Power Mac G5 is Apple’s best work yet

Power Mac G5 is Apple’s best work yet

Companies large and small routinely set their expectations of computer systems according to the capabilities of Intel-based x86 computers and 32-bit Windows. We’re due for a shift in standards.

Enter Apple, which got the bright idea of taking a pair of 64-bit IBM PowerPC CPUs, jacking them into server-class internal buses, and squeezing the whole thing into a desk-side tower chassis. The result, the Power Mac G5, delivers on the present need for rapid computing, deep multitasking, and responsive user interfaces — as well as the future need (current for some, including myself) for mainstream computers that rapidly process and analyse massive data sets.

If you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for a characterisation of the Power Mac G5’s performance, here it is: Comparing official Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) dual-processor throughput tests with the unofficial numbers on Apple’s website, the 3.06GHz Xeon bests the 2GHz Power Mac G5 by some margin.

But wait, doesn’t Apple call the Power Mac G5 the world’s fastest PC? Yes, and I think that characterisation was a big mistake from the beginning. The x86 architecture has the Intel compiler suite on its side. The Intel compilers are used to create most commercial and performance-sensitive applications for x86 software running on Windows and Linux. Apple won’t beat it until IBM gets serious about an architecture-tuned compiler for OS X.

Apple’s marketing choices aside, I believe that I/O throughput, especially memory performance, is infinitely more important than raw computing speed. Using the University of Virginia’s Stream memory bandwidth benchmark, the Power Mac G5 moves data almost twice as fast as a dual-processor 3.06GHz Xeon system. I’m not cutting Apple special slack. Solid processing power and maximum bandwidth rule the day, and the Power Mac G5 has that combination down.

In a dual-processor Power Mac G5, the cost of talking to peripherals is also reduced substantially by the machine’s efficient and highly integrated system chip set. With the Power Mac G5, the penalty for accessing data that’s not in the CPU cache is reduced to a degree not possible with Xeon.

The Power Mac G5 takes the throughput flag, and it’s got something else you can’t get on the Xeon: the Panther OS (aka OS X 10.3). The client version firms Apple’s lead in graphics, boosting the performance of overall rendering and dramatically improving the display speed of PDF files. Panther server tightens links to Windows and Unix networks; reworks its directory services around open standards and a high-speed database; and adds a unified management interface that controls the new mail server, a Microsoft-compatible VPN, and streaming video services. As has long been true, the Mac is the platform to beat for client Java. Panther Server includes the open-source JBoss J2EE application server, complete with graphical administration and monitoring. The Panther client is beautiful and practical, while the server is powerful and painless. The G5/Panther combination is unrivalled in the x86 world.

By mid-December, when this review was written, the Panther operating system had been settled and seen its second major update, 10.3.2. Apple also updated the Xcode development toolset, the included multi­language integrated development environment (IDE), and upgraded the Power Mac G5’s firmware. Apple delivered QuickTime 6.5, and 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 double data rate memory (DDR) 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 $US3199. 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 dedicated and extremely fast.

Panther runs existing 32-bit OS X applications, as well as most software written for Classic Mac OS. Using the bundled Xcode development suite, any application can be recompiled to use the G5’s 64-bit features. The tools are GNUs, 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.

Jaguar (OS X 10.2) Server was criticised for its shallow management interface, which forced administrators to resort to arcane methods to configure services by hand. The revamped management interface is much, much improved, although I wouldn’t judge it complete. For me, there is no administrative tool that compares to a terminal window. Apple finally addressed the thorny issue of Jaguar’s limited and poorly documented set of command-line tools. All of the OS X Server documentation has been reworked, and those docs are finally readable thanks to a retooled PDF engine that renders rich documents faster than you can scroll through them.

I was delighted that Apple replaced Jaguar’s clunky Sendmail SMTP server with the more respected Postfix. In practice, I don’t find Postfix to be an improvement, at least not the way Apple has implemented it. Email is one of the few services in Panther Server that was obviously cobbled together from open source parts. Keeping those parts loosely connected fits open source principles. However, this is one area where Apple can and should add unique value for mainstream customers.

The killer Panther Server feature is Windows inter­operability. Panther will provide authentication, VPN, and file/print services to Windows clients, which creates interesting possibilities for reducing license costs.

The ideal Mac

For the work I do, the Intel x86/Windows platform has fallen out of step with my requirements. I need my desktops to move and process multiple mountains of data, located in various places inside and outside the system, while maintaining a smooth, rich, and responsive user interface. I expect that from clients and servers. In the months I’ve worked with the Power Mac G5, I’ve found that the hardware, Panther OS, and the quite remarkable Xcode development environment form an ideal combination of usability and performance. It’s the ideal Mac; Intel’s Xeon simply can’t compete. If Apple wants a competing architecture to worry about, it should set its sights on Opteron. I don’t want to look ahead too far, but the G5 architecture is going to make one hell of a server.

That’s not conjecture. I ran all of my performance tests on the Server edition of the Panther OS without bothering to disable Panther’s long list of services. With low latency, fast transfer rates and few noticeable I/O bottlenecks, the Power Mac G5 is suited to both distributed and isolated environments.

Data analysis and translation, digital media, security, high-bandwidth data gathering, complex user interfaces, software development, and network monitoring are types of common applications that the Power Mac G5 handled sublimely in my tests. That describes the kind of work I do every day, a breadth of activity that colours my opinion of this system.

More than anything else, the Power Mac G5 shatters the long-standing limits of expectation imposed by Intel and Microsoft. Maybe you’re not a customer for this machine, but very shortly you will see shades of the Power Mac G5 in every dual-processor desktop you buy. The risk that Apple takes here is the same one it took with the PowerBook G4, OS X, Xserve, and Xserve RAID. Maybe customers aren’t as dull, as timid, or as easily led as other vendors believe.

The Power Mac G5 is distributed in Australia by KH Distribution and IT Wholesale. RRP: Begins at $US3199 for the 1.6GHz model.

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