Second look: Apple's dual 2-GHz G5 by the numbers

It's clear from two weeks of testing that Apple's new Power Mac G5 dual 2-GHz machine is the fastest thing the company has ever produced. And while you can debate benchmarks until eternity, it certainly appears poised to meet or beat anything now out on the Windows side.

Of course, given its 64-bit G5 processors, fast frontside bus, 2GB of SDRAM and top-of-the-line (at least from Apple) ATI Radeon 9800 Pro video card, it should. Apple, since the G5's introduction in June, has touted the new chip's processing power in numerous comparisons with Pentium 4 machines, and rightfully so. It'll pretty much hand every other computer its proverbial hat and keep on crunching data without breaking a sweat.

But what counts most are real world tests and numbers. The first number of note is the price: All this speed will set you back $4,198 at the Apple Store -- unless you buy the basic dual-processor model and add your own RAM from a third-party vendor. (Word to the wise: Get your RAM elsewhere, it's almost always cheaper than what Apple charges.) You'll find more information about the G5's basics in Part 1 of this review (see story).

With an eye toward giving would-be users a sense for how the dual 2-GHz stacks up, I ran the newbie through some very basic tests and comparisons with two other recent Apple models: Last year's dual 1.25-GHz Power Mac G4 with 1GB of RAM (and 2MB of Level 3 cache memory per processor) and a first-generation 17-in. PowerBook, with a 1-GHz G4 chip and 1GB of RAM. Both were top-of-the-line Apple products when they were released.

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Here's what I measured: startup and reboot times, launch times for several typical applications and the times needed to process a variety of tasks, including photo manipulation using Photoshop 7, 3-D renderings created with Bryce, and digital video transitions inserted into movies using Apple's iMovie editing program.

Note: These small tests aren't meant to be all inclusive or the final word on the G5's processing power. These are the kinds of duties that a day-to-day user might appreciate. More detailed data on how the G5 performs under serious strain should come from several tests now being conducted at Computerworld's behest by Bob Freeman, a bioinformatics consultant at Freeman Consulting. Freeman is a Boston-based programmer and software developer. Those results should be ready soon.

A few details about the test machines. The Dual G4 and the Powerbook both have 1 GB of RAM. The G5 is running Mac OS X 10.2.7, which is what it shipped with from Apple. The Dual G4 is running 10.2.8, and was successfully updated from the previous version 10.2.6 before Apple pulled the .8 upgrade last week. The Powerbook is still running 10.2.6. My understanding is that there are no significant changes in version 10.2.8 that would materially affect the results. However, given the expected improvements in the upcoming Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther), all of these numbers will be toast before the end of the year.

Now, on to the results, which I've included in bulleted form for easier reading:

  • Startup and reboot. The G5 had a start time of 55 seconds from the Apple chime to desktop. Hitting Restart brought the desktop back up in 52 seconds. The dual-processor G4 took 1:14 from startup to desktop, and 1:08 after a restart. And the Powerbook G4, not surprisingly the slowest of the bunch, required almost a minute and a half -- 1:26 -- to go from chime to desktop.

    In all cases, autologin was enabled and no startup items were launched.
  • Application launch times. I tested the launch times for Photoshop, which has been optimized for the G5, the Safari Web browser and Apple's iPhoto editing software (with more than 700 photos in the library), and then I relaunched each app to note any improvements. Because Mac OS X preloads some of the code for a program once it has been launched, relaunching the program is faster.

    On the G5, Photoshop launched in 8 seconds, and relaunched in 4. Yes, 4. On the Dual G4, it launched in 24 seconds, and relaunched in 12.5. And on the Powerbook, Photoshop was ready to go in 25 seconds the first time around, and in 17 seconds on relaunch.

    The times needed to launch the much smaller Safari Web browser were understandably quicker: On the G5, it was already downloading a page in 2 seconds, and was ready on relaunch in less than 1. The G4 fired up Safari in 5 seconds the first time, and in 2 the second time around. And the Powerbook launched the browser in 4 seconds the first time, and in 2 seconds when it was relaunched. I don't know why the G4 was sluggish launching the browser.

    When launching iPhoto, the G5 was again fastest, having my 793-photo library ready for work in 4 seconds on initial launch and in just 2 seconds on relaunch. The dual G4 took 7 seconds to launch iPhoto and 4 seconds to relaunch it. And the Powerbook was close behind: It had iPhoto ready in 8 seconds the first time and in 5 seconds the second time out.
  • Photo manipulation. Using a 33.2MB digital picture (in TIFF format), I rotated the photo 56 degrees counterclockwise, applied a Gaussian blur with a pixel radius of 250, and applied the Pointillize filter with the cell size set at 3. Rotating the picture took 2 seconds on the G5, 3.5 seconds on the Dual G4 and 5.5 seconds on the Powerbook. Applying the Gaussian blur (which, in essence, turned the photo into a blurry blob), took 4 seconds on the G5, 5 seconds on the Dual G4 and 8 seconds on the Powerbook. And applying the Pointillize filter took 3 seconds on the G5, 4.5 seconds on the Dual G4 and 9 seconds on the Powerbook.
  • Bryce 5 rendering. Using Bryce to create wild and beautiful landscapes, shapes and orbs can be a lot of fun except for one thing: Rendering those creations on older computers can be v-e-r-y time-consuming. Bryce can create fantastic 3-D terrains, skies, oceans and landscapes -- and it can do them all using a multitude of textures and shadings. For these purposes, I created a simple mountain landscape and applied a glass texture to it.

    The G5 rendered the scene (using the "fast render" option) in just 39 seconds. The Dual G4 took 1:14 to do the same thing. And the Powerbook needed 1:42.
  • iMovie scene transition. Using Apple's consumer digital video editing software, I inserted two different 4-second-long transitions between two film clips. The first transition, a cross-dissolve, took 8 seconds to add to my movie on the G5, 11.5 seconds on the Dual G4 and 17 seconds on the Powerbook. The second transition, a warpout, took 8.5 seconds on the G5, 11.5 seconds on the Dual G4 and 17 seconds on the Powerbook G4.

The obvious conclusion: The Power Mac G5 is a stellar machine for anyone who will be using it for serious processing work. If you're simply surfing the Web and editing the occasional digital picture, it's overkill, of course. One of the single-processor G5s or even a Dual G4, which Apple still sells, is more than enough for those tasks.

What will be interesting to see is how the G5 stacks up when given more serious work to do, such as compiling a tool kit of software from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of the National Institutes of Health. We'll also be testing it with a searching/matching program called BLAST, which stands for Basic Local Alignment Search Tool. (BLAST is an open-source program used routinely by life sciences researchers to find best matches for protein and DNA sequences.) And we'll be importing and deleting thousands of records from a Filemaker Pro database.

The results of those tests, and our final wrap-up of the G5, will be coming next week.

One final note: I whined in my first review about the G5's weak Airport wireless signal. Several readers promptly (and pointedly) wrote to ask if I'd installed the Apple-supplied external Airport antenna. I had not. I did. And it took care of the problem. Even when setting up the easy-to-use-Mac, it always pays to read the manual.

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