Mac Lab Report

Factor of 3 Rule Predicts 3 GHz G5 as Next Computer

- 2003.07.17

I read the announcements about the G5 with interest - not because I'm in the market for a new machine (I'm not), but because if the G5 hits 3 GHz in 2004, I'll be obligated to buy one. Either that, or I'll have to change the Factor of 3 rule I've followed for twenty years.

It all started around 1984, the year the Macintosh debuted. The physics department at Berea College had a Fat Mac (I remember swapping those floppies, over and over and over, because it had no hard drive), and Professor Powell let me touch it every now and then to get a feel for how the mouse worked.

A bit later he purchased an Atari 800 and set me to work writing simulation software and statistical analysis software for his classes. I spent a blissful summer holed up in a former storage closet with a stack of 5-1/4" floppies and an 8-position joystick. The Atari 800 used a 1 MHz 6502 processor. I gave this one to my sister, who gave it to my nephew.

Anyway, ancient history aside, I decided I had to have one of these machines for myself. Eventually, being poor, married, unemployed, and so on, I convinced my wife I just absolutely had to have a Timex-Sinclair 1000. For $100, I had my first 2.5 MHz Z-80 based computer, and for $50 more I got a whopping 16 K RAM expansion module (expanded from 1 K). I wore that one out, as well as another one I bought used. Eventually they just wore out; those membrane keyboards don't last forever.

The next computer I invested in was an Atari 520 ST, soon supplanted with a 1040 STe, one of which stayed home, the other at school in my new teaching job. I wore out those machines, several printers, and a hard drive setting up handouts for students. I still have some of those documents floating around after having been translated several times from 1st Word to Microsoft Word to AppleWorks.

The ST series used an 8 MHz Motorola 68000 processor (the same as in the earliest Macs) and had enough horsepower to drive a pretty decent GUI which was sort of a hybrid of a Mac and a PC. For several years, the ST was a serious competitor for Apple and the Commodore Amiga.

There were few things I couldn't do with it, up to and including signing on to the various independent BBS's you could join at the time, a precursor to the Internet. My sister has the 520 ST, and the 1040 is sitting on a shelf at school for when I get around to building my computer museum.

I see this story could get very long indeed, so I'll stop reminiscing and get to the point.

  • 1992: PowerBook Duo 230, 33 MHz. (Given to a student for a project.)
  • 1996: Power Mac 7200, 120 MHz. (Sister still uses it, with a new mobo.)
  • 1998: Power Mac G3 (beige desktop), 300 MHz. (Sitting mostly idle upstairs.)
  • 2003: TiBook, 1000 MHz. (Current machine)

Can you see the pattern? Every computer switch is accompanied by a MHz increase by a factor of approximately 3. Several of these computers, including the TiBook, were purchased by companies or schools for my exclusive use, so expense is not the driving force I thought it would be 20 years ago. RAM is so flexible, it isn't the issue either; same for hard drive space, although that has increased at an even greater rate than the processor speed.

I think that the speed increase needs to be sufficiently great that there are real things I cannot do with the slower machine. The G3 sitting idle upstairs can run Jaguar, but apparently not Panther. I think it's destined to become a server for my house.

What distinct advantages will a 3 GHz machine have over the 1 GHz machine I use now? The TiBook is plenty peppy for me, although some applications such as Macromedia Dreamweaver take a while to open. Most times I don't notice big problems. Jaguar is certainly much more stable than OS 9 ever was. I don't do a lot of video, but I do some.

Will this factor of 3 be sufficient for me to seek funds or pay from my own pocket for the next generation machine? I don't know. I think the only thing that will drive me to such a point will be that some of the applications I want will require the speed or I start doing a lot more video.

If not 3 GHz, then what speed will tempt me? I think I'll start mumbling about upgrades around 5 GHz, and by 10 GHz I will be unable to resist. Maybe my "Rule of 3" needs to become a "Rule of 10."

Somehow, I think I'll find an excuse sooner than that, if history is any indication.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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