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PPC 500MHz limit forces Apple down dual-CPU route

Where the heck are faster Motorola PowerPCs when you need 'em?

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Motorola's ongoing problems getting faster PowerPC 7400 (aka G4) processors out of the door has forced Apple to convert its professional Power Mac desktop line to multi-processor machines.

And for what's essentially a stop-gap solution, the new Power Mac G4s are quite clever. For the same price as a current G4, the new machines ship with two 7400s and gigabit Ethernet. They also sport bigger hard drives, but that's just classic 'speed bump' stuff, so of little real relevance to anyone but the budget-conscious.

Gigabit Ethernet is impressive, and gives the G4 something that comparable Wintel machines lack. The digital video professionals at whom Apple is increasingly targeting its high-end machines love this kind of thing, and it's telling that Apple spin-doctor-in-chief Phil Schiller used digital video played back across a gigabit Ethernet network to demonstrate the new feature during CEO Steve Jobs' MacWorld Expo keynote.

Apple is still aiming at that most traditional of its professional buyers, the Photoshop user, which is why that application is always used to demo machine performance. Once more, Apple rolled out the old Pentium vs PowerPC Photoshop demo to show the benefits of the new machines, and showed that a 1GHz Pentium III is slower than two 500MHz G4s.

Fine, but that's Photoshop, and while it is very well tuned to the PowerPC 7400's AltiVec engine and to multiprocessing, precious little of the rest of the Mac software catalogue is. Most Power PC G4 buyers won't see much if any advantage, so Apple's 'twice as fast as a Pentium' claims when the come will soon ring hollow.

But that's why keeping the price the same is such a canny move, using falls in component costs to cover the extra expense of the second CPU. If you're getting a second CPU for free, who cares whether it makes any difference or not? And, as Jobs pointed out, it will be able to take advantage of MacOS X's symmetric multiprocessing when that OS ships.

Which, incidentally, will now be September - "Early, I think," said Jobs - for the public beta and 2001 "Early, I think," said Jobs - for the final 1.0 release.

By then Motorola may be in a position to ship the next major iteration of the PowerPC 7400, the one that gets it up to 700MHz and beyond in exchange for architectural changes that will reduce the chip's inherent superiority over x86 designs. Whether that will be the end of the dual-CPU G4s we shall have to wait and see. Certainly, G4 Plus chips are unlikely to be in sufficient supply for Apple to offer across-the-board dual-CPU configurations - even now only two out of three G4 models offer two processors; the 450MHz and 500MHz versions - and Apple probably won't want the Mac with the most advanced PowerPC to be out-performed but a box with two old ones. ®

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