By Neil Bennett | on September 18, 2003
Price: from £1,385 plus VAT
The most highly awaited creative computer of 2003 is finally here. Apple’s Power Mac G5 – dubbed “the world’s fastest personal computer” and “the world’s first 64-bit personal computer” by the company – is shipping. Or, it will be by the time you read this. Well, except for the top-of-the-line dual 2GHz model, which will most likely appear at the very end of September. The G5 represents the biggest leap forward for Apple for many years, surpassing even the launch of the G4 back in August 1999. The G4 took on Intel’s Pentium, won, and then paled into insignificance as the P4’s exponential speed growth left the G4 in its dust. The G5 is designed to take on both the P4 and, with the forthcoming dual 2GHz model, the Xeon workstation-class chip. Behind this stake is the PowerPC G5 processor. Co-developed by Apple and IBM, it’s the first 64-bit processor for sub-£2,000 machines – which is what we assume Apple means by “personal computer”. Intel’s Itanium processors, currently in their second generation, have been available for a long while and AMD’s Opteron for similar machines was launched a few months ago – but these are confined to very expensive machines for markets such as engineering, chemical modelling, and architecture. Intel has no plans for a 64-bit processor in the G5’s price range, but AMD will launch its Athlon 64 processor on September 23. The 64-bit G5 can address more memory (the first G5 holds up to 8GB of RAM) and store more and larger floating-point numbers in the CPU than the 32-bit G4. The chip’s capacity for data storage (small data blocks, called registers) has been expanded, as has the pipeline for instructions awaiting execution. This makes it more like a juggernaut’s cab than the Pentium 4’s Ferrari – not as fast, but capable of pulling a lot more weight. Due to this way of working, the 64-bit G5 processor requires a 64-bit operating system and, to get the best out of it, programs optimized for working 64-bit space. The G5 ships with Mac OS X 10.2.7 – essentially the old 32-bit OS X with a few 64-bit optimizations. Unfortunately, even the much-mooted OS X 10.3, aka Panther, won’t be completely 64-bit either. So far, we’ve seen only a few applications that have been optimized for the G5, usually through a downloadable update, and only one of these is relevant to d readers – Photoshop. Other applications will run faster, but this is likely to be more due to the processor speed jump and faster internal architecture than the 64-bit nature of the chip. A rare treat We looked at the 1.6GHz Power Mac G5, the only model seen in the UK as Digit went to Press. Apple themselves had no available models to share, so thanks go to the Square Group for letting us test the company’s only presentation unit. As stated above, this model and the 1.8GHz version will be on sale by the time you read this, with the dual 2GHz version to follow. Square’s G5 was the standard configuration with an extra 512MB of RAM added for a total of 768MB. This configuration isn’t available commercially, the RAM options are fixed to 256MB, 512MB, 1GB, and above – but it works out at a cost of around £1,500 plus VAT. In our benchmark tests, we’ve set the G5 against three units: a Power Mac G4, a Dell Dimension 8300 PC featuring a Pentium 4 processor, and an Evesham Acumen Xeon dual 3.06GHz workstation. Matching the G5 against the first will show if it’s worth upgrading if you are a current Mac user. It’s up against the dual 1GHz G4 with 256MB of RAM and an 80GB IDE hard drive, which used to cost £1,700 plus VAT. The second compares the G5 against a 3GHz Pentium 4 model, which features 512MB of RAM and a 120GB IDE hard drive. The third compares it against a £3,349 Xeon powerhouse with dual 3GHz Xeons, 1GB of RAM, and two 120GB serial ATA drives with a RAID controller, to see how powerful the G5 really is. If you work in graphics, the G5 is a showstopper. We’re talking home in time for The Simpsons, rather than Eastenders. Using Photoshop with the G5 update, this Mac creamed the competition – even the dual Xeon. In a series of 20 actions on a 200MB image, more-strenuous actions than we normally use, the G5 was over 20 seconds faster than the Acumen – and over three times faster than the G4. However, the G5 isn’t faster overall than the Intel-based systems. We also ran single-filter tests and found that while the G5 was faster than either of the Pentium- or Xeon-based systems at production-based tasks such as RGB to CMYK conversions, vice versa or simple inversions, it was slower than the Dimension 8300 at heavy-duty filters such as Watercolour. The G5 beat the P4 on complicated but less-strenuous filters such as Gaussian blurs, but the dual Xeon system wiped the floor with the G5 on both Watercolour and Gaussian blur. Photoshop felt equally smooth and spritely across G5, Pentium and Xeon systems, leaving the G4 stuttering like an Etch-a-Sketch. The G5 lost out heavily to the Intel units in both our rendering and 3D tests. Neither LightWave nor Cinema 4D (which Cinebench is based on) are optimized for the G5, though the it did perform much better than the G4. It doubled the G4’s Cinebench rating, due in part its GeForce FX 5200 Ultra graphics card and in part to its fast architecture. The problem is that a £1,500 computer – even if the only 3D you use is within Photoshop or After Effects – should have a graphics card with at least 128MB of RAM, if not 256MB. Card and fast However, there are currently no graphics cards for the Mac with more than 128MB, which is a shame. For 3D professionals, there are no workstation-class cards either. On the upside, the few cards are all certified by the major application vendors. On the downside, there’s no specific pro-3D functionality built into these cards – but you’re saving money over a pro card. Even so, we can’t complain for one good reason – this is the least powerful G5. We still have the 1.8GHz and the dual 2GHz to come – and we can’t wait. The main competitor to the single processor G5s are computers with the Athlon 64 chip. We’ve only had a short time on a prototype, but it seemed able to more than hold its own in Photoshop against the G5. Expect to see reviews of Athlon 64 systems in the next issue. The G5 itself is an impressive beast. Opinions are divided on its aluminium alloy case design. I preferred the G4’s opaque plastic to the G5’s metal – but it certainly works, as it’s whisper quiet. The inclusion of FireWire and USB 2.0 slots on the front is a bonus – and USB 2.0 support is a welcome catch-up. Other late additions to the spec are found inside the case, such as support for PCI-X, the faster form of PCI for adding expansion boards such as the next generation of graphics cards. Our 1.6GHz G5 had only PCI slots. The case isn’t too roomy, with space for only two Serial-ATA hard drives – and you can’t add IDE drives. The layout also precludes an internal RAID array. Other impressive features include the DVD-R/CD-RW SuperDrive, digital audio input and output, though your old Pro Speakers won’t work with the G5, and FireWire 800 support is standard. Features like these are great if you like Apple’s ‘lots as standard, few options’ approach, as compared to the ‘everything’s an option’ Windows PC approach. If you’re a commited Mac-head, the G5 will satisfy your wildest dreams. If you currently use a Windows PC, there’s enough power here at a reasonable-enough price to make you sit up and listen – and if you’ve bought a three grand plus Xeon machine recently, you might just be kicking yourself.