First look: Apple's fastest Power Mac yet is a barnburner

Lured by the siren song of speed, I wandered into a local Apple Store late last week, my interest piqued by the new dual 2.7-GHz Power Mac G5s that Apple Computer Inc. announced last Wednesday (see story). Actually, wandered isn't the right word, as I made a beeline for the store after work with the goal of bringing home one of those new dual 2.7s.

I was impressed last fall when I finally got my hands on a dual 2.5-GHz Power Mac from Apple (see story), but I held off buying one at the time. The dual 2-GHz model at home was plenty fast enough for my use.

After first finding a potential buyer for said dual 2-GHz Power Mac, I mentally toted up and compared hardware specs on my way to the store: A 700-MHz processor bump over my old Power Mac; a 16X SuperDrive that burns dual-layer DVDs holding twice the data of single-layer discs; a larger, 250GB hard drive; and a better video card, the ATI Radeon 9650. In fact, with that ATI card, I could one day hook up one of the 30-in. Apple Cinema Displays should I so choose. Hmm.

Better yet, the new Power Macs were preloaded with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, which wouldn't even be officially on store shelves until the next day.

A short time later, at a cost of $2,999 plus tax -- the same price as the old dual 2.5-GHz models -- I headed home to see how the latest and fastest Power Mac would handle.

In a word: Awesome.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the gnashing of teeth on a number of Mac-related message boards and forums about the lack of Power Mac updates in the past year -- and the relatively minor processor bump in the latest release. At a time when processors are measured in gigahertz, a 200-MHz increase is a modest jump in speed. Needless to say, if you bought a dual 2.5-GHz Power Mac, you should keep it and use it for as long as you can. In fact, Apple still has that model for $2,699 (while supplies last), and you can sometimes pick up refurbished versions on Apple's Web site for $2,299. That machine at that refurb price is a real deal.

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The latest update leaves the Power Mac still 10% shy of where Apple CEO Steve Jobs thought it would be last year. You may recall that he had predicted in 2003 that 3-GHz G5 chips would be out in 2004. We're still waiting.

But if you have one of the lesser Power Macs -- and I use lesser here only to denote speed -- and you're up to your eyeballs in digital video, big graphics files or processor-intensive data crunching, you'll want to consider the new Power Macs. That's especially true if you can do what I did and take a fast machine and make it faster.

The Power Mac comes with 512MB of double data rate 400 synchronous dynamic RAM. Think of that as your starting point. At the very least, you'll want to double that, and for anything beyond day-to-day use, make it 2GB. RAM prices are down, and experts have predicted they'll drop even further by summer (see story). I swapped out the RAM from my old Power Mac, giving me 2GB.

I then pulled the 250GB hard drive from the new machine, replacing it with two 74GB Western Digital "Raptor" hard drives, which spin at 10,000 rpm. I have the two drives in a striped RAID configuration, which offers a speed boost at the cost of storage space. It's a trade-off I'm happy to make.

I don't know whether it's the combination of hardware I assembled, the addition of Tiger, or -- most likely -- both, but the Power Mac booted up in a jiffy. I didn't think to check it then, but I later clocked the time from start-up chime to desktop at 44 seconds. That's 4 seconds faster than the dual 2.5-GHz model I had last fall (see story). And it was noticeably faster than my dual 2-GHz model.

I also ran a few tests to try and confirm the extra speed. As in the past, I ran the Xbench benchmarking application for a quick look at how those two liquid-cooled G5 chips perform. As background, the dual 2.5-GHz model with the stock 250GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM came in last fall with a score of 249. The dual 2-GHz model with the striped RAID configuration achieved a score of 230. And a first-generation dual 1.8-GHz G5 Power Mac that I had early last year, with a single 10,000-rpm drive in it, managed 208.

The new dual 2.7-GHz G5 Power Mac topped them all: The first time I ran Xbench, it scored 295. The second time I ran it, I got 298. As always, take benchmarks with a grain of salt. But the perceived speed in day-to-day use matches the jump Xbench showed, and it comes -- at least so far -- with little change in the noise factor. While the various fans inside the Power Mac's aluminum case spun up now and then as processor loads increased, the machine was generally quiet in regular use.

I then launched five applications (Address Book, Adobe Photoshop CS, Mail, Safari and TextEdit) at the same time. The now-discontinued dual 2.5-GHz model took 19 seconds last fall to launch them all. The new one did it in 13 seconds. No doubt the Raptor drives helped on the launch times.

In other tests, I found the new machine to be only slightly faster than the dual 2.5-GHz model. Using iMovie HD, I added a four-second "scale down" transition between two digital video clips. The render took 5.5 seconds, shaving a second and a half off the time needed by the dual 2.5-GHz machine, while applying the watercolor filter to a 46MB Photoshop file in Photoshop CS took 6 seconds longer, clocking in at 3:06. Given the differences between the two machines, I'd call those two tests a wash.

That's not surprising given that the two machines were fairly evenly matched in terms of processor speed. But in comparison to my dual 2-GHz machine, the speed jump is readily apparent.

Also remember that the new Power Mac is running Tiger, while the other machines I've tested in the past were running Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. I'd like to believe that Tiger runs faster than Panther, as each iteration of the Mac OS X has added little speed bumps here and there. But I haven't tested it to find out objectively. However, Macsonly.com has done just that and found Tiger to be faster on a variety of machines, especially when it comes to Finder-related functions.

All I can say for sure is that the combination of this machine, with the extra RAM, twin 10,000-rpm hard drives and Tiger, makes for one barnburner of a Power Mac. It may not be the 3-GHz G5 rocket Jobs promised us, but it's darn close.

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