Mac Musings

Back to the G3

Daniel Knight - 2000.02.11 -

Apple and Motorola seem to be stuck at 450 MHz with the G4. There are a few 500 MHz chips in existence, but in such small quantities that Apple can't conceive of making them part of their current product line.

Meanwhile, the Wintel world is cruising along with 800 MHz Athlon processors. Granted, RISC is theoretically superior to CISC and the PowerPC has more power per MHz than Pentium and Athlon designs, but the fact is that except for AltiVec functions, the G4 no longer holds a candle to today's fastest Wintel boxes. And that's something I really hate to admit.

What's really curious about this is that Motorola is now showing a 780 MHz PowerPC chip and IBM demonstrated a 1.1 GHz chip last year. Yet the G4 is stuck at 450 MHz, the same processor speed Apple offered on the Blue G3 in June 1999.

Meanwhile, G3/500 upgrades are readily available and the lowly iMac can be boosted to 466 MHz. Not only that, but rumors are IBM has G3 designs in the 550 to 650 MHz range - those numbers are very impressive and within striking distance of the 700-800 MHz Wintel machines.

Is G4 Worth the Cost?

MacSpeedZone recently benchmarked 400 MHz G3 and G4 upgrades in their Power Mac 9500. The results are very telling.

Clearly, for day-to-day performance the G4 is not vastly superior to the G3 - despite the hype about the Velocity Engine. Fact is, unless you have applications optimized for the AltiVec instructions, such as Photoshop 5.5, you won't see any significant benefit from the G4 processor.

Granted, there are some improvements in the Power Mac G4 system design, such as faster memory access, but the processor itself probably isn't worth the extra $200 and up unless you're a graphics professional with latest revision software.

The old Power Mac G3 (blue and white) had a MacBench 5 CPU score of 1308 at 400 MHz (results from MacSpeedZone where possible). The first Power Mac G4/400, based on the same motherboard, scored 1314 - too small a difference to even notice. The new G4/400 (Sawtooth) scored 1287 with the new system architecture. I'm still trying to figure out how the new design scored lower!

Where the Power Mac G4 excels is graphics. AltiVec makes it a great Photoshop engine and the AGP video card outperforms the PCI video in earlier models.

Frankly, I think Apple should start selling graphite Power Mac G3 systems to complement the G4 line. Assuming no architectural changes are necessary to let the G3 work with the new memory system, a G3/350 could sell for $200-250 less than the G4/350. It would have all the same features as the G4; only the CPU would be different. This would provide Apple with an excellent alternative to the iMac DV for those who want a larger monitor, PCI slots, and more upgrade options.

Then Apple could skip the intermediate speeds, jumping right to a G3/500 (this would have to be an IBM chip, since Motorola tops out at 400 MHz on the G3). Based on current ZIF upgrade prices, this could be $300-400 less than the G4/450. It would be an ideal workstation for all but the Photoshop mavens and also an excellent gaming machine.

But it doesn't have to stop there. With the new G4 chip design, the one expected to hit 600 MHz and beyond, not expected until the May-June timeframe, keep in mind the IBM is also planning on pushing the G3 toward 800 MHz.

If Apple can successfully reintroduce the G3 processor in the Power Mac line, it will enjoy three important benefits:

  1. iMac, iBook, and PowerBook owners will realize the G3 remains a very viable chip.
  2. There will be an even less costly Power Mac for users who want more than the iMac offers (slots, drive bays, etc.) at less than the G4/350 costs.
  3. It will be ready to adopt 600-800 MHz G3 processors when IBM makes them available, closing the performance gap with Pentium III and Athlon computers.

In Apple's "four box" product line, it is selling iMacs and iBooks as fast as it can make them. However, there is room for growth in the PowerBook and Power Mac boxes. Embracing the G3 on a new Power Mac could help Apple grow these markets.

To be taken seriously in the age of 700-800 MHz processors, Apple has got to move forward on the MHz front, even if it means moving back to the G3 on the Power Mac.

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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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