What a difference a few months can make. Since late 2001, Apple has updated its entire product line, making now the perfect time for Macworld to take stock of the latest crop of Macs.
One important update is the unique flat-panel iMac, which we review here along with Apple’s other new additions: the 14.1-inch iBook and the 800MHz, 933MHz, and dual-processor 1GHz Power Mac G4s. And to help you understand the differences between models, Macworld Lab tested representatives from all the Mac product lines. We’ll also give you pointers on what to consider when deciding which new system is best for you. Read on for a look at the current world of Macs. Or check out our friends at MacZealots.com.
Four Seasons of Macs
Shortly after Steve Jobs’s reappearance at Apple, the company divided the Mac market into four distinct segments. Today, those four areas are inhabited by the Power Mac G4, the iMac, the PowerBook, and the iBook–products broadly aimed at four different types of Mac users: professionals or consumers who need either a desktop or a laptop.
But the reality is, buying a new Mac is rarely as easy as picking which quadrant of Apple’s Mac diagram you fall into. Within each product line, there can be substantial differences in price and features. The new, 800MHz iMac brings professional power to a consumer computer, but the 800MHz PowerMac G4 costs less. And although conventional wisdom says that you pay a premium for portability, Apple’s laptops have a remarkable set of features, considering their prices.
Unless you’re on a strict budget or just need to have the speediest Mac available, choosing the right Mac will take some careful consideration.
When most people shop for a Mac, the first thing they consider is speed. And while the megahertz rating of the computer’s processor is important, it isn’t the only factor that determines how fast the Mac will be.
The big difference between the G3 processor and the G4 is that the G4 has an additional, high-speed subprocessor that Apple calls Velocity Engine. Software optimized for Velocity Engine–multimedia apps such as iTunes, iMovie, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Photoshop, for example–can realize hefty speed gains. Mac OS X itself is Velocity Engine savvy and therefore runs much better on G4 chips than on G3s. Software that hasn’t been optimized for Velocity Engine runs at roughly the same speeds on G3 and G4 chips with the same megahertz rating.
Until the G5 chip arrives, Apple’s product lines are pretty simple when it comes to chips: they’ve all got G4s, with the notable exception of the iBook (and the 500MHz and 600MHz G3 iMacs that were still for sale as of this writing). As a result, the iBook and G3 iMacs are fundamentally slower computers when it comes to Velocity Engine–enhanced software, including Mac OS X. Use an iBook running OS X for a few hours, and you’ll understand: the lightweight laptop is cute and small, and you’d figure that its 500MHz or 600MHz G3 processor would be fast enough. And it is–for OS 9. But OS X simply mixes out the iBook’s G3 processor. The result is a relatively new Mac that feels as if it were already a few years out of date. If you plan on running OS X, you should consider avoiding G3-based Macs.
Bus and Cache Two lesser-known but key factors also affect the speed of your Mac: bus speed and cache. The system-bus speed determines how fast your Mac’s processor talks to your RAM; the faster the bus speed, the better. The 500MHz iBook has the slowest system bus: 66MHz. The 600MHz iBook, the 550MHz PowerBook G4, and the G3 and G4 iMacs all feature 100MHz buses. The fastest system bus is the 133MHz bus found in the 667MHz PowerBook G4 and the entire Power Mac G4 line. (Note that RAM modules are rated for specific system-bus speeds, so you can’t use old RAM in a new Mac with a faster bus speed.)
Cache RAM doesn’t rely on the system bus to communicate with the processor–it’s got a direct connection, allowing it to feed data to your Mac’s processor without any speed constraints. These days, every Mac processor has Level 2 (L2) cache built in, putting 256K of ultrafast memory at the processor’s disposal. But the 933MHz and dual-processor 1GHz PowerMac G4s go one better by also offering Level 3 (L3) cache–an additional 2MB of RAM that’s slower than the L2 memory but can still offer serious performance boosts. This is especially noticeable in situations where a lot of data is being calculated by the processor, such as when you’re modifying an image with a Photoshop filter.
Multiprocessing For a long time, a Mac with more than one processor inside was a curiosity, something used only by graphics or video pros with software designed to take advantage of extra processors. But Mac OS X is multiprocessor savvy, innately taking advantage of the power of a DP Mac’s second processor. As a result, multiprocessing is beginning to enter the mainstream. The only Mac model to offer multiple processors is the Power Mac G4, and the situation is likely to stay that way. If you really need speed, a multiprocessor system running Mac OS X will blow any single-processor Mac away.
The new, G4 iMac and the G4 PowerBook are, without a doubt, powerful and speedy computers–and the Power Mac G4 can’t match the first’s low price or the second’s portability. When you’re deciding whether you should buy a traditional, desktop computer such as the Power Mac G4, one of the most important factors to keep in mind is expandability.
Expansion Slots The Power Mac G4 is by far the most expandable computer Apple offers–it’s the only one to provide PCI slots (four of them) and a fast AGP slot (occupied by its video card).
If you must use SCSI devices, work on high-end video projects, or do anything else that requires installing PCI cards rather than adding peripherals via USB or FireWire, the Power Mac G4 is your only option.
If you also need a portable Mac, the PowerBook G4 does offer a single PC Card slot-which is more than either the iBook or iMac can boast. With it you can add a digital sound card, a media reader, or even additional storage.
