What's Changed Since Part I

Dual 2.5GHz G5

Just like AMD and Intel, IBM also made the transition to 90nm with their PowerPC 970FX processor, or as it's known in the Apple world, the G5. The 90nm G5 allowed for a pretty impressive jump in clock speed, from the previous 2.0GHz limit to 2.5GHz. The 25% increase in clock speed per chip puts the G5 within striking distance of AMD, whose Athlon 64 FX currently tops out at 2.6GHz. Clock for clock, AMD does have an advantage over the G5 (thanks, in part, to the Athlon 64's on-die memory controller); however, in the GHz race, Apple is at least catching up despite not breaking any speed records. As I discovered in the first Mac piece however, pure performance extends far beyond the clock speed of the CPUs and, often times, rests on the shoulders of the OS. So, more important than the 2.5GHz G5's comparison to the Athlon 64 is its impact on performance in OS X - which is nothing short of positive.

Having tested the new $3000 G5 extensively, the speed bump to 2.5GHz actually does result in a much more responsive system. The 25% increase in clock speed translates into a very perceivable real world performance improvement, even actually taking my focus away from things like slow smooth scrolling, thanks to improvements in the overall responsiveness of the system. Also remember that because the FSB clock scales with CPU speed, you get much better CPU scaling on the G5 than you do with more conventional architectures. In the case of the 2.5GHz chips, effective FSB speed goes up to 1.25GHz, offering more bandwidth than even the Pentium 4's 1066MHz FSB.

Because of thermal density issues, the dual 90nm 2.5GHz G5 workstation is actually water cooled, which marks an interesting milestone for Apple - offering the first widely available, water-cooled, straight-from-the-OEM computer. The water cooling system on the new 2.5GHz G5 is interesting, but it doesn't make the system any quieter than the dual 2.0 that I used in the original Mac article. The rest of the new system remains the same, which makes me wonder if Apple's release of Tiger will showcase the introduction of a more widely updated system with much more than faster CPUs (e.g. PCI Ex-press graphics support). But, more on Tiger in a bit...

With the release of the dual 2.5GHz Power Mac, Apple has made some interesting changes to their workstation/desktop lineup. As I just mentioned, the high end still costs $3000, but the platform I reviewed in the first article has now dropped down to $2499 ($2299 with educational discount). Even at $2299, although system prices are getting more reasonable, it's still higher than what most PC users will consider. Things get very interesting when you look at the lower end of the spectrum, more specifically at the single and dual 1.8GHz Power Mac offerings. Priced at $1499 and $1999 respectively, the single and dual 1.8GHz Power Macs are finally getting into more reasonable price points. With Apple's student discount (which is available from their online store), the prices drop to $1349 and $1799 accordingly. At $1349, a single 1.8GHz G5 is a tempting offer to someone looking for a mid-range workstation, but how does the single CPU compare to the dual setup that I used in the first article?

For starters, the clock speed difference isn't tremendously noticeable - the difference is only 10% on paper and even less in the real world. I'd venture that the 1.8GHz G5s are about 5 - 6% slower than the 2.0GHz chips, at best. The biggest performance impacts here are: 1) memory size, and 2) the lack of two CPUs. Both 1.8GHz systems ship with a default of 256MB of memory, which unfortunately just doesn't cut it for OS X. Even if you're doing light multitasking, you'll find yourself bogged down by the CPU with only 256MB of memory. When I was testing for the first article, I found myself enamored with how quickly and how well OS X would use up whatever memory I threw at it, so I had no problem going from 512MB up to 6GB in the G5 for my original article. Since then, I've played around quite a bit with memory sizes and found that the sweet spot for OS X really is around 512MB; 1GB, if you are a heavier multitasker. But Apple's biggest mistake at the lower price point systems is to only offer a base configuration of 256MB of memory.

The next issue is going from two CPUs down to one. The strengths of OS X when it comes to multitasking are definitely still there regardless of how many CPUs you have. The fact of the matter is that OS X's multitasking strengths don't only come in its management of concurrent tasks that are eating up CPU time, but rather in its management and ease of accessibility of concurrent windows of applications. From that standpoint, the move down to a single CPU isn't a huge loss; however, you definitely notice the difference between one and two CPUs just as soon as you start performing multiple CPU intensive tasks at the same time. For example, the first time that you start up your machine, there are a handful of programs that you may want to open. Clicking on five or six icons and letting all of the programs start at the same time on a dual G5 vs. a single G5 is like night and day. The same comparison can be made on the PC side of things too, if you've ever gone from a dual CPU system down to a single processor one. Regardless, my recommendation at this point for trying out a OS X machine as a true work system would be a dual 1.8GHz unit with at least 512MB of memory.

iMac G5

Also since my original experiment, Apple has released their new iMac G5 - effectively their new desktop line of G5 based systems. The styling of the iMac G5 is definitely a plus, but the highly integrated nature of the system is quite possibly the most attractive aspect of its styling. It's always nice not to have any cords on your desktop.

