Mac Musings

The 1.25 GHz eMac Value Equation: Wow!

Dan Knight - 2004.04.14 - Tip Jar

I've appreciated the value of the eMac since I bought my 700 MHz Combo drive eMac last summer. That was the original model, and it was supposed to be a temporary replacement for my 400 MHz PowerBook G4, but while Apple was replacing the TiBook's screen, I fell for the eMac's horsepower.

Last year's eMac moved beyond the 700 and 800 MHz models with an 800 MHz CD-ROM version and 1 GHz models with a Combo drive or 4x SuperDrive (twice as fast as the original). The system bus went from 100 MHz to 133 MHz, and the Radeon 7500 was an improvement over the Nvidia chipset in the original. The only other significant change was replacing stodgy old 802.11b AirPort wireless networking with the almost 5x faster 802.11g AirPort Extreme.

By comparison, yesterday's announcement of the 1.25 GHz eMac is an even bigger step forward. We see a 25% jump in top CPU speed, just like last time, along with a 25% improvement in bus speed. But the new eMac uses DDR memory, just like the rest of the Mac line, and the G4 in this model has a 512 KB level 2 cache, twice as large as that in previous eMacs. All things considered, I suspect we'll see a 30-35% improvement in processing power.

The graphics processor is again upgraded, this time to the Radeon 9200 chipset, the internal modem supports v.92 (which works with call waiting), and there's room in the new eMac for an internal Bluetooth card. The internal drive bus supports ATA/100 drives.

The eMacThe icing on the cake comes in two flavors: USB 2.0 and 8x DVD burning. USB 2.0 is up to 40x faster than USB 1.1, which makes it roughly comparable in throughput to FireWire 400. In terms of speed, that's not a big deal, since Macs have had FireWire for years. But in terms of peripherals, it gives us full speed access to a lot of scanners, external drives, and other devices that have USB 2.0 ports but don't include FireWire.

Nice, but being able to burn a two-hour DVD in 15 minutes on the US$999 eMac makes it an incredible value. It wasn't too many years ago that Apple had the first personal computer capable of burning DVDs, and that was strictly a 1x burner - two hours to burn two hours of video, prep time not included. That cost several times as much as the new SuperDrive eMac.

Add in the value of OS X 10.3, AppleWorks, iTunes, iMovie, iDVD, GarageBand, and the other bundled software, and the $799 Combo drive eMac and $999 SuperDrive eMac can hold their own against any but the most stripped down Windows PCs.

Not Quite Perfect

While praising the utility and value of the eMac, Gene Steinberg wishes the new model included Apple's new wireless keyboard and mouse. That would be nice, and I hope Apple will offer a build-to-order bundle that includes the Bluetooth card and replaces the wire mouse and keyboard with their wireless counterparts.

Base memory is inadequate for good OS X performance, so plan on bumping total RAM to at least 512 MB (mine is at 640 MB, and with multiple users sharing the computer, going to 1 GB would further improve things).

But where the eMac has traditionally been slow is in hard drive performance. Whether it's to squeeze out the most profits or keep the price down, Apple has traditionally used less costly (and slower) 5400 rpm drives. Although I haven't seen published specs on the new eMac's hard drives, I suspect they're equally pedestrian.

The biggest improvement to my eMac was adding a 7200 rpm hard drive with an 8 MB buffer in a FireWire enclosure. This setup benchmarks twice as fast as the stock drive in my 700 MHz eMac, and I suspect replacing the internal drive with a 7200 rpm drive would provide a comparable boost in performance. Although ATA/100 allows 100 MB/sec. performance, the drive's ability to read/write and move data is the limiting factor.

Conclusion

Until I started working with video - mostly my sons turning torrents into VCDs and Super VCDs - I considered my 700 MHz eMac a powerhouse. Now that I've seen how many hours it takes to turn video into a VCD or SVCD (using iVCD from Mireth Technology - recommended), I understand the attraction of more horsepower. Between the faster G4, larger level 2 cache, and faster memory bus, I suspect the new eMac has about twice the horsepower of my 700 MHz machine. That'll help, but video conversion will still be a slow process.

The top-end model with iDVD and an 8x SuperDrive is especially tempting, as we're finding more and more torrents of old TV shows in DVD format. At $999, the SuperDrive eMac is an amazing deal for anyone who might ever burn a DVD. And for those who are content with VCD/SVCD or have no need to burn video to disc at all, the $799 Combo drive eMac is also a real bargain.

(Tip: You can buy a "factory recertified" external 4x DVD burner for US$120 from Meritline and add it to any Mac with FireWire. This is a TDK IndiDVD DED+440 with FireWire and USB 2.0 that includes cables and supports both the DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW formats. To get this price, don't go straight to Meritline - they're normally asking $170 for it. Search for "DED+440" on Google, then click the Froogle button, sort by price, and save $50. Your value-conscious friends at Low End Mac.)

Apple has a real value package here, and if they figure out how to market it to the right crowd, Dell won't know what hit them.

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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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