Mac Musings

The Power Mac G5 Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2003.06.24 - Tip Jar

Happy days are here again. When the new Power Mac G5 ships in August, it will not just raise the MHz rating of the fastest Mac by 40%, but the dual 2.0 GHz model will blow away dual 3.06 GHz Pentium Xeons and 3.2 GHz Pentium4 machines (see Apple's G5 Performance page - and reading those slow loading, slower to display PDF files really made me want Panther on my computer).

Although Apple went to great lengths to show that the dual G5 system can do some tasks over twice as fast as any Pentium system, there is a remarkable lack of comparison to the current G4 systems on Apple's website or in their PDF files. Those of us currently using Macs could probably find a comparison to existing Apple product as helpful as potential switchers find the Pentium comparisons.

On the design front, the whole computer is fresh and new from the ground up, not yet another retread of the blue & white G3 case. The G5 still has handles, is still a tower, and still stands off the ground. That's about it for similarities.

There is no drawbridge door attached to the motherboard. The door on the right side releases with a lever - and then can be completely removed, eliminating the need for about 16" of space to the right of the computer. Definitely a step forward.

The brushed aluminum look and mesh front and back are getting mixed reviews, but they provide good RFI blocking and cooling at the same time. As for the headphone jack up front along with a USB port and a FireWire port, it's about time.

The only real disappointment is the reduced number of drive bays. The most recent Power Mac G4 models had two 5.25" drive bays; the G5 has only one. Although earlier models had less hard drive bays inside them, the latest G4s had four of them; the G5 cuts that number in half.

On the plus side, the drives are Serial ATA drives, which is a new, fast protocol that's definitely in keeping with the "wicked fast" design of the Power Mac G5. And with a 4x SuperDrive standard, Apple must believe that there's little reason for a second media drive (such as a really fast CD burner) or internal Zip drive.

The whole system architecture is designed for speed, from the fast CPUs to fast memory to fast PCI-X slots to fast AGP 8x video to fast Serial ATA hard drives. In fact, system memory is so fast that there's no reason to include a level 3 cache.

For those looking to save money, if you never plan on burning a DVD, you can save $200 by ordering these from the Apple Store with a Combo drive instead of the stock SuperDrive. That brings the entry level to $1,799, not too much more than the 1 GHz G4 sold for last week.

At the Top

The top-end G5 will ship with two 2.0 GHz PowerPC 970 processors, 512 MB of RAM, Radeon 9600 Pro video, and a 7200 rpm 160 GB hard drive. It will have three PCI-X expansion slots, a faster version of the 33 MHz 64-bit PCI slots in current Power Macs. Two of the PCI-X slots will run at 100 MHz, and the third will be even faster at 133 MHz.

At US$2,999 this powerhouse should take the graphics and video world by storm.

In the Middle

A step down is the single processor 1.8 GHz Power Mac G5, which will also come with 512 MB of RAM and a 160 GB 7200 rpm hard drive. The complement of PCI-X slots matches the 2.0 GHz model, although it uses the slightly less expensive Nvidia GeForce FX5200 video card.

For those who don't need ultimate power, the US$600 reduction in price may make this a good choice. On the other hand, the Power Mac G5 hardware, the PPC 970 processor, and OS X are each optimized for symmetric multiprocessing, so the dual 2.0 GHz machine should easily offer twice the power for just 25% more money.

It's not often that Low End Mac points to the top-end model as the best value, but for real power users, twice the power at a 25% premium should be very tempting. In other words, the G5/1.8 is overpriced in comparison to the dual 2.0 GHz model.

At the Bottom

In typical Apple fashion, the entry-level Power Mac G5 is somewhat compromised in comparison to its faster siblings. The 1.6 GHz CPU works just fine with slower, less expensive PC2700 memory (the other two models require PC3200 RAM), so that's not really an issue.

Where Apple cut corners may not only impact the original buyer, but may also influence prices on the used market down the road. As is typical, the G5/1.6 uses the less costly video card, the Nvidia GeForce FX5200 - but Apple offers the Radeon 9600 as a build to order option for just $50 more.

Ditto for the 80 GB hard drive. It's probably just as fast as the 160 MB drive, but Apple can save money and keep the price down with a less costly drive. We have no complaints there.

Where the G5/1.6 is most compromised is by using plain old fashioned 33 MHz 64-bit PCI slots instead of PCI-X. This isn't an issue today, since no Macs will use PCI-X until the G5s ship, but it may well become an issue down the road.

The other compromise, which probably will have less impact in the long run, is a 4 GB memory ceiling in the entry-level G4 vs. 8 GB in the faster machines.

By giving up 200 MHz of speed, settling for half the RAM and half as large a hard drive, and accepting the lower tier video card, Power Mac buyers can save US$400 vs. the 1.8 GHz model. That 20% higher price buys 12-13% more speed, about $30 more RAM, a $40 more costly hard drive (just an educated guess), and maybe a $50 more expensive video card.

Again, I'd have to say that the G5/1.6 is overpriced in comparison to the more powerful models - something we don't often see from Apple.

The Value Equation

In the entire history of the site, I don't think we've ever seen this kind of economics at work. Instead of offering just a little more performance for a big boost in price, the top-end Power Mac turns out to be the best value of the bunch - the second processor can really make that much of a difference in OS X.

We generally find the middle of the pack offers the best balance of cost and performance, with the entry-level model not far behind , but not in this case. The 1.8 GHz model is definitely worth the additional $400 when you consider the increased power, additional RAM, bigger hard drive, improved video, PCI-X slots, and higher memory ceiling, not to mention the fact that it will probably retain its value better than the 1.6 GHz model.

Apple has definitely turned things on their head with the Power Mac G5 when the dual 2.0 GHz machine offers 2.5x the sheer power of the 1.6 GHz model at just 50% more money.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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