Power Mac in the middle: A look at the dual 1.8-GHz G5

When Apple Computer Inc. unveiled its new lineup of Power Mac G5 desktop computers last summer, the clear speed demon was the top-of-the-line dual 2-GHz model. Hidden in its shadow were a 1.8-GHz model and an entry-level 1.6-GHz model -- both of which sported a single processor, slower bus speeds and lesser video cards (see story).

That equation changed in November, when Apple abruptly dropped the single 1.8-GHz model and replaced it with one that had not one, but two 1.8-GHz processors (see story). The price also rose by $100, to $2,499.

Although many Macintosh fans had expected new Power Macs at the January Macworld show, none was announced. And while Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said the company expects to have 3-GHz G5 chips in its desktops later this year, nothing has been announced -- though there is speculation that Apple will release updated models soon.

With that in mind, and with my older Power Mac G4 (the dual 1.25-GHz model) sold, I took the plunge last month and picked up a dual-processor Power Mac. You may recall that when it comes to computers, I'm a glutton for speed. But I like money, too, and that top-end Power Mac comes at a $500 premium over its slightly slower brother. For the money, you get about 10% better performance, a slightly faster system-bus speed and an ATI 9600 Pro video card. (The midrange model has the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra video card, no slouch in its own right, although you can get the G5 with the ATI card for just $50 more.)

My decision: Opt for the "Jan Brady" model -- named after the middle sister on The Brady Bunch who never got the attention she felt she deserved -- and use the savings to add memory and a superfast 10,000-rpm hard drive. More about that hard drive, a 74GB Western Digital Corp. Raptor, later.

As it turned out, the Apple Store I visited also happened to have a "refreshed" 23-in. Apple Cinema Display someone had just brought back. Lucky me. I checked to see if there were any stuck pixels and, finding none, snagged the uber-display for $1,799 -- $200 off the price of a new one. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Every penny.

Inside the Power Mac G5 dual 1.8 GHz
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Inside the Power Mac G5 dual 1.8 GHz
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All three Power Macs in the current line look alike on the outside, sporting the same brushed aluminum case Apple adopted last year. Although the G5s were unveiled early last summer, they didn't really start shipping in numbers for a couple of months, and the top-of-the-line varieties didn't become plentiful until fall.

Since then, some owners have complained on Apple's discussion boards (and on other Macintosh-oriented forums) about a number of hardware problems with everything from power supplies to video cards to hard drives. Of course, many others have reported flawless performance, and there doesn't seem to be a consistent pattern to the issues that have come up.

The G5 I reviewed last fall was in the latter category: flawless and fast as lightning (see story). Of course, it was a review model from Apple, so you'd expect the company to make sure it worked OK. But I'm happy to report that my off-the-shelf dual 1.8-GHz works every bit as well -- and seemingly every bit as fast.

I say "seemingly" because unless you're benchmarking these machines for comparison sake, you're unlikely to notice any discernible difference in speed. But you'll likely notice that extra $500 in the bank if you buy the dual 1.8-GHz G5 instead of the more expensive model.

Like its faster brother, the midrange model ships with 512MB of PC3200 RAM, enough to run the operating system and a couple of programs simultaneously. But you're almost certainly going to want to bump that memory to at least 1GB or 2GB as soon as you can. Doing so is a snap; just remember that unlike recent Power Macs, the G5s require that RAM chips be added in pairs. So if you want to add 1GB of RAM, you'll need two 512MB chips. If you want to add 2GB, you'll need two 1GB chips.

The two dual models come with eight RAM slots, two of which are already filled. Adding RAM, which is outlined in the owner's manual, is easy: Open the case, slide out a fan assembly, pop open the clips that hold the RAM in place, and firmly (and I do mean firmly) push the new chips into the slots. Apple recommends that you hold the outside case to brace it when inserting the chips. After that, slide the fan assembly back in, close the case and fire it up.

My model came with Mac OS X 10.3 already installed, and I opted to partition the hard drive and reinstall the operating system from the system software DVD that came in the box. I promptly updated to Mac OS X 10.3.2, copied over my personal files and was up and running in no time. And when I say running, I mean 100-yard-dash-type running. Boot times were eerily quick, seemingly faster even than last fall's dual 2-GHz model (which was running Jaguar, the last version of Mac OS X). Panther offered speed improvements that were readily obvious on the Power Mac.

Just how fast are we talking here? From chime to desktop appearance took 34 seconds, with another 16 seconds to be fully useable. That's 5 seconds less than the dual 2-GHz model needed last year. (All times are with autolog-in enabled and no start-up items launched.) The user interface was smooth as glass, too, in terms of application launch times, menu drop-downs, window management and expose use.

After making sure everything was working, I added the 1GB of RAM I bought from a third-party retailer for less than half what Apple charges -- although Apple is now offering a special deal that trims the price gap a bit.

Curious to see how the new machine stacked up in terms of speed, I used the benchmarking program Xbench. When I first ran it, Xbench reported a speed rating of 178. I then changed the processor setting in the energy-saver system preference from "automatic" to "highest." The Xbench speed rating jumped to 189.

Word to the wise: If you're looking to get the most from your Power Mac, change that processor speed.

For comparison purposes, the PowerBook G4 (1.33-GHz, 17-in. model) had an Xbench rating of 94 when I first got it, a figure that rose to 123 after I installed a fast 7,200-rpm hard drive in it earlier this year (see story). I wondered if I would have similar success adding a faster hard drive to the Power Mac.

Both dual-processor models ship with a 160GB hard drive (a 7,200-rpm Maxtor in my case). Although a 250GB drive is available as a built-to-order option (as is a high-end ATI Radeon 9800 Pro video card), I wanted speed. I quickly settled on a 10,000-rpm Serial Advanced Technology Attachment disk from Western Digital. That hard drive has gotten good reviews online, especially the second-generation 74GB model, which offers twice the storage space of its predecessor and is apparently much quieter.

I ordered the drive for $289, popped it into the empty hard-drive slot in the G5 (per Apple's instructions) and installed Mac OS X on it. The operation took five minutes and was much easier to do than when I opened up my PowerBook.

So how did it work? I'll spell that out, take a look at the high-end Apple Cinema Display and offer a few final thoughts in more detail next week.

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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