Power Mac G5 is Apple’s best work yet
Cupertino’s 64-bit desktop system and Panther OS mix beauty and exceptional performance
The timing of this review bears explaining. Apple rushed the Power Mac G5 out the door in the fall of 2003 in order to win the race to be the first 64-bit desktop (AMD was in the other lane). The system’s delivery preceded the availability of the Panther OS, so the machine’s 64-bit capabilities could not be immediately exploited. Then there were no applications tuned specifically for the Power Mac G5, except for a preview of Photoshop. I did what I’d have done as a buyer of the Power Mac G5 and Panther: I waited until the platform came together and came to rest.
By mid-December, when this review was written, things had settled down. The Panther operating system had just received its second major update, 10.3.2. Apple had also updated the Xcode development tool set, upgraded the Power Mac G5’s firmware, and delivered QuickTime 6.5. In addition, the vital Fink project adapted its gigantic database of open source applications to make them compatible with Panther.
Bill of Particulars
Apple’s latest Mac is housed in an all-aluminum chassis, similar in size and weight to its predecessor, the Power Mac G4. In its maximum configuration (which I reviewed), the Power Mac G5 is driven by a pair of 64-bit IBM PowerPC 970 CPUs running at 2GHz. The list of external I/O ports is lengthy, but the highlights are FireWire, USB, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet, AirPort Extreme (802.11g), and digital and analog audio. The Power Mac G5 holds up to 8GB of 400MHz DDR (double data rate) memory with a maximum transfer rate of 6.4GB per second. This configuration provides three PCI-X slots, which are all available. The optical drive in the top configuration is a Sony dual-format DVD burner. The two DVD formats are DVD-R/DVD-RW and DVD+R/DVD+RW.
The Power Mac G5 line has a starting price of $1,799. Memory capacity, bus bandwidth, and CPU speed are sacrificed to make the bottom end of the Power Mac G5 family more affordable. A uniprocessor Power Mac G5 is a substantial and affordable step up from a single-processor Power Mac G4, but it will be harder to see the advantages of the 64-bit architecture until more tuned applications appear. Dual-processor machines show an immediate benefit because the bus between the processors is extremely fast.
Panther client and server run existing 32-bit OS X applications, as well as most software written for Classic Mac OS. The Classic environment is hosted under OS X; the Power Mac G5 will not boot into Classic. Using the bundled Xcode development suite, any application can be recompiled to use the G5’s 64-bit features. The compilers are GNU’s, with PowerPC-specific contributions from IBM and Apple. In December, Apple made G5-tuned versions of its creative tools (DVD Studio Pro, Shake, and Final Cut Pro) available as free updates for existing users. The performance boost, especially for complex rendering, is substantial.
Inside the Box
The Power Mac G5’s chassis is filled mostly by fans of various sizes, along with the two humongous CPU heat sinks that are the Power Mac G5’s signature. There are nine fans in all, which the system controller rotates as slowly as possible to keep the noise down. The fans are arranged into independent cooling zones; air goes only where it’s needed. Next to the Power Mac G4 and every other single- and dual-processor machine in my lab, the G5 is virtually silent. Imposing a high load on both CPUs or the graphics card would spin the fans up, but never to the extent that the Power Mac G4 or the Xserve would.