been around.)

I was also hoping that the new rev of high-end Macs would be the first to support DDR SDRAM memory and “Gigawire,” the 800-1,600Mbps version of FireWire.

Finally, with all the products in the sweet suite of applications that’s included, why doesn’t Apple also throw in AppleWorks, its productivity suites as it does with its consumer models? For some reason, the company seems to feel that professional users don’t want AppleWorks. I think many of them would.

But overall, the dual GHz processor is a great system for creative professionals, graphic designers, hardcore gamers, and, well, anyone who wants to watch Mac OS X fly. More features, more software, and a lower price. I can live with that.

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