RAM You can add RAM to all Macs, but some systems are more flexible than others. The iBook is limited to 640MB of RAM; the PowerBook G4 and the G3 and G4 iMacs can handle as much as 1GB of RAM; and the PowerMac G4 can hold a staggering 1.5GB of RAM. (Generally speaking, you’ll save money by buying additional RAM from a third party instead of having Apple add it when you purchase your computer.)
But there’s more than just the amount of RAM involved. The iBook’s included RAM is soldered directly to the motherboard and cannot be replaced, although there’s a single slot for additional RAM. Both the iBook and the PowerBook use Small Outline (SO) RAM modules. The new iMac’s built-in memory is full-size but difficult to get to–the expansion slot uses the SO RAM as well. And the Power Mac G4 has three slots for frill-size RAM.
Expansion Space The cavernous Power Mac G4 also offers space for several internal hard drives and has two drive bays; by default, one is filled (with a CD-RW drive or SuperDrive). That makes it easy to add extra hard drives and other half-height peripherals, such as a tape or Zip drive. (Technically, it’s not a SuperDrive unless it comes with your Mac, but you can buy a Pioneer DVD-R drive like the ones Apple uses for its SuperDrive, and you can install it yourself.)
The Power Mac G4‘s accessibility also means that swapping hardware is easier. For example, if you’re tired of your small, slow hard drive, you can easily remove it and replace it with a large, faster one. You can even pull the stock CD-RW drive out of a low-end Power Mac G4 and swap in a Pioneer DVD-R drive.
Consider Your Needs When it comes to expandability, the question is, do you need it? If your internal hard drive fills up, you can always add an external FireWire drive. And only the hardest-core graphics and multimedia types really need more than a gigabyte of RAM. It’s nice to have options, but if you didn’t swap hard drives out of, or add oodles of RAM to, your last Mac, you might be line with a laptop or an iMac.
One area where Apple’s Mac models differ substantially is video: each system comes with different video hardware and different options for external monitors.
Video Card YourMac’s graphics chip determines how quickly images are drawn on your screen–especially relevant if you’re working on 3-D graphics, playing games, or running monitors at high resolutions. Video cards are powered by processors and fed by RAM; both affect speed (see “Speed Skaters” for more information). Apple’s two top Power Mac G4s are powered by the 64MB Nvidia GeForce4 MX, the most powerful standard graphics processor in the Apple line. You can also custom configure your Power Mac G4 with the Nvidia GeForce4 Titanium, replete with a whopping 128MB of RAM–the most on any Mac video card. (For more on specs, see “Apple’s Starting Lineup.”)
Generally, the faster and more expensive a Mac is, the better its video performance is–though laptops are typically underpowered compared with desktops–both in speed and in the monitor resolutions they can support.
In addition, the Power Mac G4 is the only Mac that comes with an actual video card; the rest have integrated video chips. This means that you can upgrade the Power Mac G4’s video subsystem by swapping in a new AGP card; with the other systems, what you buy is what you’ll always have.
Output Options If you want to use a specific monitor, or if you need more than a single monitor hooked up to your computer, you should consider only some of these Mac models. The Power Mac 04, by dint of its being the only Mac sold without a built-in display device, gives you the most options: you can equip it with a flat-panel or CRT display (although Apple no longer makes CRTs). Apple’s latest video cards even allow you to hook up one of each; the flat panel connects via Apple’s proprietary ADC connector, while the CRT monitor uses a standard VGA port. Converters are also available if you want to connect a non-Apple (DVI) flat pane. Since the Power Mac also offers several open PCI slots, adding even more monitors (or composite video out, for a TV set) is just a matter of adding a card.
The PowerBook G4 comes with a stunning flat-panel display, but its graphics chip is savvy enough to drive a separate external monitor, letting you have two screens’ worth of real estate when you’re at your desk-via VGA, S-Video, or (with an adapter) composite video.
Apple’s consumer Macs are far more limited in their video options. Both the iBook and the iMac have an LCD panel built in, and via a monitor adapter (included with the iBook; $19 extra with the iMac), you can attach an external VGA display. But that display can only mirror the action on your main screen, not extend your workspace–and it’s limited to a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels, though you can shrink it down to as low as 640 by 480 if you so desire. The iBook comes with a composite-video-out port (it’s the same port as the headphone jack); with a $19 adapter, you can hook it up to a TV set or other composite display. The iMac has no such composite-out features.
The Last Word
Which Mac is right for you? If you don’t think you’ll need to add PCI cards or an additional monitor, and if you don’t need the fastest Mac around to do processor-intensive work, the new iMac is an appealing option. If you need a portable Mac, the PowerBook G4 puts the strength of a Power Mac G4 in a compact carrying case. The smaller iBook has smallness and lightness going for it, but it and its larger sibling are the slowest computers in the Apple family. And then there’s the Power Mac G4 line itself–these machines may not be portable, but they are powerful and expandable.
It’s a good time to be a new Mac owner. As long as you keep your needs in mind when you’re deciding, you’re bound to find the right Mac for you. If you were to force us to choose, we’d say that the iMac G4 and the PowerBook G4 are the most appealing computers in Apple’s product line. But these products make the choice very tough.