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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  • jonmarsh - Thursday, November 3, 2005 - link

    I just read this and several other Mac articles here last night. Funny thing is, several weeks ago when my "enterprise" HP laptop started flaking out on a business trip, I was at the point where I was considering buying a Mac Mini just to play with. This was after reading about the current state of Tiger and the platform in general.

    Instead, I ended up walking out of the store with a new 17" Powerbook, which is no heavier than my 15" HP, and infinitely more pleasurable to use, in so many ways. After loading Office for the Mac, iWorks, Deltagraph, Acrobat and Acrobat reader, and bringing my files over, I was ready for a subsequent three weeks of business travel, and haven't looked back since.

    I'll need the HP to run some of my CAD software (schematics and PCB design), but I'm pretty sure now there will be a G5 dual processor system in my future running those apps under Virtual PC.

    Perhaps some of the adoption process and uptake wouldn't have been as smooth with earlier versions of OSX, but some days I just wonder why I didn't do this sooner.

    BTW, I've been using PCs since 1983, and building them since 1985, so it's not like I'm not quite immersed in that scene, especially due to the CAD work (electrical and mechanical) which I do. For now, I'm learning Ashlar Vellum Graphite, and thinking I should have done that long ago, too. (Adios, AutoCAD).

    BTW, the 23" Ciinema display is great- not that my Samsung 213T is obsolete, but the integration factor for the Apple is a big plus. And this silly laptop DOES have dual DVI and can drive the 30" display, too. Hmmmm. ;^)

  • Imaginer - Sunday, August 7, 2005 - link

    "For example, if you have a file, drag it into an open Terminal window and the entire path to that file will be copied into the window for you. It actually makes interacting with the file system from the command prompt quite easy. "

    Windows command prompt allows this too
  • rhayes - Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - link

    I bought a PowerBook 15" 1.5ghz about 4 months ago (my first Mac for all intents and purposes).

    As mostly a PC user (Windows + Linux), I agree with a lot of what Anand talks about in the article. I think most people coming from a Windows background could safely make a purchasing decision based on that article...

    For the record, what really sold me on the Mac (particularly the PowerBook) was running into it EVERYWHERE at my last Java symposium: "No Fluff Just Stuff". As a Java developer, it just seemed liked the perfect package: a) no Windows in sight, b) UNIX on a notebook without having to install it myself, c) the best OS GUI on the market IMO.

    The reservations about the 1 button mouse on the G4 are definitely understandable. But somehow (for whatever reason) it really doesn't bother me. However, when I'm at a client site and developing for long periods of time on the G4, I do carry a Bluetooth mouse with me. It's one button also :)

  • ginjin31 - Sunday, June 12, 2005 - link

    wonderful job with all the articles related to this. i can't believe i read the whole thing. =D

    there's one thing that i haven't noticed though. you never mentioned the sleep freature in the Powerbook, where you never really have to turn off your laptop. so whenever you need to use it you just take it out open it and it's ready to go.

    unlike PCs, you have to turn it off, standbye, or hibernate. waiting for the PC to boot takes a lot time, so a lot of time wasted before you can actually start working. i'm not really satisfied with the standby feature either. sometimes the PC just doesn't resume or i would get an error message. this happens more often and i would always end up rebooting the PC in the end.

    this is my favorite feature on Macs, and i don't know if i missed it but i don't think you mentioned it at all in the article.

    wonderful job overall Anand. i felt exactly the same way when i first got my Mac, being a diehard PC user myself.
  • Gooberslot - Wednesday, February 23, 2005 - link

    #28, it works on Win98 too.
  • mongo lloyd - Monday, February 21, 2005 - link

    Sometimes, these article make me wonder if Anand is the kind of "die-hard PC user" as he claims. For example:

    "Unlike the Windows command prompt, Terminal actually interfaces quite well with the rest of OS X. For example, if you have a file, drag it into an open Terminal window and the entire path to that file will be copied into the window for you. It actually makes interacting with the file system from the command prompt quite easy."

    As does CMD. As it's done for at least since Win2000. Possibly longer. There are lots of small things like these, bordering on being untrue statements, interspersed into these two Macintosh articles (which, admittedly, are good reads).
  • azkman - Sunday, February 6, 2005 - link

    It looks like one of your dislikes with the G4 P'Book may have been partially addressed with the brand new lineup. Scolling and panning on the trackpad can be performed with two fingers. Besides, they're just plain faster and cheaper than before. BTW, great review!
  • sluxx - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Enjoyed the article very much.

    I'll also fifth SideTrack. For $15, you essentially get a new multi-function trackpad.

    When you are typing, in the middle of a word, press alt+esc, you get a list of words that begins with what you've typed. Great for looking up words that you're not certain of the spellings. I imagine it works only for Cocoa apps and not Carbon apps.

    A couple of other freewares that I find useful: Spirited Away that hides selected (you select) background apps after a specified amount of time, and Speed Freak, a GUI wrap of the "renice" unix command. It's especially useful for me on a G3 iBook, but can help making your front app snappier. You can search and find them at www.versiontracker.com.

    My first time here, but looking forward to reading your other articles.
  • hindsight - Saturday, January 29, 2005 - link

    A couple of PowerBook features not covered in the article but still worth mentioning:

    - Dual displays: an external monitor plugged into the PowerBook can either mirror the LCD screen or act as a second display and thus significantly increase the desktop real estate.

    - Target Disk Mode: start the computer with the 'T' key held down and the computer behaves like an external FireWire drive. Very useful for transferring large amounts of data between machines quickly. (this works to all Macs)
  • bshell - Thursday, January 27, 2005 - link

    Both Windows and Macintosh OS's try to "think for you", but there's a fundamental difference in how they do this. Windows *imposes* its monopolistic will all the time, making decisions that it decrees to be the way things should be done all the way from spelling and grammar to where files should be stored, to the web search results. It's very mercenary, patronizing, irritating, and annoying. Apple, on the other hand has a more philosopher-king style, making "kind suggestions" rather than decrees, and guessing what you want correctly, sensibly, and unobtrusively more of the time. Somehow the choices Apple makes feel much kinder than Windows and always make you go "Wow, thanks" instead of "Oh damn, leave me alone." This is pervasive.

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