Internally to the iMac G5, you essentially have a compressed 1U server and if you've ever opened one of these puppies up, that's the first thing that will come to your mind. Even the two DIMM slots are slanted at a 45 degree angle, just like they are on 1U server motherboards. Essentially, all Apple did with the iMac G5 was take their Cinema Display and stick a 1U server motherboard on the back of it, obviously with better exterior styling. The end result is impressive, except for the fact that even the 20" iMac G5 only comes with 256MB of memory standard. By far, the slowest part of using the 20" iMac is dealing with disk swapping, but as soon as you put more than 256MB of memory in there, the machine becomes a pretty decently fast system (as it should for $1899).

The integrated GeForce FX 5200 Ultra isn't the best GPU in the world, which is a bit of a shame, since there's no upgrading it. The built-in 64MB of memory is good enough for smooth Exposé with mild mannered multitasking, but if you find yourself with tons of windows open, you're going to wish that you had an open AGP slot.

The monitors themselves are top of the line, as is usually the case with Apple's displays, with the 20" offering a good deal of real estate and the 17" being surprisingly decent as well. Personally, I felt cramped by even the 20" display's 1680 x 1050 resolution, but also remember that at the time, I was used to running two displays: a 23" and a 20" Cinema Display.

Of the three iMac G5 models, the mid-range $1499 17" 1.8GHz model is the one that I felt was the best overall value as it offered a slightly better system responsiveness than the 1.6GHz system while not being quite as expensive as the 20" unit. Obviously, with a system like the iMac G5, you're tied into the display, so the resolution better be something that you are comfortable with; otherwise, it's time for a new computer for you.

Mac mini

The more recently announced Apple's Mac mini has been turning some heads, even in the PC world. If the iMac G5 is basically a 1U server attached to a monitor, the Mac mini is basically a reorganized laptop without a monitor. If you take Apple's PowerBook G4 and remove the display, keyboard and mouse, you'll find that it's not too difficult to reorganize the motherboard, optical drive and hard drive in such a fashion that you'll be able to fit it into a 6.5" x 6.5" x 2" box. But price it at $499 and then finally, you'll be able to tempt some PC users over into trying it out as their second system.

The Mac mini is especially relevant to this article because a lot of the discussions about performance with regards to Apple's PowerBook will apply directly to the Mac mini, as the two platforms are very similarly configured.

For years, we've been telling OEMs that if they want to truly make an impact on the PC market, they need to do more than just put another ugly gray box in front of end users. Shuttle was the first to actually realize this and has profited tremendously because of it with their XPC designs. But even now, their XPC designs are becoming too conservative, especially when compared to something like the Mac mini. The styling elements and the extremely small size of the Mac mini are what will make the majority of the market consider it. Apple did a very good job of producing, essentially, the iPod of computers with the Mac mini.

For those of you interested in the Mac mini's performance, pay close attention to the performance sections of this article.

OS X Tiger

The more I read about OS X Tiger, the more interested I become. The two main features that draw me to the update are Apple's system-wide, fully indexed search engine, called Spotlight, as well as the fact that in Tiger, every single pixel on the screen will actually be rendered by the graphics card. For the most part, in OS X Panther (10.3), all of the rendering work is done by the CPU, with some GPU accelerated compositing occurring. In Tiger, everything is done through the pixel pipelines of your GPU, increasing the dependency on a graphics card with fast memory access, as well as increasing the flexibility of some of the effects that you're able to do in the OS itself.

Given Tiger's reliance on very high GPU performance, I would almost expect Apple to celebrate its release with a new G5 platform - with PCI Express graphics. That may be a bit of wishful thinking, but anything is possible. Despite the fact that Apple does let a fair bit of information outside of their corporate walls, all of their partners are as silent as can be about sharing information out of fear of jeopardizing their relationship with Apple. The fear is understandable - it wasn't too long ago that ATI fell out of favor with Apple for pre-announcing a video card win with Apple at the time.

I've played around with betas of Tiger, none of which were terribly stable or polished for that matter, but the features demonstrated at Mac World do seem to be on the right track for making OS X an even more productivity-oriented OS.

Index The Premise for Part II
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  • garote - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    A note about Exposé usage on a powerbook:

    I know it's unorthodox, but consider using the 'Fn' key, on the lower left, for activating Exposé. It's easier to reach in general, but especially easy to use when you want to drag an icon/file _through_ an Exposé operation (via hold-release), from one window to another. Especially if you're right-handed.

    You can still use Command-up/down for home/end, Command-left/right for begin/end of line, and Option-left/right for next/prev word. You'll have to invoke F6 to use the keypad, however, and you'll lose quick access to page-up/page-down.

