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WWDC 2003: “Boston? Who needs Boston?”

by Eliot Hochberg, June 26, 2003

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On Monday, Steve Jobs announced a number of new goodies at the World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco.

You can read elsewhere all of the details as to what was exactly announced. Assuming you have, here’s some opinion about the biggest goodie revealed.

G5 Power and benchmark bingo

Despite the claims of some rumor sites, Apple did in fact announce new hardware at the WWDC, in the form of the new G5 PowerMac systems. At 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 (x2) GHz, Apple claims to soundly trounce current PC standouts, comparing their new systems to 3 GHz P4 and dual processor Xeon systems.

So does it?

Already, questions have been raised about Apple’s benchmarks and in some corners the unabashed bleating has already begun in earnest. Truth be told, all benchmarks are skewed (primarily by compilers optimized for the particular benchmark and not for general purpose use) and August cannot come soon enough. Please hurry Apple, and ship the things so zealots can slug it out over equally skewed real-world tests. [Ed. Note: The previous claim in this paragraph that the SPEC suite was from Microsoft/Intel was erroneous and removed. We apologize for the error.]

The machines are fast and frankly, I have bigger beefs than nitpicking benchmarks.

Two hard drives. Will that be all, sir?

Unlike the current crop of G4 systems, and in fact most PCs, the new G5 can only support 2 internal hard drives. Arguably, for most tasks, 500 GB is more than enough, and while some people (myself included) may argue otherwise, using FireWire for hard drive expansion may satisfy most folks. For those who need more performance than that, Apple politely suggests an Xserve RAID.

While these solutions may be acceptable for those with fat bank accounts, for the rest of us this starts turning the screw on how to expand our hard drive space. For one, having space in the enclosure for additional drives allowed for IDE drives, which are getting cheaper all the time, to be used for that expansion. The typical FireWire drive is around twice the price for the same capacity. And don’t start me on an Xserve RAID, which starts at (gulp) $5999 (not to mention $500 for the Fibre Channel card). With some clever purchasing, I could easily get a terabyte of hard drive space for a fifth that price. If I don’t need the special management abilities of an Xserve, a G4 would allow me to do this. Not so the new G5.

PCI in retrograde

Moving to the new PCI-X and PCI slots, Apple is returning to the 3 slot rule. I can’t complain about the build-to-order options – if you have pre-existing cards that need the slots, have at ’em and build in three PCI slots (with the 1.6Ghz model). If you think you’ll be getting faster cards soon, go for three PCI-X slots with the 1.8 and dual 2Ghz flavors.

Be that as it may, the new PCI-X architecture is at least backwards compatible, so if it doesn’t take off – which it certainly should, given all of the support it has in the PC community – you can still use your old cards.

But, on the down side, we’re now down from four to three. Presumably Apple’s marketing folks have data that says people don’t need/care about that extra slot, but let me just say this: Just because people stopped complaining when you added the extra slot, doesn’t mean you can go back to three slots.

Something else retro – an enclosure that’s 1975 all over again

So finally we see the PowerMac as filtered through the PowerBook G4 prism. Very handsome, to be sure, and very functional. But does anyone else see the resemblance to circa 1960-1970s architecture: the big slab sides, the waffle-holed front and back pieces? Very functional, what with all the fans in it, and certainly clean, but is that style back in? I hope so.

I’m seeing things less clearly, too

Another slight step backwards – now there is only one optical drive bay. I know, I know, you can add a drive to the FireWire or USB buses. But I still would prefer the second internal bay, it leaves less clutter, and if you need to have another full height drive on a PC, it’s no problem.

Negatives aside...

There appears to be a lot to like about this new G5. Although the various parts will be pricier than the previous model, it looks like everything is very well thought out. I am interested in the cooling system, especially if it’s that much quieter. I also want to see what happens with that clear panel (look at the QuickTime VR at Apple’s site) if you add PCI slots. But you can have up to 8GB of RAM, faster architecture all around, and an attractive package. And if the negatives are too much for you, you can still get a G4. I only wish Apple would provide the flexibility some PCs have in a design that is as well thought out as this one.

Eliot Hochberg (nhws@high-mountain.com) is a Web developer with over seven years’ experience.

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