Putting aside the debate over whether Apple Computer Inc.'s Power Mac G5 is "the world's fastest personal computer" as the company claims, the machine blows away any previous Mac.
Clearly the Power Mac G5, which Apple will begin shipping by the end of the month, marks a milestone in the computer's evolution.
The G5 chip that gives the machine its name is, in fact, IBM Corp.'s PowerPC 970, developed with Apple over a year-and-a-half. Though the 64-bit G5 is part of the PowerPC family of processors at the heart of the Macs since 1994, it's a significant technological leap over its 32-bit predecessors, the G3 and G4.
Simply put, a 64-bit chip can process data in chunks twice as large as a 32-bit chip. Though of little benefit to such common tasks as word processing, a 64-bit chip greatly accelerates activities that call for the manipulation of very large files, such as video editing.
A 64-bit chip also can access vastly more system memory than a 32-bit chip, which only can access up to 4 gigabytes.
Though other 64-bit processors have existed for years, they've been used primarily in servers and high-end work stations rather than in personal computers.
PC chipmakers Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have developed 64-bit processors of their own, but putting them in desktop PCs won't make sense until Microsoft Corp. releases a 64-bit compatible version of Windows, not expected until the end of this year.
Apple's version of Mac OS X for the G5 isn't fully 64-bit compatible, but allows for applications to utilize many of the G5's abilities.
Combined with major improvements to the rest of the machine's innards, the G5 actually makes the Power Mac a match for computer work stations that can cost twice as much.
But who needs this monster machine?
According to Apple Vice President of Hardware Product Marketing Greg Joswiak, resource-intensive programs such as 3-D modeling, music creation and video editing software profit from the power of the G5, even before developers optimize their code for the new chip.
Adobe Systems Inc. already has optimized some of the code in its veteran Photoshop program; Quark Inc. says it is working with Apple on a 64-bit version of Xpress, though the current version is about 50 percent faster on the dual G5 Power Mac.
The Mac-using creative professionals for whom Apple designed the G5 seek the fastest hardware available because faster machines mean more work can be done in less time.
Beyond the creative pros and a select group of home users who will buy the G5 just because it's the latest and greatest, the average Mac user isn't likely to be scooting down to the nearest Apple Store to place an order.
Because the G5 chip can now only be had in Apple's pricey desktop towers (the low-end model is $1,999, the top-of the-line dual 2-gigahertz model is $2,999), many average Mac users can't afford it and really don't need it yet.
Just as the G3 and G4 chips gradually worked their way down to the consumer models from the pro desktops, so will the G5.
While consumer G5 Macs will require versions of the chip that consume less power and produce less heat -- Joswiak said the current G5 cannot be used in a PowerBook -- it's a good bet that IBM and Apple are diligently working to solve these problems.
Eventually, though, the power of the G5 will be within the reach of nearly all Mac users.
Though it seems like overkill now, history indicates that software developers find ways to exploit the power of new hardware in ways that even average users can appreciate.
For instance, personal computers of the 1980s, Apples or otherwise, were incapable of even photo editing, much less video editing. Today, both activities are common among home users.
"Developers can do stuff that people couldn't even imagine before," said Apple's Joswiak. "The G5 enables new uses for the computer."
So what might Mac users be doing with a G5 iMac in 2005 or 2006? How about 3-D animation?
Last month Kaydara Inc. of Montreal said that the only Unix version of its MOTIONBUILDER 5 software, to be released by the end of the month, would be for Mac OS X.
Though home users are unlikely to try MOTIONBUILDER 5, the $995 product is aimed at "prosumers." If that sounds pricey, the full "pro" version of the product goes for $3,495.
The sort of detailed, realistic computer animation it creates until recently was only available to those with much more expensive hardware, and large teams to manage them. MOTIONBUILDER 5 allows a wider group of graphics professionals access to real-time 3-D animation tools.
It's not too hard to imagine a version of such software within a couple of years falling to $499 or $399 for serious amateur animators, just as Apple made a Final Cut Express available this past January to amateur filmmakers for $299.
Kaydara product manager Laurent Ruel said the Mac version of MOTIONBUILDER 5 is specifically designed to run on the G5, with "a road map to port the application to a truly 64-bit application during the coming months."
According to Ruel, the G5 will allow Mac's MOTIONBUILDER 5 users to do things previously "unthinkable" on a Mac -- such as photorealistic scenes calculated in real time and far more complex 3-D scenes.
Steinberg Media Technologies of Hamburg, Germany, said it has seen a similar expansion of capabilities in early testing of its professional audio and video applications such as Cubase SX and Nuendo on the G5.
Like MOTIONBUILDER 5, Steinberg's products are expensive and aimed at pros, but illustrate how the G5's power will expand what Macs can do far beyond the G3 and G4.
"For Steinberg products this means a much better capacity of the audio engine resulting in more mixing power, a higher track count and many more audio plug-ins and VST instruments that can be used simultaneously," said Steinberg spokesman Brian McConnon.
Mac gaming could get a major lift from the G5. Long a weak spot at Apple, the company's standing has weakened greatly in recent years by the lack of ultra-fast Mac hardware needed to handle the graphically complex titles favored by serious gamers.
Blizzard Entertainment -- the company based in Irvine, Calif., that is known for its Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft games -- is intrigued by the G5's potential.
Robert Barris, Blizzard's senior software engineer for its Mac team, said he recently had discovered that the G5 can conduct a video conference in iChat AV between Internet-connected players during game play.
"We're finding that the new machines are fast enough that you can run the game in one window and see your friend in another," Barris said. Until now, online players have been restricted to text messaging.
Although many gamers focus on frame rates when considering performance in "first-person shooters" such as Unreal Tournament, Barris said the G5's speed and ability to use larger amounts of memory will boost the artificial intelligence required to control large numbers of units in Blizzard's "real-time strategy" style games.
The more characters the computer controls, the more strain put on the processor. The PowerMac G5, Barris said, not only would be able to control more characters, but would be able to control them more intelligently, offering players a greater challenge.
Finally, Barris praised the G5's speed in compiling code, a major part of game developing.
A quicker, less-painful conversion cycle from Windows to the Mac should encourage Blizzard and other game developers to keep releasing Mac versions of their titles. Though gaming will never be the No. 1 reason to buy a Mac, having at least some of the most popular games available only can help Apple increase its share of the consumer market.
Indeed, in the long run, the G5 will help shore up Apple's appeal to consumers as much as professionals.
The graphics and digital-media tasks at which the G5 excels will become increasingly a part of the consumer computing experience. In the years ahead, G5-based hardware will enable Mac users to better exploit the "digital lifestyle" Apple has been promoting through such software as iMovie, iTunes and iPhoto.
And IBM's ambitious plans for future versions of the chip mean the G5 and its successors should be able to, at minimum, keep pace with the advances made by Intel and AMD on the PC side of the fence.
Meanwhile, it should be fun watching Mac software developers cook up new applications to exploit the power of the G5.