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  • How Much Computing Power Do You Need?

    February 5th, 2005

    When does fast become too fast? When it comes to autos, just about all cars accelerate faster these days than they did back in the 1950s, when the American car was king. Of course they cost a whole lot more. In the personal computer business, though, products become both cheaper and faster. No model today, whether Mac or Windows box, can be regarded, on raw specs alone, as slow.

    But it’s also a fact that the original Macintosh managed to run a word processor and a drawing program within a very small RAM footprint. Today, Microsoft Word can bog down on computers with processors that are hundreds of times faster, with enough RAM to match. But Word isn’t the only chronic offender. Apple’s new combo word processor and page layout program, Pages, has system requirements that are only slightly less resource hungry than Word. In the days of the first Mac, it would take a large room to contain that amount of computing power. So what is Microsoft’s target market? Or Apple’s for that matter.

    On the other hand, any Mac you buy these days can, when properly outfitted, run quite a huge range of software with great performance. If you aren’t interested in heavy-duty gaming or 3D content creation, in fact, the Mac mini would do the job nicely, although you might still want to outfit it with more RAM.

    Just yesterday, Apple announced a PowerBook speed bump. On the surface, increasing the maximum processor rating from 1.5GHz to 1.67GHz may not seem a lot. But at the same time, Apple is installing speedier hard drives and more powerful graphic chips, so the net result of the sum of the parts is quite decent, thank you. Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Ars technica, a site that caters largely to power users, isn’t impressed. Their response: “Wake us up when the PowerBook G5 arrives.”

    To them, anything less is a great disappointment, and “the PowerBook line is in need of something more substantive at this point.” The implication, of course, is that Apple has continued to disappoint its customers by not producing something better. And how does ars technica propose to solve that problem? Clearly their only answer is the G5, and Apple better get cracking.

    At the same time, Apple executives have called the problem of putting a G5 in a laptop “the mother of all thermal challenges,” and continue to pour cold water on the prospects of seeing such a product any time soon. So what is Apple to do about it? Work faster? There is little doubt that there will be a PowerBook G5 some day. When is anyone’s guess.

    So it hardly makes sense to take the elitist view that Apple is doing something wrong in not being able to deliver the product any earlier. It’s not as if it were being withheld for some unknown reason. I’m sure Apple would rather build a laptop that is not just fast, but reliable and relatively cool running. Something akin to the existing form factor would be retained, which simply makes cooling the thing harder to accomplish. A big, bulky laptop with the innards of the iMac G5 could probably be released within a short time frame, and I bet there will be a decent amount of sales, but it would probably weigh nine or ten pounds, same as those oversized Wintel note-books. That’s not Apple’s style.

    Besides, how much more performance can you realistically expect if the 1.67GHz G4 was replaced by a G5 with a similar speed rating? Assume the graphics chips and hard drives are the same. The G5 surely benefits from a much faster front-side bus, 64-bit processing and all the rest. But most of you wouldn’t notice all that much of a difference, unless you are performing tasks that require that extra processor horsepower. This may sound heretical in some quarters, but it’s quite true, and you can demonstrate it for yourself simply by comparing the fastest G4 Mac with a G5. From startup speed to word processing and Internet surfing, the G5’s advantage will usually be a matter of a few seconds. Not a big deal in the scheme of things, but certainly you would have greater bragging rights.

    Obviously, if you do indeed require the fastest possible computer for your work, using software that can exploit the advantages of a G5, it would made a difference, perhaps a significant difference in some ways.

    Now maybe some people want Steve Jobs to deliver that PowerBook G5 today, and personally deliver the first products off the production line to them. I’m sure that, as ars technica says, “many potential buyers are waiting for a G5 laptop.” Assuming the price of admission is in line with existing models, and I’m sure it will, and it retains a similar slim form factor and relatively light weight, the number of preorders would be tremendous.

    In the first few months, at least, Apple will sell as many as it can produce. Now if any of those power users have some suggestions to offer Apple on how to tame the G5 for laptop use, I’m sure the company would want to know about it. Maybe those brilliant engineers ought to apply for jobs. I’m sure Apple will always welcome talented people, and pay a salary commensurate with their abilities.

    Now maybe I’m being a little facetious here. But it’s clear you won’t see a PowerBook G5 any faster because some people demand it.

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