MacWhirled: Everything old is new again

— 6:45 AM on January 11, 2001

Well, Steve Jobs trotted his Reality Distortion Field out on to stage yet again at MacWhirled this week, with the Field running at full strength to aide the introduction of Apple's newest products. Naturally, we watched the news coming out of the show with our usual mix of interest, anticipation, and amusement. The Field was under enormous strain as Apple's circa-late-1999 desktop computer technologies made their debut. Among them:

  • An amazing new 133MHz system bus mated to—at long last—PC133 SDRAM. Forget those silly 266 and 400MHz bus speeds and exotic new memory technologies on x86 machines, folks. Apple's got a "supercomputer" for you.

  • The new G4+ processor will be featured in these new machines. Despite its modest name, the G4+ is actually a very substantially redesigned processor with deeper instruction pipelines, trading off some clock-for-clock performance for the ability to ramp to higher clock speeds.

    Sound familiar?

    Although most of the tech world has hailed the changes as a Good Thing, Mac zealots will no doubt be dismayed by this obvious design compromise. It seems Apple sold out for the MHz. But not to worry, Mac lovers. The new G4+ won't be available at higher speeds for a couple of months, and even then, they'll top out at 733MHz, easily preserving your badge-of-honor clock speed disadvantage.

    Of course, Steve Jobs and the Apple hype machine kicked it into high gear, once again using their tired Photoshop-only "benchmarketing" numbers. This page on Apple's web site provides a classic example of the technique:

    In fact, at speeds of 5.5 gigaflops, the new 733MHz PowerPC G4 processor with Velocity Engine is up to 57% faster than a 1.5 GHz Pentium 4. (1)
    Uh huh. And it's up to 300% slower than that same Pentium 4, in the right scenario. Check out the footnote their performance claim references:
    (1) Based on a suite of performance tests using Adobe Photoshop 6.0.
    Apparently, certain, undisclosed operations and/or filters in Photoshop 6.0 are the most relevant and useful way to measure processor performance. But oddly, I have tested a Pentium 4 in Photoshop 6 myself recently, and it didn't return any numbers in gigaflops. (I can report that PS6 is significantly slower on the PC than PS5.5. Adobe's mighty optimizations are impressive.)

    In reaction to the news, TR reader John Rector helpfully sent along SPECint95 and SPECfp95 scores for the 733MHz G4+ and for a 750MHz AMD Athlon. These test numbers are in FLOPS and MIPS, and they don't paint such a pretty picture. He writes:

    [The 733MHz G4+] put up SPECInt95 of 32.1 and SPECfp95 of 23.9. Comparing that to an Athlon, at 750MHz it scores 32.9 on the integer test and 26.5 on the fp side. So if the x86 world were still at 750MHz, things would be pretty even ...
    So Apple's literature should read:
    In fact, at speeds of 5.5 gigaflops, the new 733MHz PowerPC G4 processor with Velocity Engine is up to 50% slower than a 1.5 GHz Pentium 4. (1)
    ..with the caveat, of course:
    (1) 99% of the time. Not counting the Adobe Photoshop 6.0 Unsharp mask filter at 50/3/7/0 settings. On Tuesdays.
  • In a confusing move, Apple added NVIDIA graphics chips to its product line, but chose the chopped-down GeForce2 MX—with half the rendering pipeline and half the memory bandwidth of the GeForce2—to serve as standard equipment on its high-end Macs. (To compare, a GF2 MX performs about like an original GeForce 256 with regular SDRAM.) Admittedly, a 733MHz system with PC133 SDRAM and a GeForce2 MX would seem quite logical in the PC world. But only at sub-$1k prices, not $3,499. Looks to me like Jobs & Co. are padding the ol' profit margin at their customers' expense. Imagine that.

    Then again, NVIDIA's move into the Mac market is an unqualified Good Thing in the long run, and I expect current Mac owners should now be able to slap any flavor of GeForce card into the AGP slot, download the drivers, and become a one-button-mouse Quake maniac.

  • On March 24, Apple will bring BSD-style Unix with some NeXT-like UI enhancements and a Mac emulator to their platform. Apple's web site bills OS X as "The world's most advanced operating system."

  • My absolute favorite example of Jobs's hucksterism, though, came with the announcement of the new CD/DVD recordable drive in the top-end G4 systems. (We reported on this drive in our Comdex DVD recordable report. It should be available for PCs shortly.) Because the drive will read and write a host of CD and DVD formats, Apple is calling it a "SuperDrive."

    You see, because it's Super.

    Thing is, Apple already has a drive capable of reading multiple formats. And it's Super, too. In fact, it's a SuperDrive. From an online tech terms glossary:

    A Macintosh® floppy drive that can access several different disks (e.g., 400kB, 800kB, and 1.4 MB, and PC disks).
    Back in 1986, you couldn't even swap a text file on a floppy disk between a Mac and PC, because Macs used a funky proprietary floppy disk format that required a variable-speed floppy drive. But all that changed with the SuperDrive. Now, you could be incompatible in a broad range of formats.

    No word yet on how the new SuperDrive will handle 800K floppies. But to celebrate the SuperDrive's return, we present this tribute to the SuperDrives of the world:

    S U P E R D R I V E
    Because, you see, it's Super.
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