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Review: The power of the Power Macs

MacWorld Online

(IDG) -- Past generations of desktop Macs had many perceived deficiencies, but the latest crop of Power Macs should put those criticisms to rest. These Macs include CD-RW drives and an additional PCI slot (bringing the total to four), and the top three models -- those with 533MHz, 667MHz, and 733MHz G4 processors -- sport one of the most powerful graphics processors on the market, nVidia's 32MB GeForce2 MX. Less-obvious changes include a faster system bus and sprightlier PCI throughput.

We tested the two less-expensive models -- the 466MHz ($1,699) and the 533MHz ($2,199) -- and we are pleased to report that in nearly every respect, these are finer and more capable Macs than their predecessors.

Dynamic desktops

Apple includes a 30GB (5,400-rpm) hard drive in the 466MHz model and a 40GB (7,200-rpm) hard drive in the 533MHz machine, plus a generous 128MB of RAM in each. Both models demonstrate that Apple's system-level improvements pay off with better performance. The new 466MHz model, for example, matched the Speedmark score of our test-bed system -- the previous-generation 500MHz Power Mac G4 -- thanks in large part to the new Mac's faster system bus. And in our Photoshop Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Mask tests, the 466MHz machine lagged only a second behind the older G4.

The inclusion of a 4X AGP slot also offers rewards. Although both the new 466MHz G4 and the old 500MHz G4 carry an ATI Rage 128 graphics chip set, the old G4 offers a 2X AGP slot; the new model squeezed an additional five frames per second out of Quake III Arena.

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As we expected, the 533MHz Power Mac easily outmatched both the new 466MHz and the old 500MHz Power Mac models. Although its six-percent performance gain in our Speedmark tests was less than earth-shattering, we were mightily impressed when the 533MHz model clipped five seconds off the 500MHz Mac's Photoshop scores -- that's a 25 percent improvement. We were somewhat surprised that the previous-generation Power Mac G4 fared better in our MP3 encoding test, taking 1 minute, 50 seconds to encode our 9-minute, 25-second test file; the new Power Macs took a full two minutes. Because both the 466MHz and the 533MHz models encoded our test MP3 file at the same rate, we can probably attribute this difference to slower read times in the new CD-RW drives.

The most dramatic difference between the 533MHz Power Mac G4 and the 466MHz (as well as the older 500MHz model) is in 3-D graphics performance. In our Quake III tests, the ATI Rage 128 card yielded a perfectly acceptable 46 frames per second. The 533MHz model's nVidia GeForce2 MX card produced nearly half again as many frames in this test -- an impressive 66 frames per second. Little wonder that nVidia's graphics cards are revered by PC gamers. Unfortunately, the nVidia card's 2-D performance doesn't match its 3-D capabilities: in our 2-D scrolling tests -- particularly the PDF test -- the ATI card ran noticeably faster.

Power to burn

Prior to the release of these Power Macs, Steve Jobs commented that Apple had missed the boat when it failed to include CD-rewritable drives in its computers. The company has rectified the situation by including CD-RW drives in each Power Mac model. And to be sure that these drives are actually useful, Apple offers Disc Burner, an application/extension combination that allows you to create data and music CDs using the Mac's built-in CD-RW drive. The Disc Burner/CD-RW combination is a winner, making tools such as Adaptec's Toast seem clumsy in comparison. Unlike other CD-writing software, Disc Burner lets you burn a CD simply by inserting a blank CD-R or CD-RW disc into the Mac's CD-RW drive, choosing a format for the disc, and then dragging and dropping files onto the CD's icon. When you're ready to write that data to the CD, simply select Burn CD from the Finder's Special menu, and Disc Burner burns and verifies the disc.

Disc Burner becomes even more capable when coupled with Apple's free MP3 encoder/player utility, iTunes. From within iTunes you can extract tracks from an audio CD, add those tracks to a playlist, and then burn those tracks to a CD-R. iTunes and Disc Burner can just as easily turn MP3 files into CD-player-compatible AIFF sound files and burn those files to disc. As we go to press, neither Disc Burner nor iTunes is bundled with the Power Mac G4s, but you can download them for free from Apple's Web site.

Something's missing

Considering Apple's current focus on multimedia and its push to paint the Mac as a "digital hub" for multimedia devices, it's odd that the company chose to strip the Sound Input port from these new Macs. Granted, the introduction of new USB and FireWire audio input devices and sound cards makes it possible to bring in audio by alternate means, but none of these alternate means are bundled with the Mac. Surely those who have invested in audio and speech-recognition programs that rely on sound input will be disappointed to learn that they must purchase additional equipment to make their applications work with these new Macs.

Macworld lab test: New G4s

Best results in bold. Speedmark 2.1Quake IIISoundJam 2.5.2 Photoshop 5.5
Reference system in italics.Overall ScoreNormalMP3 Encode10-pixel Gaussian BlurUnsharp Mask
Apple Power Mac G4 466157462:002221
Apple Power Mac G4 533168662:001615
Apple Power Mac G4 500157411:502120
Bigger is betterBiggerSmaller is betterSmallerSmaller

New Power Mac G4s: At a glance

466MHz Power Mac G4

Rating: 4.0 (out of five)

Pros: Good performance; attractive price; includes 128MB of RAM and CD-RW drive.

Cons: No Sound Input port.

List Price: $1,699

533MHz Power Mac G4

Rating: 4.0 (out of five)

Pros: Great performance; great 3-D graphics capabilities; includes CD-RW drive.

Cons: No Sound Input port.

List Price: $2,199

Macworld's buying advice:

With these new models, Apple has given business, professional, and multimedia users just about everything they could want in a reasonably priced Power Mac -- solid performance, 128MB of RAM, a CD-RW burner on-board, and, on the 533MHz model, blazing 3-D graphics. All that's missing from these admirable Macs is a Sound Input port.

Behind the tests

Speedmark 2.1 scores are relative to those of an iMac 350MHz (1999), which is assigned a score of 100. Quake III scores are in frames per second. SoundJam 2.5.2 scores are in minutes:seconds. Photoshop 5.5 scores are in seconds. We tested each system with Mac OS 9.1, 128MB of RAM, a default system disk cache, and virtual memory enabled. We set displays to 1,024 by 768 pixels and 24-bit color. We tested MP3 encoding with an audio-CD track that was 9 minutes and 25 seconds long and converted it using a default setting of 128 Kbps in SoundJam. For more information on Speedmark, visit "More on Speedmark," link below.

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December 21, 2000
Losses at Apple, but new products coming
December 12, 2000
G4 Cube upgrades in store?
December 6, 2000
Review: Apple delivers value and style with new portables
November 15, 2000

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