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MacWorld New York: Not one more frickin’ megahertz...

By Tony Leggett (pocwactso@macedition.com), 27 July 2000

While there were many events and announcements at this year’s upbeat MacWorld New York, this show, unlike MacWorld SF and WWDC, was all about hardware. Sure, there were lots of other interesting announcements – but if you had to name the big three, it would be the multiprocessor G4 boxen, the revised iMac range, and the very intriguing G4 Cube.

The reaction to the new hardware line has been for the most part quite positive. Don’t worry if you got price tag shock with the Cube; it will sell. This is not going to be another Twentieth Anniversary Mac. Do worry if you got price tag shock with the $799 iMac – if you won’t buy a computer at that price, you truly are a cheapskate. However, while I hate to be the belated rain on the parade, there was bad news amongst the good news in the keynote.

Last year’s 3D graphics at this year’s prices!

All three of the major hardware announcements (revised iMacs, MP G4s, and the Cube) had relatively unexciting 3D graphics specs. Essentially the OEM graphics remain the same. The iMacs remain with an 8Mb ATI RAGE 128 graphics card (it’s now a RAGE128 Pro rather than RAGE128 VR). While these cards come with potential support for hardware DVD decoding, Apple has opted to leave the iMacs with software DVD decoding only. A disappointing move to say the least.

The revised G4s also remain with a 16Mb ATI Rage 128 Pro card (also with software-only DVD decoding). While that is certainly nothing to sneeze at as an OEM option, it does seem a bit “light” for what is billed as a multiprocessing supercomputer. Many were expecting the new ATI Radeon chip for the G4s and (perhaps this is wishful thinking) some more oomph for the iMacs.

Why this happened can only be speculated about. All that is certain is that ATI expressed a bit of premature excitement about their upcoming products to be showcased in the keynote. The conspiracy theories on why any mention of ATI was conspicuously absent from the keynote started the same day. Apparently, Steve doesn’t like other people stealing his thunder and allegedly made this clear in a pre-keynote hissy fit. Alternate suggestions appeared shortly thereafter. Was it a Jobsian fit of pique, something as mundane as a restricted supply of the new chips, or was it a mixture of both? What actually happened, dear reader, I leave up to you.

The Radeon is a good chip for this year’s product range. The ATI Rage 128 Pro chip is an acceptable chip for last year’s product range. One can hope that, sooner rather than later, the situation will remedy itself.

“Moore’s Law, Smoore’s Law”

“Moore’s Law” is the rule that processing power roughly doubles every 18 months. Apparently, Apple feels this should not apply to their products. Hey, it was coined by some Intel guy anyhow, so why should it?

Apple has done very well in the last few years demonstrating that there certainly is more to computer products than such banal, boring features as hard disk size and processor speed. They’ve succeeded in showing that computers don’t have to be ugly, with innovations such as USB (which was far from universal before the iMac), Airport (802.11b DSSS) and FireWire (IEEE 1394). Yet that megahertz problem is still there, lurking like a pebble in Apple’s shoe.

Essentially, in terms of megahertz, Apple’s product range did not budge one inch. The revisions to the G3-based iMac range do not count, as Apple has been selling a 500-MHz G3 PowerBook since February. Indeed, it was a shock to hear the low-end iMac is still at 350 MHz. While the price tag eases the pain, in mid-2000 that’s an obsolete machine.

IBM has a successor to the PPC 750 waiting in the wings. Sure, the PPC 750cx needs a little tweaking to sit happy in an iMac, but the chips are here now. One can hope that this may change before year’s end (perhaps that’s why the 350-MHz iMac will be available in September?). If the iMac range is left as it currently stands, it won’t be stale next year, it’ll be stagnant.

The announcement of the multiprocessor Macs was cleverly done in many ways. First of all, it was still a surprise to many. Apple had sown a bit of uncertainty by ambiguously declaring “The MP Macs will be here by next year’s WWDC”. Secondly, with two processors for the price of one, the pricing is oh-so-sweet.

And a good thing it is, to sweeten the bitter pill that in terms of raw megahertz, the G4 range has not budged an inch since its announcement last September. Not one measly megahertz. Sure, the MP G4 will hand out a decent Photoshop spanking compared to any 1-GHz PC out there. It can also be argued (unconvincingly) that Apple’s pricing means that a side-by-side comparison with any multiprocessor PCs may be “unfair” in terms of bang for the buck. (Haven’t been able to say that for a while, have we?)

Unfortunately, unless you’re a Photoshop maven or working furiously as a developer with DP4, that second processor is going to stay fairly idle until the widespread adoption of OS X. There are only a handful of applications that take advantage of multiprocessing under OS 9. One can only hope that the timing of the final release of OS X will coincide nicely with Motorola’s spiffy new G4+ chips.

The G4 Cube, the new keyboard and mouse, the revised iMac range and the slew of other assorted goodies will do much to distract people from the current processing pebble in Apple’s shoe. It’s clever smoke and mirrors which others have already seen through. Over the coming weeks more people will do the same. Motorola’s meandering in terms of megahertz, is more than a little concerning. Alarm bells are ringing, Apple.

Whaddaya mean, the sky isn’t falling?

Despite all these “Chicken Little” prognostications, I wouldn’t be selling my Apple stock just yet. The intriguing G4 Cube has many unique possibilities and the low-end iMac should sell well. The multiprocessor G4s should fly off the shelves too – that second processor will eventually be very useful. All is not gloomy – far from it – but you could say we live in very interesting times.

Tony Leggett is still embittered and can be contacted at pocwactso@macedition.com.

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