• The Mac Hardware Report: When is an Upgrade Not an Upgrade?

    October 22nd, 2005

    You have to feel bad for Apple, really. Steve Jobs and his loyal crew are abandoning Freescale Semiconductor and IBM chips and moving to Intel to get faster, more power efficient parts. At the same time, the show must go on. It can’t stop updating existing products, even if it has to use more creative means to figure out how to distinguish them from older versions.

    The biggest dilemma was no doubt the PowerBook. If you bought one on Tuesday, the fastest model would have a 1.67GHz G4. As of the new model introduction on Wednesday, it still topped out at 1.67GHz. So what’s the big deal? Well, Apple’s clever product engineers still found a way to make the same seem different. Please no puns! The most noticeable difference is the screen size. Yes, they still range from 12 to 17 inches, but the desktop area is more expansive on the two larger models. The 17-inch sports “1680-by-1050 pixel resolution — 36 percent more than the previous generation—and the 15-inch PowerBook with a 1440-by-960 pixel resolution — 26 percent more than the previous generation. Ideal for business and creative professionals, the new 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks make reading text and viewing images even easier with brighter displays — up to 46 percent brighter on the 17-inch model. The 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks also provide up to an additional hour of battery life to get even more work done while on the road.”

    What Apple didn’t provide was a set of reading glasses for folks who are over 25. More screen real estate naturally means smaller text, closer to what you find on a Windows note-book. Sure, you can change the resolution to compensate, but the picture is never as sharp as the native resolution. Finder and other application settings can be tweaked or larger letters, but I’ll await some face time with the new models before rendering a final judgment. That extra battery life, however, is a real plus, but don’t expect up to 5.5 hours as Apple claims, unless you just plan to stare at your new PowerBook’s screen and not do anything else.

    Overall, however, the improvements seem enough to goose PowerBook sales for a while, although I’m sure Apple is aching to get some Intel chips inside to realize some genuine speed gains.

    On the other hand, the Power Mac did earn a healthy performance boost, even if you do have to explain to some skeptics why a 2.5GHz model is more powerful than the previous 2.7GHz version. And there’s no mention of the need for liquid cooling, thank goodness! The updated line, based on specs alone, seems a far more credible contender in the workstation arena, particularly if you are willing to spend an arm and a leg for superior graphics. You see, when the original Power Mac G5 appeared in 2003, I contacted Dell and HP about a shootout with their workstations. Dell agreed, and then declined, but HP came up to bat with a product that was over two grand more expensive.

    How did HP explain the price disparity? Well, both the Power Mac and the HP had dual processors. But HP claimed that its desktop entry offered workstation rather than consumer-level graphics, which it said would yield an important advantage for content creators. Apple has continued to provide what some regard as consumer-oriented graphics cards although the critics don’t seem to have made much of an issue about it. But clearly a slower dual-core processor versus a faster single core one isn’t enough to boost performance significantly, so Apple is offering an upgrade to the workstation-class NVIDIA QUADRO FX 4500, which adds over $1600 to your purchase price. This monster card fills two PCI Express slots, and can support a pair of 30-inch Apple HD Cinema Displays.

    Oh yes, PCI Express, which provides much faster performance than previous expansion slot schemes. Apple also lets you install up to 16GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM. The faster memory will also eke superior number crunching capabilities. Twin gigabit Ethernet ports make the boxes more suited to render farms, which makes them more attractive to movie special effects people.

    All told, Apple can make some very compelling arguments as to why the new Power Macs smoke the older models. But before you wonder why the top-of-the-line got a higher price, $3,299, start equipping a Windows workstation with similar equipment, including a pair of dual core Intel Xeons, and see where the figures top out. For example, I started out with a Dell Precision 670. The “Enhanced” version has a base price of $1,818. But start customizing it to approach the Power Mac G5 Quad, and the picture changes considerably. I got to $4,834 without a the extra gigabit Ethernet port and FireWire or much extra software. If you’re interested in checking my figures, bear in mind that Dell’s site is a moving target, and prices and configurations may vary depending on where you enter the site and, perhaps, which offer is in effect that particular hour.

    Comparing prices on Apple hardware with its Windows-based competition is, however, an old argument, as is comparing performance. In fact, Apple hasn’t bothered. It’s speed claims use older Power Macs for benchmarks rather than a Dell or an HP.

    From my little corner of the universe, the newest Power Mac line as a major step in the transition to Intel. The subsystems seem to be in place, and now I’m curious to see how things will fare for the main event. Will Apple introduce a new form factor, or just pop the Intel chip and associated components inside the very same box, just to show us all that it was no big deal after all.

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