More power to you

Apple's muscular 64-bit chip could help launch a new wave of software innovation

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.





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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