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Apple's Power Mac G4: a tale of two boxes

Wait for the way better, 450MHz and up G4s, due next month

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Analysis Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs yesterday unveiled the long-awaited Power Mac G4 during his keynote at the Seybold conference. Jobs was understandably interested primarily in pushing the crowd-wowing "desktop supercomputer" one sustain gigaflop performance statistic and the Intel-beating benchmarks -- did those Windows Photoshop tests really make use of the Pentium III's Streaming SIMD Extensions, we wonder... -- than going into the finer points of the machines' specifications. You'll note the use of the plural 'machines' there. The reason for that is the new Power Mac G4 line actually comprises two separate hardware systems -- not configurations, mind, but different motherboards, just as we reported last week. So much for the attempt by Jobs -- and his predecessor, Gil Amelio, -- to slim down the number of basic boxes the company produces. Yesterday, Apple went from four models to five. The 400MHz Power Mac G4 machine, due to go on sale in the US today, doesn't offer most of the important new features of the 450MHz and 500MHz models, due September and October, respectively. For a start, the 400MHz model lacks support for Intel's Advanced Graphics Port (AGP), which significantly accelerates graphics performance by providing a dedicated connection between graphics card and CPU. It doesn't support Apple's AirPort wireless network technology, and uses the same internal modem and UltraATA-33 hard drive chain as the blue'n'white Power Mac G3. The faster models support AGP 2x (but not, you'll note the latest 4x spec., as predicted), AirPort networking, software DVD decoding (the 400MHz machine still requires a hardware add-in for this, as did the blue'n'white G3), UltraATA-66 support and a new, more advanced modem. The G4's other specs. -- 1MB L2 cache, 800Mbps 100MHz system bus, PC100 SDRAM support, dual USB ports, dual FireWire ports, and 10/100 Ethernet -- are consistent across the range. So what we have here is one machine -- the 400MHz model -- based on the Yikes! motherboard, a modified version of the original blue'n'white G3 mobo, and a second box, to be made available in 450MHz and 500MHz versions, based on the Sawtooth mobo, problems with which led to the development of Yikes! Whether the delay in shipping the Sawtooth-based machines is due to still-to-be-resolved issues with that mobo remains to be seen -- more likely, it's a result of Motorola's PowerPC 7400 production ramp. Still, you have to wonder why, if Sawtooth is ready to go, why Apple bothered with Yikes! at all. Perhaps there are indeed one or two things the company still has to fix. Nevertheless, whenever Sawtooth-based Macs actually do ship, it will be way ahead of the predicted ship date. All of Apple's benchmarks were based on the 500MHz PPC 7400, presumably running on a Sawtooth mobo. No great surprise, that, since all vendors select their best machines for such testing, but we do wonder how far below that standard the 400MHz, Yikes!-based machine will be. Better than the blue'n'white G3, true, but perhaps not the leap ahead that many buyers will be expecting. Indeed, we suspect many will continue to wait, delaying their long-anticipated G4 purchase for the Sawtooth box. And, it has to be said, the Sawtooth-based machines are impressively-specced, despite the lack of AGP 4x support. True, Apple does bundle the very decent ATI Rage 128, but it would have been nice to have had the option to upgrade to a faster 4x graphics card -- Voodoo 4, anyone? -- at a later date. AGP 4x is rapidly becoming the standard for high-speed graphics in the Wintel world, so it's surprising Apple is willing to pass on an opportunity to strengthen its position here. Graphics are what Apple's professional machines are all about, after all. With the slick glossy silver casing, the new G4s also look rather more 'serious' than their predecessor's more iMac-like bondi blue shell. Perhaps Apple would like to offer we blue'n'white G3 owners a case upgrade... ® Power Mac G4 Coverage Apple unwraps 'desktop supercomputer' Apple unwraps 'desktop supercomputer'

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