    The big difference, of course, is that you'll lose access to the regular invocation of the FN keys - however, I find that I never want to use the FN keys anyway, unless I want to embed a bunch of Photoshop macros in them.

    Try it for a while. If you're a heavy Exposé user, you may find the change quite pleasing.
    Reply
  • adespoton - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Hi Anand; just thought I'd clarify a statement you made in your conclusion:

    "Unless you do a lot of .NET development on the road, just about anything you use your laptop for is available under OS X...."

    For anyone in this situation, Project Mono is available for OS X at http://www.go-mono.com/archive/1.0.5/macos/MonoFra...
    Of course, this doesn't give you *all* the .NET bindings etc., but for basic .NET development it works quite well -- and has the added benefit that you can test the programs out under OS X as well, without resorting to emulation.
    Reply
  • jayemcee - Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - link

    Thanks for a nicely balanced article. The speed issues tend to fade a bit (especially pure cpu speed) when looking at the way the system operatesand how it helps productivity. Less downtime for the system (my uptime has been continuous except for reboots at software updates times). Drag and drop into and between applications make the system appear very elegant to me and a bonus is when I want it... there is BSD *nix underneath OS X.

    The hardware is as good as it gets for the price and I do not feel cheated by Apple. Of course, there is also that indefinable Apple experience that you get when opening the boxes of a new piece of apple hardware. I guess that I am addicted to that as well. :)

    You write well and many PC magazines would do well to emulate your methods of testing the unquantifiable variables of all machines that they test and then write about... for public consumption.

    Reply
  • mattfaulds - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Great article. Good to see someone weighing things from a bablanced point of view.

    Would like to reiterate the greatness of Sidetrack (www.ragingmenace.com)

    I have an iBook G4 and have changed the button to a right click button, the corners of the tap pad to exposé functions (and a right click corner) and a scroll on the right side. It's very customisable and very stable.

    Apple really really should pay him lots of money and incoporate the optional function as standard. You need it with the limited space on a laptop.

    Cheerio
    Reply
  • waterbug - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Anand,

    Another thing to compare between OS X and Windows is sleep/wake behavior. Try this at home:

    Connect both your Wintel laptop and your PowerBook to a WiFi network with DHCP and verify connection by opening a browser. Close both lids for 5-10 seconds, until you're sure they're both asleep. Open the lids.

    You should be able to click a link on the PowerBook within 5 seconds of seeing the LCD come on. If you have a static IP, it'll be even faster.

    On my XP laptop, it takes anywhere from 10-45 seconds to reacquire the wireless signal, figure out the encryption, reacquire a DHCP address, and then finally be able to do anything.

    It sounds trivial, but imagine this scenario: imagine you're working with your laptop in the kitchen, and you decide to move to the dining room. Do you close your laptop, or walk over to the dining room with it open? With my Dell, I walk around the house with it open. With our iBook, I close it even to rearrange things on the bed. It's not a huge issue, but it's one of those "little touches" that makes for a more satisfying ownership experience.
    Reply
  • lookmark - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Nice article, as always. I too am slightly disappointed by my 15" PB's wireless range, and hope Apple is able to improve it in fure models.

    Just want to chime on the fabulousness of Quicksilver, which is like just a little taste of Tiger's Spotlight, focused on launching (or more, if you want). Well, well worth checking out.

    I too started with the Applications folder in the Dock -- didn't we all? -- but Quicksilver is so much better it's quite astonishing, and considering it's completely free and open-sourced all the more so. Apple is clearly taking notice as well.... it's been reported from the latest Tiger builds that the (customizable, of course) shortcut for hitting Spotlight quickly is now command-space, a la QS.
    Reply
  • jim v - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Actually, the ethernet port on the PowerBook is 10/100/1000 Reply
  • bcstanding - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    I am one of those guys that switched from PC to Mac (3 years ago). This article (with Part I) is one of the most insightful and unbiased articles I've ever read on the subject of the Mac User Experience. Very well done!

    I also thought I'd chip in an idea - if you don't have quite enough RAM, you may want to leave apps open (just hide them) instead of quitting them. OS X seems to be faster when swapping a program back into memory than starting it outright. I'm on a 3 year old PowerBook, though, so this may not be applicable for faster Macs...
    Reply
  • davechen - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    As an old school Unix programmer, I've always hated keyboards that have a large caps lock and a small control key (as most do these days). I use control a lot more than caps lock. Hell who ever really uses caps lock.

    So on OS X, I'd be lost without uControl. It's a little control panel that allows you to remap modifier keys (along with a lot of other things). Here' the link:

    http://gnufoo.org/ucontrol/ucontrol.html
    Reply
  • jsares - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    I second and third the suggestions for SideTrack. Great shareware from a great guy. Reply

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