Do G4 Macs Have What It Takes to Remain Useful in a Multicore World?

2009 –  I recently left the G3 market and stepped up to having only G4s, and last year I wrote about whether G3s are still viable in the workplace (see Getting the Most from Your G3 Mac), but what about the G4?

High-end G3s still pack a fair amount of power. If all you do is surf the Net, check your email, and write letters, a midlevel iBook G3 or a RAM packed Blue & White G3 tower may suit your needs for now. Both will run Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger like a dream, but with OS X 10.5 Leopard cutting out the G3 entirely and 10.6 Snow Leopard just around the corner, the gap is widening.

I have already started seeing software developers requiring 10.5 for some of their products, and some also require an Intel processor running 10.5, meaning that even if you have a G4 or G5 running Leopard, you may find yourself missing out.

The Leopard Cut Off

Leopard cut out low-end G4s, and my 867 MHz PowerBook G4 is the lowest spec officially supported by Apple’s current OS. Who knows what will happen with 10.6, but strong rumours are that it will drop the PowerPC platform altogether and be Intel only.

How viable are G4s in the Intel Age? While the G3 processor tops at 900 MHz in the iBook and 700 MHz in the iMac, it lacks the AltiVec engine that was introduced as part of the G4 processor, which most applications take advantage of as well as Mac OS X itself. This puts more pressure on the G3 processor, leaving it less power to do user tasks.

The AltiVec engine makes a lot of difference. Compare a 400 MHz G3 Blue & White tower with 512 MB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.4 and Adobe Photoshop CS to a 400 MHz G4 Yikes (it actually has the same motherboard) with the same RAM, OS, and Photoshop version, and you’ll notice a big difference. This is due to the G4 processor and its AltiVec graphics acceleration.

In this age of dual- and quad-core Intel machines and new low-end Windows machines at around the 2 GHz mark, it does make that even the highest G4 – 1.67 MHz in the PowerBook or 1.42 GHz in the eMac or Power Mac G4 – seem a little under par.

Sufficient Power

But how much power does the average user need?

My 867 MHz PowerBook G4 swings along very nicely even under OS X 10.5 – double that spec for a high-end G4, and it would blast along.

We often fall into the trap – and even Apple is guilty of it – of relying on computer manufacturers and software developers to tell us what we need, and they are in the business for selling us products and thus lead us to believe we need the latest. If yours is six months old, they want you to think it is virtually obsolete.

Being a lover of older Macs, I totally disagree. I understand that a 10-year-old Mac isn’t going to keep up with the latest – part of the reason I left the G3 market – but a midrange G4 running Leopard with a hefty amount of RAM will more than suffice for most users.

Windows Solitaire

Solitaire, everyone’s favorite Windows app!

For instance, my wife has a Core Duo 2 GHz Toshiba laptop, but does she use it to it’s full potential? No. It is used for web browsing, emailing, writing letters, and Solitaire (of course). I do heavier work on my aging PowerBook. I would consider my wife an average user who never does video or music editing or anything that would push the processor past walking speed.

For anyone who just needs a computer with enough oomph behind it, a G4 is more than capable. And for now it can run the latest Mac operating system.

My 867 MHz PowerBook G4 is my main machine; I have no desktop. Therefore I use it for everything, and it is very reliable and very capable. I have done video editing and compressing, music editing and encoding, high quality picture editing, CD and DVD burning, video streaming, and regularly use it for Skype. While a faster machine would process things more quickly, my G4 is no snail.

Each of our three kids have a G4 eMac (two 800 MHz models and one 1.25 GHz), a major step up from the G3 iMacs they had.


Apple held off a G5 portable, and not just for heat reasons. Apple obviously had been planning the move to Intel for a while and wanted to ensure people bought into it. By the time the MacBook was released, portable users were longing to replace their single-core G4 PowerBook or iBook.

This lead to a huge influx of used G4 portables on auction sites and swap lists. One person’s loss is another’s gain. I personally love my G4 PowerBook and wouldn’t really class it as a low-end Mac, but then it is pretty high spec for me.

I have progressed from a WallStreet PowerBook G3 to a Lombard to a Pismo and also owned a Clamshell iBook and 800 MHz iBook G3 before making the leap to my 867 MHz PowerBook G4, and the difference is phenomenal.

G4 at Home and in the Office

The G4 definitely has a place in any home or office – and for some time to come. While Apple doesn’t have a huge presence in the corporate market, being an ex-designer/editor I can vouch that most design studios use Macs – and also that they hold on to their hardware for as long as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least 30% of UK designers still use a G4, and most will be pretty happy with them.

As with any Mac – or any computer – it only becomes obsolete or low-end when it is no longer capable of performing the tasks a user wants. The G3 really has seen it’s last day for most users – unless you have very basic needs. The sub-867 MHz (and therefore sub-Leopard) G4 is quickly following. With Leopard looking like it has at least another six months of updates and development and most companies not jumping onto a new OS as soon as it comes out, any G4 capable of running Leopard is safe for now.

As someone who prefers portables, my next upgrade would be a higher-end G4 at the right price. But as I am happy with mine and it looks like Snow Leopard will not run on the G4 or G5, I might wait until a MacBook comes at the right price.

Long live the G4.

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