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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  • jsares - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Here's what I wrote on my blog:

    http://macmini.blogspot.com

    Anand Lal Shimpi of AnandTech has a great second article about his experiences with switching to the Mac.

    If you could say he liked the Mac in his first article you could say he loves the Mac in this article.

    Some great quotes and my comments in italics:

    "It took a lot of convincing (as well as some executive privilege) for the establishment of the Mac section, and then came the ... article "
    Some of Anand staff didn't want him to write about the Mac.

    "Within the first three days of publication, that little Mac article skyrocketed to becoming one of the all-time most popular articles ever published on AnandTech."
    Windows enthusiasts are dying for something new.

    "One problem with these types of articles is that they inevitably take much longer to put together, simply because there are no structured tests to run and analyze."
    That's why this article is so good."

    "At the end of the first Mac article, I came to the realization that what attracted me most to OS X was the way everything just worked the way that you'd expect it to."
    Welcome to the Mac, Anand.

    I don't want to give away too much so go read the article and give the guy some credit in the comments section and send him some nice emails.

    Great article Anand!
    Reply
  • CrankyTodd - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    Hi Anand,

    Regarding Expose, especially on a laptop, you'll find yourself enjoying Expose MUCH, MUCH more if you dont use the function keys to launch it.

    Under System Preferences, choose Expose, and use "Active Screen Corners" to activate Expose functions. I was reluctant to try it at first, but I was hooked within minutes, and cant imagine going back. I Set the lower left corner of the desktop to activate the "Application Windows" function, and the upper right corner of the desktop to activate the "All Windows" function. So as I'm using my Mac, as soon as I want to switch applications or windows within the current application, I just throw my mouse into one corner or the other, instead of having to actually go hit a button to activate either function. Once you try it, you'll see that its an incredible seamless way of navigating the system.
    Reply
  • ugly - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    "OS X Tiger
    ...as well as the fact that in Tiger, every single pixel on the screen will ac-tually be rendered by the graphics card."

    I thought some image "things" (I couldn't come up with a better word for what was in the core image demo) could be offloaded to the graphics card, but this statement makes it sound as if Tiger will be Quartz Extreme like it should have been.

    Reply
  • Dualboy24 - Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - link

    I loved the article. I was waiting for a new Mac read at anandtech. It seems like ages since the first one... I recently made a jump to a Mac Powerbook 17" a few months before the first article. The funny thing is I build/sell PCs on the side... but my main system is now the mac and of course I have 5 PCs running every MS-Linux but I must say that the Mac OS is the most advanced OS in terms of interface and it seems multitasking. Expose is a wonderful feature (I use an MX500 mouse with the exposes features mapped)

    Oh. Also you shouldn't forget the system wide spell checker. Such common sense I wonder if MS does not include this in windows in order to push some of their other products?

    Anyway looking forward to the Mac mini review I am probably going to get one for the low noise and power factor.
    Reply
  • miniMUNCH - Monday, January 24, 2005 - link

    I 2nd the 5400 rpm HD for an extra $45...well worth it. Or you can upgrade the HD yourself or have MAc Shop throw in a 7200rpm HD, but for me the 5400 rpm HD is plenty. Reply
  • wilburpan - Monday, January 24, 2005 - link

    Oops. What I meant to say was:

    Being a user of OS X, Linux, and Windows, I would say that the often cited lack of a two button mouse in OS X is not so much a flaw as it is a preference. Personally, I can move from the one button mouse in OS X to the two button mice of Linux and Windows and back again without much trouble. To complicate things further, two button mouse behavior is different in Windows and Linux. One can get right-click type behavior in many OS X applications by control-clicking the mouse, which does not seem to slow me at all compared to right-clicking.

    Until someone can produce data or a usability study that shows that, say, editing an image in Photoshop is slower using a one button mouse than a two button mouse, this is all a matter of what one is used to. You might as well criticize a scroll mouse for the tendency for middle clicks to be interpreted as scrolling commands, or harp on the inconsistencies of menu shortcuts and menu item locations (e.g. does Preferences belong under Edit or Tools?) between applications.
    Reply
  • pkthoo - Monday, January 24, 2005 - link

    Great article!
    I consider myself as a neutral. This article sheds light on what I have been looking for; user experiences on using Mac.
    Now, I am certain that I am going to be Mac+iPod user, hopefully by year's end.

    Apple should make 512MB as minimum RAM amount, and bundle Mac mini with iPod Shuffle as a new 'wholesome' package.
    Reply
  • wilburpan - Monday, January 24, 2005 - link

    Reply
  • Snoozy - Monday, January 24, 2005 - link

    I still think you are missing out on the complete mac experience by not using a launcher application.

    I run Butler (http://www.petermaurer.de/nasi.php?thema=butler&am... but there are many more: LaunchBar (http://www.obdev.at/products/launchbar/index.html)... QS as mentioned earlier, just do a search on versiontracker.com.

    What these applications enable you to do is virtualy elimate the need for CMD+tab switching, using the dock, or using the Applications folder to launch things. Basically press CMD + Space (as I have it setup, you can go with whatever key combo you want!) and then type what you want - you can even teach them anacronyms for commonly used applications. For example if I do CMD+Space then type PS and hit enter it opens photoshop, or switches to it if its already open. The applications are infinitely configurable, I've got a shortcut for blog which runs an apple script that then pops open MarsEdit and opens a new post window for my blog (which is WordPress powered, MarsEdit contacts it via XML-RPC). Butler also has a built in dictonary, and multiple other widgets. Check it out.

    I 2nd the suggestion on using sidetrack. I bought my PB (1st mac) in march last year and this was one of the first things that I had to have - makes it so much nicer.
    Reply
  • hopejr - Monday, January 24, 2005 - link

    #23, On OS X there is the Zoom thing in the Universal Access Pref panel, that allows everything on the screen to be zoomed at what ever zoom level is necessary. You can set it to follow the mouse, or keyboard focus. It's a nice feature. There's other good features in OS X that help with those who can't see too well.
    #28, I just tried that and you're right, it does (I tried in 2k3). Oh well, I use OS X more so it's more important to me there :P (although it's nice to know it works in Windows too, for the times I use it)
    Reply

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